The Scientific Method

Now and then it is useful to pause, take a step back, and think once again about what one is doing and how it is being done; thus, the following discussion about the scientific method.

The scientific method is difficult to define because it is more than one method.  Perhaps one of the best approaches is to illustrate the method used by most scientists by listing the steps taken along with some concrete examples from actual scientific papers.  This is the concept used in the new Farmer and Cook textbook, “Climate Change Science: A Modern Synthesis, Volume 1, The Physical Climate.”

The scientific method is basically that method or methods used by scientists to do their work.  The scientific method can be thought of as a series of logical steps; but often it is simply trial and error.  It is hopefully more trial and less error.

Scientists today are often part of a team conducting original research into an area of study for which they have received funding.  Funding for research is often obtained by writing a proposal and receiving a grant if the proposal is accepted.  This is not always the case and was less so in the earlier days of scientific work.  In work done prior to the 1960s, scientists often labored alone on a project that they designed and that they carried out supported by the institution or company for which they worked.  Often the institution was a university or government, or an institution supported by a government. 

A preliminary look at the scientific method involves at least the following steps:

  1. Define a problem that needs a solution;

  2. Formulate an explanation for the problem;

  3. Determine or deduce a prediction based on the explanation;

  4. Perform tests or experiments to see if the explanation is valid.

The four steps above form the basis of a scientific inquiry; they constitute a simple model for the scientific method.  One possible sequence is 1, 2, 3, and 4.  If 2 is true, what are the consequences?  Testing (4) should include considering the opposite of each consequence in order to disprove 2.  If 2 can be disproved, then start again with step 1.

There must be a fifth step.  What good are steps 1 through 4 if no one knows about the results?  The fifth step is communication; publication or presentation.  The results of scientific research are usually made known to colleagues by discussion, presentation, publication, or all three; and in the modern world, discussion is largely done by email or in the halls at conferences or the written word.  Publication is usually done in peer-reviewed journals; hopefully those with wide circulation.

Scientific research is the most important way to determine the causes, trends, and possible solutions to climate change that we see occurring today.  Science is an important part of society and the advances made by scientists have been important to human beings’ continuance and well-being on Planet Earth.  Scientific research in climate science involves all aspects of Earth’s climate; present, past, and projections into the future with the use of climate models, mainly general circulation models (GCMs).  As some have said, we are living the experiment (4 above) and there is no second chance; Planet Earth is the experiment.

Scientific discoveries are usually made by following the logic of the scientific method, and sometimes discoveries are made because of accidents.  Serendipity (as in the “Three Princes of Serendip”) in science is a discovery made by accident and this has played a role in research in the past and will certainly play a role in the future.  Scientific research will usually lead to the advancement of human knowledge, which is the primary purpose of conducting scientific research. 

Scientific research has already led to many advances beneficial to humans in the medical sciences, such as drug research, and innovations which continue to make life better for humankind; Velcro, plastics, solid state electronics, synthetic fabrics, microwave ovens, the personal computer, laptops, ipads, smart phones, etc. are the result of scientific research.

Scientists do their work in many different ways.  Some use data they collect themselves; others use data collected by someone else.  Some work alone; others work in teams.  Most publish their work as soon as possible; others keep their research secret, publishing rarely if at all.  Some scientists are brilliant; others are not so smart.  Scientists are human; some more so than others.

This post is not intended to be the end of the discussion of the scientific method as I hope it starts a dialogue that expands on the topic.  The scientific method is as varied as those scientists that use it and possibly we can share thoughts and examples as we go forward. 

Posted by rockytom on Sunday, 31 March, 2013

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