The Scientific Method (for the uninitiated)

The Scientific Method is such a fundamental and at the same time misunderstood principle that I’d like to attempt to make the crux of the matter crystal clear in an intuitive way to anyone who cares to read this. No prerequisite knowledge required whatsoever (*), except knowing what ‘prerequisite’ means.

In short

The Scientific Method is a method for finding out how the world works. I assume some more detail is needed before this statement is eligible for categorisation in your ‘crystal clear’ box.

I’ll start with an example:

The reason of reason: crossing a street

Pretty much any individual outside of the mental asylum and North Korea uses reason and logic to go about the practicalities of daily life.

For example:

You will almost certainly use your sensory and mental faculties to ascertain there are zero or less cars headed your way before you cross a street:

  • You have some idea — a mental picture, a model — of how traffic works, in your head.­­­­­­­­­­
  • You use your senses — eyes, ears, nose, … — to gather data about your surroundings.
  • You check all gathered data against your mental picture and find nothing that indicates the presence of a car headed in your general direction:
    - no direct flags: headlights, engine sound, gasoline smell, …
    - no indirect patterns: birds fleeing from a car coming around the bend, red traffic light that increases the probability of a car passing, …
  • You conclude, from a lack of evidence indicating otherwise, that it’s safe to assume no car will appear in your path within the small time frame it will take you to get to the other side of the road.
  • You go with your conclusion that you will not die from walking across because you’ve done the math and the odds are massively in your favour.
  • You start walking, but allow for the possibility that you might have made a mistake: you’re careful and keep your eyes and ears open to make sure you didn’t make any wrong assumptions and stay alert to mitigate problems in case you did.

This small scenario alone shows that most human beings — at some core level — acknowledge the value of reason.

Following logic and reason when navigating the world you inhabit has been selected for over the course of evolution. It keeps one alive, and so evolution has ingrained some of the more useful examples — like ‘if you see a huge furry animal with large teeth, run until you don’t see it any more’ — into our psyche: common sense.

Apparently, pigeons don’t subscribe to an empirical world view and have missed out on the common sense memo. Possibly the email went into their junk folder and was eaten instantly.

Improving your knowledge of traffic

Now, the Scientific Method amounts to not much more than an extension of the little scenario above to iteratively build and improve the mental picture you employ when you cross a road. How did the mental picture you use for crossing streets first get into your head?

You started with some guidelines your parents taught you a long time ago, and those you’ve been testing in practice since then, improving upon them using what amounts to the Scientific Method.

Well done, you’re a subconscious scientist. How did you manage that?

If you make a mistake in your street-crossing procedure, you make a good chance to get hit by a car, or possibly a small van. The scientific method entails nothing more than experiencing failure of a stressless crossing and saying to yourself:

  • “There must be a mistake in my mental picture of how traffic works because I almost died just now. It has worked on other occasions but this time it didn’t so there must be something wrong with it” — You’re acknowledging something’s amiss with your ideas since what you expected to happen does not match what actually happened. You might, for example, be used to people driving on the right of the road and have just taken your first few steps London.
  • “Let’s modify the rules I followed since it was made evident that they are not always adequate.” — You think things through and formulate new rules that prevent the circumstances that allowed things to go south.
  • “From now on I’m using the modified ruleset for crossing the street until, in the process of applying it, it turns out it’s still flawed.” — You go with your best effort and work with it, but always keep in mind your ideas are imperfect and will likely have to be refined, or replaced altogether, in the future.

From neanderthal to city-slicker

You’d never get across any street at all in a busy city if your model said no more than ‘cross when you can no longer see, hear or smell any car whatsoever’.

The steps outlined above have been repeated and turned your model from a rudimentary set of warnings from your parents into a refined and subtle set of rules that allow you to start crossing an intersection crawling with tons of cars, moving all around you, anticipating their movements and reactions to both your presence and the presence of other cars and obstacles (if any).

So… That is all.

At least, that is the gist of it.

How scientists do it

In academic settings, where most of the actual scientists roam, some more rigour and formality is required in order to make the whole enterprise of finding things out (and building good models) more efficient.

Nobel Prize for Null and Void

Precaution is taken to try and keep the number of mistakes made as low as possible, and to prevent people from erring or cheating and getting the Nobel Prize for Null and Void.

In the academic world, when you claim you’ve tested your idea so and so, and this and that was what you saw, other people need to be able to do the exact same steps and see the exact same results as you, to make sure you didn’t err or cheat (reproducibility). When your claims pass the scrutiny of others, you’ve earned the ‘peer-reviewed science‘ badge and, possibly, a more substantial Nobel Prize.

Hypotheses, theories and facts

Academics call their guesses hypotheses until they find enough evidence to start calling it by other names, like ‘theory’ and ‘scientific fact’. They try very hard (if science is done right) to invalidate their hypotheses by designing experiments to break them in order to know what they’re worth as soon as possible, which works quite a bit better than waiting until something informative happens by accident.

Observational errors

A lot is said about how accurately the observations under consideration were measured. This is important in the road-crossing example as well: you don’t want to modify your mental picture of the workings of a traffic light if your faulty conclusion was caused by an observational mistake (not seeing a red traffic light because the sun was too bright for you to see it).

These — and a host of others — are all important topics, but at its core the scientific method is just about testing your ideas and changing them if they don’t match reality. It’s this principle of being able to test and verify ideas that marks the border between science and fantasy.

Generalising from our example

Of course, at CERN, research involved in crossing roads safely has dwindled to a minimum since they have a massive particle smasher to play with instead. Any problem or phenomenon can be tackled using the scientific method, it’s the basic mechanics of how you learn new stuff that’s important.

Lessons learned

The Scientific Method is:

  • Formulate a candidate explanation for whatever it is you’re trying to learn or understand.
  • Test that explanation in practice, try to come up with experiments that break your explanation.
  • Whenever a test/experiment shows results that do not fit into your explanation, conclude your idea is wrong and needs fixing.
  • Modify or replace your explanation so the results of ALL relevant experiments you know about fit into it.
  • Repeat at infinitum.
  • This is nothing less than the mechanism of evolution at work, selecting the fittest ideas and modifying them to fit reality better. Science started with medieval nonsense and, through the scientific method, evolved it into astronomy, quantum mechanics, genetics and glow-in-the-dark ice cream.

The Scientific Method is not:

  • Making up an explanation and never test its correctness.
  • Ignoring test results that don’t fit into your otherwise beautiful theory.
  • Ignoring the existence of specific test results because you can’t think of an explanation that includes them.

Can I just make something up?

Yes, but you have to test what you came up with before accepting it. Science is often quite messy in its attempts to come up with new ideas, but they are validated so only good stuff gets generally accepted and built upon by others. That means, your claims need to agree with experiment and your experiments need to be reproducible by others.

No news is not good news

It might turn out you don’t have to modify your explanation for a phenomenon for a long time, because nobody happens to come across new evidence that sweeps your theory off the table, but this is no guarantee at all that your explanation is correct.

Isaac Newton’s theory of universal gravity was assumed to be correct for hundreds of years, until it turned out that it didn’t agree with what was observed on very large scales (we found planets didn’t move exactly as Newton’s explanation of gravity predicted). Einstein fixed that for him.
Einstein’s theory — which predicts very well with what we can see happening at large scales — does not agree at all with what seems to be happening on very small scales (we’re talking the tiny size of elementary particles here:electrons, quarks, …). On this scale Einstein’s models break down and another set of ideas called quantum mechanics was developed to explain the (really really strange!) things that were observed in that realm.
So physicists are now in a race to find a new theory that is correct at all scales, marrying Einstein’s take on things with quantum mechanics.

Not even true geniuses like Newton or Einstein should be considered infallible since they were not. They made their best guesses in their time, explaining the evidence then available to them, and once we saw stuff happening that did not follow the rules they came up with, we knew for sure those rules were not the whole story.

I’m not too eager to go there and possibly put people off, but no treatment of the Scientific Method seems to be complete without relating it to religion, since the two are so utterly at odds with each other.

The strained relationship between science and religion

The relationship between science and religion is not a happy marriage:

Rather, we’re looking at a dysfunctional family where daddy filed for divorce, mommy moved on but turned to the bottle for good measure — intoxicated permanently, she feels nice and cozy, though rarely knows what’s going on. Their poor little boy Albert is paralysed from the waist down but somehow still will has been turned out to be his own grandfather. Daughter Erwina’s probably both alive and dead. Great Christmas parties.

Kidding (am I?) aside:

The scientific method might well result one day in the conclusion that there must be a supreme being guiding us across the streets of life, leading us to the next question to try and answer: where did that being come from? But as of yet this notion remains firmly outside the meadow of peer-reviewed scientific results.

In fact, it isn’t even allowed to peek over the fence and there’s every sign that steps will have to be taken towards a restraining order in the near future (for gross conduct and harassment, mainly).

The Grand Canyon of Faith

There are those who don’t see conflicting world views in science and religion.

However, the Scientific Method of searching for answers based on evidence and the Religious Method of making up answers which ignore contradicting evidence are fundamentally incompatible. Minds that made an attempt at accommodating both of these ways of looking at the world exhibit spectacular discontinuity where the twain meet.

Religious people can be just as logical and intelligent as any atheist in general, and in fact most of them will go with the scientific method of crossing a street. (I’ve seen a few deviants and can assure you: you won’t run into those same people any time soon unless you’re visiting the intensive care unit or morgue at my home town’s local hospital.)

However, in navigating the world of their psyche, as soon as religious individuals reach the borders of the land of Faith, they throw all their mental prowess out the window and start following Escherian paths through their own brains. Paths utterly absurd, but apparently inescapable. Faith exhibits quite a few similarities to North Korea in that respect.

These pathways were formed during childhood, when brains are little sponges and have to learn the basic principles of life from their surroundings as quickly as possible. Pious people’s views on religion were imparted onto them by their parents and community by making them walk the same absurd route time and again. And now, after years of hiking, that route has been worn into a permanent canyon. There is no way out anymore except for climbing some very steep cliffs, back out onto the plains of reason and common sense.

It’s a bit like riding a bike and getting your wheels jerked into a ditch because you got too close to the edge. You might fall over completely, continue following the ditch the best you can, or make an effort to lift your bike out of the ditch and go wherever you damn well please.

To close

Appropriately, the ever eloquent and brilliant physicist Richard Feynman has the last word, summarising the crux of the Scientific Method in one brief sentence worthy of highlighting properly:

“If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s WRONG.”

 I don’t like the expression ‘for dummies’. Not understanding what somebody’s talking about because they’re using words they’ve agreed upon with other people does not indicate you’re not smart enough to understand their subject, only that you haven’t been briefed about what those words mean.

Which is not to say specialised terminology isn’t very useful if you talk about a certain subject all the time, as a shortcut, but for somebody who’s new to the ideas they’re just annoying hurdles on the path between ignorance and understanding.

So this is not for dummies, just for the uninitiated.

If you liked this story: recommends are much appreciated! Originally published at on March 16, 2017.