How Science Works: what is the Scientific Method?

What classifies something as ‘science’? All science uses the principles of the scientific method.

The scientific method has the following basic steps:

  1. An observation is made about something
  2. A logical hypothesis is formulated to explain the observation
  3. This hypothesis is used to make predictions
  4. These predictions are tested using experiments or more observations
  5. The hypothesis is adjusted if necessary
  6. These steps are repeated until the hypothesis matches the experiments/observations closely.

Once the hypothesis has stood up to repeated testing, it is considered a scientific theory. A scientific theory explains a phenomenon or a set of phenomena, and can be used to make further hypotheses and predictions. These can then be tested too, thus building up the body of scientific knowledge.

One of the keys to science is logical proof or evidence, which reduces the influence of personal belief or bias in building up scientific knowledge. In science, belief is not enough; there must be evidence to back it up.

Of course, scientists are human too, and scientific evidence can sometimes be open to more than one interpretation – especially if it is an active area of research where evidence is currently incomplete. This is why there is often so much debate in science – in fact, debate is an essential and valuable part of the scientific process. Usually, as research continues and evidence grows, a consensus is eventually reached.

A central idea in science is that hypotheses and theories must be’falsifiable’, meaning that there must always be an experiment or observation that could prove them to be untrue. For example, the hypothesis ‘all ducks are white’ is a falsifiable scientific hypothesis because it could be tested by looking for a different coloured duck. If a brown duck were found, the hypothesis would be proven untrue. If only white ducks were found after a great deal of searching, the hypothesis would be strengthened. In this way, scientific hypotheses are never actually proven to be true, but are strengthened by repeated unsuccessful attempts to falsify them.

Another important idea in science is ‘reproducibility’, which simply means that all experiments, results and observations must be able to be reproduced by other researchers.