What is the Scientific Method: How does it work and why is it important?

The scientific method is a systematic process involving steps like defining questions, forming hypotheses, conducting experiments, and analyzing data. It minimizes biases and enables replicable research, leading to groundbreaking discoveries like Einstein's theory of relativity, penicillin, and the structure of DNA. This ongoing approach promotes reason, evidence, and the pursuit of truth in science.

Updated on November 18, 2023

What is the Scientific Method: How does it work and why is it important?

Beginning in elementary school, we are exposed to the scientific method and taught how to put it into practice. As a tool for learning, it prepares children to think logically and use reasoning when seeking answers to questions.

Rather than jumping to conclusions, the scientific method gives us a recipe for exploring the world through observation and trial and error. We use it regularly, sometimes knowingly in academics or research, and sometimes subconsciously in our daily lives.

In this article we will refresh our memories on the particulars of the scientific method, discussing where it comes from, which elements comprise it, and how it is put into practice. Then, we will consider the importance of the scientific method, who uses it and under what circumstances.

What is the scientific method?

The scientific method is a dynamic process that involves objectively investigating questions through observation and experimentation . Applicable to all scientific disciplines, this systematic approach to answering questions is more accurately described as a flexible set of principles than as a fixed series of steps.

The following representations of the scientific method illustrate how it can be both condensed into broad categories and also expanded to reveal more and more details of the process. These graphics capture the adaptability that makes this concept universally valuable as it is relevant and accessible not only across age groups and educational levels but also within various contexts.

a graph of the scientific method

Steps in the scientific method

While the scientific method is versatile in form and function, it encompasses a collection of principles that create a logical progression to the process of problem solving:

  • Define a question : Constructing a clear and precise problem statement that identifies the main question or goal of the investigation is the first step. The wording must lend itself to experimentation by posing a question that is both testable and measurable.
  • Gather information and resources : Researching the topic in question to find out what is already known and what types of related questions others are asking is the next step in this process. This background information is vital to gaining a full understanding of the subject and in determining the best design for experiments. 
  • Form a hypothesis : Composing a concise statement that identifies specific variables and potential results, which can then be tested, is a crucial step that must be completed before any experimentation. An imperfection in the composition of a hypothesis can result in weaknesses to the entire design of an experiment.
  • Perform the experiments : Testing the hypothesis by performing replicable experiments and collecting resultant data is another fundamental step of the scientific method. By controlling some elements of an experiment while purposely manipulating others, cause and effect relationships are established.
  • Analyze the data : Interpreting the experimental process and results by recognizing trends in the data is a necessary step for comprehending its meaning and supporting the conclusions. Drawing inferences through this systematic process lends substantive evidence for either supporting or rejecting the hypothesis.
  • Report the results : Sharing the outcomes of an experiment, through an essay, presentation, graphic, or journal article, is often regarded as a final step in this process. Detailing the project's design, methods, and results not only promotes transparency and replicability but also adds to the body of knowledge for future research.
  • Retest the hypothesis : Repeating experiments to see if a hypothesis holds up in all cases is a step that is manifested through varying scenarios. Sometimes a researcher immediately checks their own work or replicates it at a future time, or another researcher will repeat the experiments to further test the hypothesis.

a chart of the scientific method

Where did the scientific method come from?

Oftentimes, ancient peoples attempted to answer questions about the unknown by:

  • Making simple observations
  • Discussing the possibilities with others deemed worthy of a debate
  • Drawing conclusions based on dominant opinions and preexisting beliefs

For example, take Greek and Roman mythology. Myths were used to explain everything from the seasons and stars to the sun and death itself.

However, as societies began to grow through advancements in agriculture and language, ancient civilizations like Egypt and Babylonia shifted to a more rational analysis for understanding the natural world. They increasingly employed empirical methods of observation and experimentation that would one day evolve into the scientific method . 

In the 4th century, Aristotle, considered the Father of Science by many, suggested these elements , which closely resemble the contemporary scientific method, as part of his approach for conducting science:

  • Study what others have written about the subject.
  • Look for the general consensus about the subject.
  • Perform a systematic study of everything even partially related to the topic.

a pyramid of the scientific method

By continuing to emphasize systematic observation and controlled experiments, scholars such as Al-Kindi and Ibn al-Haytham helped expand this concept throughout the Islamic Golden Age . 

In his 1620 treatise, Novum Organum , Sir Francis Bacon codified the scientific method, arguing not only that hypotheses must be tested through experiments but also that the results must be replicated to establish a truth. Coming at the height of the Scientific Revolution, this text made the scientific method accessible to European thinkers like Galileo and Isaac Newton who then put the method into practice.

As science modernized in the 19th century, the scientific method became more formalized, leading to significant breakthroughs in fields such as evolution and germ theory. Today, it continues to evolve, underpinning scientific progress in diverse areas like quantum mechanics, genetics, and artificial intelligence.

Why is the scientific method important?

The history of the scientific method illustrates how the concept developed out of a need to find objective answers to scientific questions by overcoming biases based on fear, religion, power, and cultural norms. This still holds true today.

By implementing this standardized approach to conducting experiments, the impacts of researchers’ personal opinions and preconceived notions are minimized. The organized manner of the scientific method prevents these and other mistakes while promoting the replicability and transparency necessary for solid scientific research.

The importance of the scientific method is best observed through its successes, for example: 

  • “ Albert Einstein stands out among modern physicists as the scientist who not only formulated a theory of revolutionary significance but also had the genius to reflect in a conscious and technical way on the scientific method he was using.” Devising a hypothesis based on the prevailing understanding of Newtonian physics eventually led Einstein to devise the theory of general relativity .
  • Howard Florey “Perhaps the most useful lesson which has come out of the work on penicillin has been the demonstration that success in this field depends on the development and coordinated use of technical methods.” After discovering a mold that prevented the growth of Staphylococcus bacteria, Dr. Alexander Flemimg designed experiments to identify and reproduce it in the lab, thus leading to the development of penicillin .
  • James D. Watson “Every time you understand something, religion becomes less likely. Only with the discovery of the double helix and the ensuing genetic revolution have we had grounds for thinking that the powers held traditionally to be the exclusive property of the gods might one day be ours. . . .” By using wire models to conceive a structure for DNA, Watson and Crick crafted a hypothesis for testing combinations of amino acids, X-ray diffraction images, and the current research in atomic physics, resulting in the discovery of DNA’s double helix structure .

Final thoughts

As the cases exemplify, the scientific method is never truly completed, but rather started and restarted. It gave these researchers a structured process that was easily replicated, modified, and built upon. 

While the scientific method may “end” in one context, it never literally ends. When a hypothesis, design, methods, and experiments are revisited, the scientific method simply picks up where it left off. Each time a researcher builds upon previous knowledge, the scientific method is restored with the pieces of past efforts.

By guiding researchers towards objective results based on transparency and reproducibility, the scientific method acts as a defense against bias, superstition, and preconceived notions. As we embrace the scientific method's enduring principles, we ensure that our quest for knowledge remains firmly rooted in reason, evidence, and the pursuit of truth.

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Mechanics (Essentials) - Class 11th

Course: mechanics (essentials) - class 11th   >   unit 2.

  • Introduction to physics
  • What is physics?

The scientific method

  • Models and Approximations in Physics

scientific method of problem solving is

Introduction

  • Make an observation.
  • Ask a question.
  • Form a hypothesis , or testable explanation.
  • Make a prediction based on the hypothesis.
  • Test the prediction.
  • Iterate: use the results to make new hypotheses or predictions.

Scientific method example: Failure to toast

1. make an observation., 2. ask a question., 3. propose a hypothesis., 4. make predictions., 5. test the predictions..

  • If the toaster does toast, then the hypothesis is supported—likely correct.
  • If the toaster doesn't toast, then the hypothesis is not supported—likely wrong.

Logical possibility

Practical possibility, building a body of evidence, 6. iterate..

  • If the hypothesis was supported, we might do additional tests to confirm it, or revise it to be more specific. For instance, we might investigate why the outlet is broken.
  • If the hypothesis was not supported, we would come up with a new hypothesis. For instance, the next hypothesis might be that there's a broken wire in the toaster.

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Using the Scientific Method to Solve Problems

How the scientific method and reasoning can help simplify processes and solve problems.

By the Mind Tools Content Team

The processes of problem-solving and decision-making can be complicated and drawn out. In this article we look at how the scientific method, along with deductive and inductive reasoning can help simplify these processes.

scientific method of problem solving is

‘It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has information. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit our theories, instead of theories to suit facts.’ Sherlock Holmes

The Scientific Method

The scientific method is a process used to explore observations and answer questions. Originally used by scientists looking to prove new theories, its use has spread into many other areas, including that of problem-solving and decision-making.

The scientific method is designed to eliminate the influences of bias, prejudice and personal beliefs when testing a hypothesis or theory. It has developed alongside science itself, with origins going back to the 13th century. The scientific method is generally described as a series of steps.

  • observations/theory
  • explanation/conclusion

The first step is to develop a theory about the particular area of interest. A theory, in the context of logic or problem-solving, is a conjecture or speculation about something that is not necessarily fact, often based on a series of observations.

Once a theory has been devised, it can be questioned and refined into more specific hypotheses that can be tested. The hypotheses are potential explanations for the theory.

The testing, and subsequent analysis, of these hypotheses will eventually lead to a conclus ion which can prove or disprove the original theory.

Applying the Scientific Method to Problem-Solving

How can the scientific method be used to solve a problem, such as the color printer is not working?

1. Use observations to develop a theory.

In order to solve the problem, it must first be clear what the problem is. Observations made about the problem should be used to develop a theory. In this particular problem the theory might be that the color printer has run out of ink. This theory is developed as the result of observing the increasingly faded output from the printer.

2. Form a hypothesis.

Note down all the possible reasons for the problem. In this situation they might include:

  • The printer is set up as the default printer for all 40 people in the department and so is used more frequently than necessary.
  • There has been increased usage of the printer due to non-work related printing.
  • In an attempt to reduce costs, poor quality ink cartridges with limited amounts of ink in them have been purchased.
  • The printer is faulty.

All these possible reasons are hypotheses.

3. Test the hypothesis.

Once as many hypotheses (or reasons) as possible have been thought of, then each one can be tested to discern if it is the cause of the problem. An appropriate test needs to be devised for each hypothesis. For example, it is fairly quick to ask everyone to check the default settings of the printer on each PC, or to check if the cartridge supplier has changed.

4. Analyze the test results.

Once all the hypotheses have been tested, the results can be analyzed. The type and depth of analysis will be dependant on each individual problem, and the tests appropriate to it. In many cases the analysis will be a very quick thought process. In others, where considerable information has been collated, a more structured approach, such as the use of graphs, tables or spreadsheets, may be required.

5. Draw a conclusion.

Based on the results of the tests, a conclusion can then be drawn about exactly what is causing the problem. The appropriate remedial action can then be taken, such as asking everyone to amend their default print settings, or changing the cartridge supplier.

Inductive and Deductive Reasoning

The scientific method involves the use of two basic types of reasoning, inductive and deductive.

Inductive reasoning makes a conclusion based on a set of empirical results. Empirical results are the product of the collection of evidence from observations. For example:

‘Every time it rains the pavement gets wet, therefore rain must be water’.

There has been no scientific determination in the hypothesis that rain is water, it is purely based on observation. The formation of a hypothesis in this manner is sometimes referred to as an educated guess. An educated guess, whilst not based on hard facts, must still be plausible, and consistent with what we already know, in order to present a reasonable argument.

Deductive reasoning can be thought of most simply in terms of ‘If A and B, then C’. For example:

  • if the window is above the desk, and
  • the desk is above the floor, then
  • the window must be above the floor

It works by building on a series of conclusions, which results in one final answer.

Social Sciences and the Scientific Method

The scientific method can be used to address any situation or problem where a theory can be developed. Although more often associated with natural sciences, it can also be used to develop theories in social sciences (such as psychology, sociology and linguistics), using both quantitative and qualitative methods.

Quantitative information is information that can be measured, and tends to focus on numbers and frequencies. Typically quantitative information might be gathered by experiments, questionnaires or psychometric tests. Qualitative information, on the other hand, is based on information describing meaning, such as human behavior, and the reasons behind it. Qualitative information is gathered by way of interviews and case studies, which are possibly not as statistically accurate as quantitative methods, but provide a more in-depth and rich description.

The resultant information can then be used to prove, or disprove, a hypothesis. Using a mix of quantitative and qualitative information is more likely to produce a rounded result based on the factual, quantitative information enriched and backed up by actual experience and qualitative information.

In terms of problem-solving or decision-making, for example, the qualitative information is that gained by looking at the ‘how’ and ‘why’ , whereas quantitative information would come from the ‘where’, ‘what’ and ‘when’.

It may seem easy to come up with a brilliant idea, or to suspect what the cause of a problem may be. However things can get more complicated when the idea needs to be evaluated, or when there may be more than one potential cause of a problem. In these situations, the use of the scientific method, and its associated reasoning, can help the user come to a decision, or reach a solution, secure in the knowledge that all options have been considered.

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Sat / act prep online guides and tips, the 6 scientific method steps and how to use them.

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When you’re faced with a scientific problem, solving it can seem like an impossible prospect. There are so many possible explanations for everything we see and experience—how can you possibly make sense of them all? Science has a simple answer: the scientific method.

The scientific method is a method of asking and answering questions about the world. These guiding principles give scientists a model to work through when trying to understand the world, but where did that model come from, and how does it work?

In this article, we’ll define the scientific method, discuss its long history, and cover each of the scientific method steps in detail.

What Is the Scientific Method?

At its most basic, the scientific method is a procedure for conducting scientific experiments. It’s a set model that scientists in a variety of fields can follow, going from initial observation to conclusion in a loose but concrete format.

The number of steps varies, but the process begins with an observation, progresses through an experiment, and concludes with analysis and sharing data. One of the most important pieces to the scientific method is skepticism —the goal is to find truth, not to confirm a particular thought. That requires reevaluation and repeated experimentation, as well as examining your thinking through rigorous study.

There are in fact multiple scientific methods, as the basic structure can be easily modified.  The one we typically learn about in school is the basic method, based in logic and problem solving, typically used in “hard” science fields like biology, chemistry, and physics. It may vary in other fields, such as psychology, but the basic premise of making observations, testing, and continuing to improve a theory from the results remain the same.

body_history

The History of the Scientific Method

The scientific method as we know it today is based on thousands of years of scientific study. Its development goes all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia, Greece, and India.

The Ancient World

In ancient Greece, Aristotle devised an inductive-deductive process , which weighs broad generalizations from data against conclusions reached by narrowing down possibilities from a general statement. However, he favored deductive reasoning, as it identifies causes, which he saw as more important.

Aristotle wrote a great deal about logic and many of his ideas about reasoning echo those found in the modern scientific method, such as ignoring circular evidence and limiting the number of middle terms between the beginning of an experiment and the end. Though his model isn’t the one that we use today, the reliance on logic and thorough testing are still key parts of science today.

The Middle Ages

The next big step toward the development of the modern scientific method came in the Middle Ages, particularly in the Islamic world. Ibn al-Haytham, a physicist from what we now know as Iraq, developed a method of testing, observing, and deducing for his research on vision. al-Haytham was critical of Aristotle’s lack of inductive reasoning, which played an important role in his own research.

Other scientists, including Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī, Ibn Sina, and Robert Grosseteste also developed models of scientific reasoning to test their own theories. Though they frequently disagreed with one another and Aristotle, those disagreements and refinements of their methods led to the scientific method we have today.

Following those major developments, particularly Grosseteste’s work, Roger Bacon developed his own cycle of observation (seeing that something occurs), hypothesis (making a guess about why that thing occurs), experimentation (testing that the thing occurs), and verification (an outside person ensuring that the result of the experiment is consistent).

After joining the Franciscan Order, Bacon was granted a special commission to write about science; typically, Friars were not allowed to write books or pamphlets. With this commission, Bacon outlined important tenets of the scientific method, including causes of error, methods of knowledge, and the differences between speculative and experimental science. He also used his own principles to investigate the causes of a rainbow, demonstrating the method’s effectiveness.

Scientific Revolution

Throughout the Renaissance, more great thinkers became involved in devising a thorough, rigorous method of scientific study. Francis Bacon brought inductive reasoning further into the method, whereas Descartes argued that the laws of the universe meant that deductive reasoning was sufficient. Galileo’s research was also inductive reasoning-heavy, as he believed that researchers could not account for every possible variable; therefore, repetition was necessary to eliminate faulty hypotheses and experiments.

All of this led to the birth of the Scientific Revolution , which took place during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In 1660, a group of philosophers and physicians joined together to work on scientific advancement. After approval from England’s crown , the group became known as the Royal Society, which helped create a thriving scientific community and an early academic journal to help introduce rigorous study and peer review.

Previous generations of scientists had touched on the importance of induction and deduction, but Sir Isaac Newton proposed that both were equally important. This contribution helped establish the importance of multiple kinds of reasoning, leading to more rigorous study.

As science began to splinter into separate areas of study, it became necessary to define different methods for different fields. Karl Popper was a leader in this area—he established that science could be subject to error, sometimes intentionally. This was particularly tricky for “soft” sciences like psychology and social sciences, which require different methods. Popper’s theories furthered the divide between sciences like psychology and “hard” sciences like chemistry or physics.

Paul Feyerabend argued that Popper’s methods were too restrictive for certain fields, and followed a less restrictive method hinged on “anything goes,” as great scientists had made discoveries without the Scientific Method. Feyerabend suggested that throughout history scientists had adapted their methods as necessary, and that sometimes it would be necessary to break the rules. This approach suited social and behavioral scientists particularly well, leading to a more diverse range of models for scientists in multiple fields to use.

body_experiment-3

The Scientific Method Steps

Though different fields may have variations on the model, the basic scientific method is as follows:

#1: Make Observations 

Notice something, such as the air temperature during the winter, what happens when ice cream melts, or how your plants behave when you forget to water them.

#2: Ask a Question

Turn your observation into a question. Why is the temperature lower during the winter? Why does my ice cream melt? Why does my toast always fall butter-side down?

This step can also include doing some research. You may be able to find answers to these questions already, but you can still test them!

#3: Make a Hypothesis

A hypothesis is an educated guess of the answer to your question. Why does your toast always fall butter-side down? Maybe it’s because the butter makes that side of the bread heavier.

A good hypothesis leads to a prediction that you can test, phrased as an if/then statement. In this case, we can pick something like, “If toast is buttered, then it will hit the ground butter-first.”

#4: Experiment

Your experiment is designed to test whether your predication about what will happen is true. A good experiment will test one variable at a time —for example, we’re trying to test whether butter weighs down one side of toast, making it more likely to hit the ground first.

The unbuttered toast is our control variable. If we determine the chance that a slice of unbuttered toast, marked with a dot, will hit the ground on a particular side, we can compare those results to our buttered toast to see if there’s a correlation between the presence of butter and which way the toast falls.

If we decided not to toast the bread, that would be introducing a new question—whether or not toasting the bread has any impact on how it falls. Since that’s not part of our test, we’ll stick with determining whether the presence of butter has any impact on which side hits the ground first.

#5: Analyze Data

After our experiment, we discover that both buttered toast and unbuttered toast have a 50/50 chance of hitting the ground on the buttered or marked side when dropped from a consistent height, straight down. It looks like our hypothesis was incorrect—it’s not the butter that makes the toast hit the ground in a particular way, so it must be something else.

Since we didn’t get the desired result, it’s back to the drawing board. Our hypothesis wasn’t correct, so we’ll need to start fresh. Now that you think about it, your toast seems to hit the ground butter-first when it slides off your plate, not when you drop it from a consistent height. That can be the basis for your new experiment.

#6: Communicate Your Results

Good science needs verification. Your experiment should be replicable by other people, so you can put together a report about how you ran your experiment to see if other peoples’ findings are consistent with yours.

This may be useful for class or a science fair. Professional scientists may publish their findings in scientific journals, where other scientists can read and attempt their own versions of the same experiments. Being part of a scientific community helps your experiments be stronger because other people can see if there are flaws in your approach—such as if you tested with different kinds of bread, or sometimes used peanut butter instead of butter—that can lead you closer to a good answer.

body_toast-1

A Scientific Method Example: Falling Toast

We’ve run through a quick recap of the scientific method steps, but let’s look a little deeper by trying again to figure out why toast so often falls butter side down.

#1: Make Observations

At the end of our last experiment, where we learned that butter doesn’t actually make toast more likely to hit the ground on that side, we remembered that the times when our toast hits the ground butter side first are usually when it’s falling off a plate.

The easiest question we can ask is, “Why is that?”

We can actually search this online and find a pretty detailed answer as to why this is true. But we’re budding scientists—we want to see it in action and verify it for ourselves! After all, good science should be replicable, and we have all the tools we need to test out what’s really going on.

Why do we think that buttered toast hits the ground butter-first? We know it’s not because it’s heavier, so we can strike that out. Maybe it’s because of the shape of our plate?

That’s something we can test. We’ll phrase our hypothesis as, “If my toast slides off my plate, then it will fall butter-side down.”

Just seeing that toast falls off a plate butter-side down isn’t enough for us. We want to know why, so we’re going to take things a step further—we’ll set up a slow-motion camera to capture what happens as the toast slides off the plate.

We’ll run the test ten times, each time tilting the same plate until the toast slides off. We’ll make note of each time the butter side lands first and see what’s happening on the video so we can see what’s going on.

When we review the footage, we’ll likely notice that the bread starts to flip when it slides off the edge, changing how it falls in a way that didn’t happen when we dropped it ourselves.

That answers our question, but it’s not the complete picture —how do other plates affect how often toast hits the ground butter-first? What if the toast is already butter-side down when it falls? These are things we can test in further experiments with new hypotheses!

Now that we have results, we can share them with others who can verify our results. As mentioned above, being part of the scientific community can lead to better results. If your results were wildly different from the established thinking about buttered toast, that might be cause for reevaluation. If they’re the same, they might lead others to make new discoveries about buttered toast. At the very least, you have a cool experiment you can share with your friends!

Key Scientific Method Tips

Though science can be complex, the benefit of the scientific method is that it gives you an easy-to-follow means of thinking about why and how things happen. To use it effectively, keep these things in mind!

Don’t Worry About Proving Your Hypothesis

One of the important things to remember about the scientific method is that it’s not necessarily meant to prove your hypothesis right. It’s great if you do manage to guess the reason for something right the first time, but the ultimate goal of an experiment is to find the true reason for your observation to occur, not to prove your hypothesis right.

Good science sometimes means that you’re wrong. That’s not a bad thing—a well-designed experiment with an unanticipated result can be just as revealing, if not more, than an experiment that confirms your hypothesis.

Be Prepared to Try Again

If the data from your experiment doesn’t match your hypothesis, that’s not a bad thing. You’ve eliminated one possible explanation, which brings you one step closer to discovering the truth.

The scientific method isn’t something you’re meant to do exactly once to prove a point. It’s meant to be repeated and adapted to bring you closer to a solution. Even if you can demonstrate truth in your hypothesis, a good scientist will run an experiment again to be sure that the results are replicable. You can even tweak a successful hypothesis to test another factor, such as if we redid our buttered toast experiment to find out whether different kinds of plates affect whether or not the toast falls butter-first. The more we test our hypothesis, the stronger it becomes!

What’s Next?

Want to learn more about the scientific method? These important high school science classes will no doubt cover it in a variety of different contexts.

Test your ability to follow the scientific method using these at-home science experiments for kids !

Need some proof that science is fun? Try making slime

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Melissa Brinks graduated from the University of Washington in 2014 with a Bachelor's in English with a creative writing emphasis. She has spent several years tutoring K-12 students in many subjects, including in SAT prep, to help them prepare for their college education.

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Scientific Method

Science is an enormously successful human enterprise. The study of scientific method is the attempt to discern the activities by which that success is achieved. Among the activities often identified as characteristic of science are systematic observation and experimentation, inductive and deductive reasoning, and the formation and testing of hypotheses and theories. How these are carried out in detail can vary greatly, but characteristics like these have been looked to as a way of demarcating scientific activity from non-science, where only enterprises which employ some canonical form of scientific method or methods should be considered science (see also the entry on science and pseudo-science ). Others have questioned whether there is anything like a fixed toolkit of methods which is common across science and only science. Some reject privileging one view of method as part of rejecting broader views about the nature of science, such as naturalism (Dupré 2004); some reject any restriction in principle (pluralism).

Scientific method should be distinguished from the aims and products of science, such as knowledge, predictions, or control. Methods are the means by which those goals are achieved. Scientific method should also be distinguished from meta-methodology, which includes the values and justifications behind a particular characterization of scientific method (i.e., a methodology) — values such as objectivity, reproducibility, simplicity, or past successes. Methodological rules are proposed to govern method and it is a meta-methodological question whether methods obeying those rules satisfy given values. Finally, method is distinct, to some degree, from the detailed and contextual practices through which methods are implemented. The latter might range over: specific laboratory techniques; mathematical formalisms or other specialized languages used in descriptions and reasoning; technological or other material means; ways of communicating and sharing results, whether with other scientists or with the public at large; or the conventions, habits, enforced customs, and institutional controls over how and what science is carried out.

While it is important to recognize these distinctions, their boundaries are fuzzy. Hence, accounts of method cannot be entirely divorced from their methodological and meta-methodological motivations or justifications, Moreover, each aspect plays a crucial role in identifying methods. Disputes about method have therefore played out at the detail, rule, and meta-rule levels. Changes in beliefs about the certainty or fallibility of scientific knowledge, for instance (which is a meta-methodological consideration of what we can hope for methods to deliver), have meant different emphases on deductive and inductive reasoning, or on the relative importance attached to reasoning over observation (i.e., differences over particular methods.) Beliefs about the role of science in society will affect the place one gives to values in scientific method.

The issue which has shaped debates over scientific method the most in the last half century is the question of how pluralist do we need to be about method? Unificationists continue to hold out for one method essential to science; nihilism is a form of radical pluralism, which considers the effectiveness of any methodological prescription to be so context sensitive as to render it not explanatory on its own. Some middle degree of pluralism regarding the methods embodied in scientific practice seems appropriate. But the details of scientific practice vary with time and place, from institution to institution, across scientists and their subjects of investigation. How significant are the variations for understanding science and its success? How much can method be abstracted from practice? This entry describes some of the attempts to characterize scientific method or methods, as well as arguments for a more context-sensitive approach to methods embedded in actual scientific practices.

1. Overview and organizing themes

2. historical review: aristotle to mill, 3.1 logical constructionism and operationalism, 3.2. h-d as a logic of confirmation, 3.3. popper and falsificationism, 3.4 meta-methodology and the end of method, 4. statistical methods for hypothesis testing, 5.1 creative and exploratory practices.

  • 5.2 Computer methods and the ‘new ways’ of doing science

6.1 “The scientific method” in science education and as seen by scientists

6.2 privileged methods and ‘gold standards’, 6.3 scientific method in the court room, 6.4 deviating practices, 7. conclusion, other internet resources, related entries.

This entry could have been given the title Scientific Methods and gone on to fill volumes, or it could have been extremely short, consisting of a brief summary rejection of the idea that there is any such thing as a unique Scientific Method at all. Both unhappy prospects are due to the fact that scientific activity varies so much across disciplines, times, places, and scientists that any account which manages to unify it all will either consist of overwhelming descriptive detail, or trivial generalizations.

The choice of scope for the present entry is more optimistic, taking a cue from the recent movement in philosophy of science toward a greater attention to practice: to what scientists actually do. This “turn to practice” can be seen as the latest form of studies of methods in science, insofar as it represents an attempt at understanding scientific activity, but through accounts that are neither meant to be universal and unified, nor singular and narrowly descriptive. To some extent, different scientists at different times and places can be said to be using the same method even though, in practice, the details are different.

Whether the context in which methods are carried out is relevant, or to what extent, will depend largely on what one takes the aims of science to be and what one’s own aims are. For most of the history of scientific methodology the assumption has been that the most important output of science is knowledge and so the aim of methodology should be to discover those methods by which scientific knowledge is generated.

Science was seen to embody the most successful form of reasoning (but which form?) to the most certain knowledge claims (but how certain?) on the basis of systematically collected evidence (but what counts as evidence, and should the evidence of the senses take precedence, or rational insight?) Section 2 surveys some of the history, pointing to two major themes. One theme is seeking the right balance between observation and reasoning (and the attendant forms of reasoning which employ them); the other is how certain scientific knowledge is or can be.

Section 3 turns to 20 th century debates on scientific method. In the second half of the 20 th century the epistemic privilege of science faced several challenges and many philosophers of science abandoned the reconstruction of the logic of scientific method. Views changed significantly regarding which functions of science ought to be captured and why. For some, the success of science was better identified with social or cultural features. Historical and sociological turns in the philosophy of science were made, with a demand that greater attention be paid to the non-epistemic aspects of science, such as sociological, institutional, material, and political factors. Even outside of those movements there was an increased specialization in the philosophy of science, with more and more focus on specific fields within science. The combined upshot was very few philosophers arguing any longer for a grand unified methodology of science. Sections 3 and 4 surveys the main positions on scientific method in 20 th century philosophy of science, focusing on where they differ in their preference for confirmation or falsification or for waiving the idea of a special scientific method altogether.

In recent decades, attention has primarily been paid to scientific activities traditionally falling under the rubric of method, such as experimental design and general laboratory practice, the use of statistics, the construction and use of models and diagrams, interdisciplinary collaboration, and science communication. Sections 4–6 attempt to construct a map of the current domains of the study of methods in science.

As these sections illustrate, the question of method is still central to the discourse about science. Scientific method remains a topic for education, for science policy, and for scientists. It arises in the public domain where the demarcation or status of science is at issue. Some philosophers have recently returned, therefore, to the question of what it is that makes science a unique cultural product. This entry will close with some of these recent attempts at discerning and encapsulating the activities by which scientific knowledge is achieved.

Attempting a history of scientific method compounds the vast scope of the topic. This section briefly surveys the background to modern methodological debates. What can be called the classical view goes back to antiquity, and represents a point of departure for later divergences. [ 1 ]

We begin with a point made by Laudan (1968) in his historical survey of scientific method:

Perhaps the most serious inhibition to the emergence of the history of theories of scientific method as a respectable area of study has been the tendency to conflate it with the general history of epistemology, thereby assuming that the narrative categories and classificatory pigeon-holes applied to the latter are also basic to the former. (1968: 5)

To see knowledge about the natural world as falling under knowledge more generally is an understandable conflation. Histories of theories of method would naturally employ the same narrative categories and classificatory pigeon holes. An important theme of the history of epistemology, for example, is the unification of knowledge, a theme reflected in the question of the unification of method in science. Those who have identified differences in kinds of knowledge have often likewise identified different methods for achieving that kind of knowledge (see the entry on the unity of science ).

Different views on what is known, how it is known, and what can be known are connected. Plato distinguished the realms of things into the visible and the intelligible ( The Republic , 510a, in Cooper 1997). Only the latter, the Forms, could be objects of knowledge. The intelligible truths could be known with the certainty of geometry and deductive reasoning. What could be observed of the material world, however, was by definition imperfect and deceptive, not ideal. The Platonic way of knowledge therefore emphasized reasoning as a method, downplaying the importance of observation. Aristotle disagreed, locating the Forms in the natural world as the fundamental principles to be discovered through the inquiry into nature ( Metaphysics Z , in Barnes 1984).

Aristotle is recognized as giving the earliest systematic treatise on the nature of scientific inquiry in the western tradition, one which embraced observation and reasoning about the natural world. In the Prior and Posterior Analytics , Aristotle reflects first on the aims and then the methods of inquiry into nature. A number of features can be found which are still considered by most to be essential to science. For Aristotle, empiricism, careful observation (but passive observation, not controlled experiment), is the starting point. The aim is not merely recording of facts, though. For Aristotle, science ( epistêmê ) is a body of properly arranged knowledge or learning—the empirical facts, but also their ordering and display are of crucial importance. The aims of discovery, ordering, and display of facts partly determine the methods required of successful scientific inquiry. Also determinant is the nature of the knowledge being sought, and the explanatory causes proper to that kind of knowledge (see the discussion of the four causes in the entry on Aristotle on causality ).

In addition to careful observation, then, scientific method requires a logic as a system of reasoning for properly arranging, but also inferring beyond, what is known by observation. Methods of reasoning may include induction, prediction, or analogy, among others. Aristotle’s system (along with his catalogue of fallacious reasoning) was collected under the title the Organon . This title would be echoed in later works on scientific reasoning, such as Novum Organon by Francis Bacon, and Novum Organon Restorum by William Whewell (see below). In Aristotle’s Organon reasoning is divided primarily into two forms, a rough division which persists into modern times. The division, known most commonly today as deductive versus inductive method, appears in other eras and methodologies as analysis/​synthesis, non-ampliative/​ampliative, or even confirmation/​verification. The basic idea is there are two “directions” to proceed in our methods of inquiry: one away from what is observed, to the more fundamental, general, and encompassing principles; the other, from the fundamental and general to instances or implications of principles.

The basic aim and method of inquiry identified here can be seen as a theme running throughout the next two millennia of reflection on the correct way to seek after knowledge: carefully observe nature and then seek rules or principles which explain or predict its operation. The Aristotelian corpus provided the framework for a commentary tradition on scientific method independent of science itself (cosmos versus physics.) During the medieval period, figures such as Albertus Magnus (1206–1280), Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), Robert Grosseteste (1175–1253), Roger Bacon (1214/1220–1292), William of Ockham (1287–1347), Andreas Vesalius (1514–1546), Giacomo Zabarella (1533–1589) all worked to clarify the kind of knowledge obtainable by observation and induction, the source of justification of induction, and best rules for its application. [ 2 ] Many of their contributions we now think of as essential to science (see also Laudan 1968). As Aristotle and Plato had employed a framework of reasoning either “to the forms” or “away from the forms”, medieval thinkers employed directions away from the phenomena or back to the phenomena. In analysis, a phenomena was examined to discover its basic explanatory principles; in synthesis, explanations of a phenomena were constructed from first principles.

During the Scientific Revolution these various strands of argument, experiment, and reason were forged into a dominant epistemic authority. The 16 th –18 th centuries were a period of not only dramatic advance in knowledge about the operation of the natural world—advances in mechanical, medical, biological, political, economic explanations—but also of self-awareness of the revolutionary changes taking place, and intense reflection on the source and legitimation of the method by which the advances were made. The struggle to establish the new authority included methodological moves. The Book of Nature, according to the metaphor of Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) or Francis Bacon (1561–1626), was written in the language of mathematics, of geometry and number. This motivated an emphasis on mathematical description and mechanical explanation as important aspects of scientific method. Through figures such as Henry More and Ralph Cudworth, a neo-Platonic emphasis on the importance of metaphysical reflection on nature behind appearances, particularly regarding the spiritual as a complement to the purely mechanical, remained an important methodological thread of the Scientific Revolution (see the entries on Cambridge platonists ; Boyle ; Henry More ; Galileo ).

In Novum Organum (1620), Bacon was critical of the Aristotelian method for leaping from particulars to universals too quickly. The syllogistic form of reasoning readily mixed those two types of propositions. Bacon aimed at the invention of new arts, principles, and directions. His method would be grounded in methodical collection of observations, coupled with correction of our senses (and particularly, directions for the avoidance of the Idols, as he called them, kinds of systematic errors to which naïve observers are prone.) The community of scientists could then climb, by a careful, gradual and unbroken ascent, to reliable general claims.

Bacon’s method has been criticized as impractical and too inflexible for the practicing scientist. Whewell would later criticize Bacon in his System of Logic for paying too little attention to the practices of scientists. It is hard to find convincing examples of Bacon’s method being put in to practice in the history of science, but there are a few who have been held up as real examples of 16 th century scientific, inductive method, even if not in the rigid Baconian mold: figures such as Robert Boyle (1627–1691) and William Harvey (1578–1657) (see the entry on Bacon ).

It is to Isaac Newton (1642–1727), however, that historians of science and methodologists have paid greatest attention. Given the enormous success of his Principia Mathematica and Opticks , this is understandable. The study of Newton’s method has had two main thrusts: the implicit method of the experiments and reasoning presented in the Opticks, and the explicit methodological rules given as the Rules for Philosophising (the Regulae) in Book III of the Principia . [ 3 ] Newton’s law of gravitation, the linchpin of his new cosmology, broke with explanatory conventions of natural philosophy, first for apparently proposing action at a distance, but more generally for not providing “true”, physical causes. The argument for his System of the World ( Principia , Book III) was based on phenomena, not reasoned first principles. This was viewed (mainly on the continent) as insufficient for proper natural philosophy. The Regulae counter this objection, re-defining the aims of natural philosophy by re-defining the method natural philosophers should follow. (See the entry on Newton’s philosophy .)

To his list of methodological prescriptions should be added Newton’s famous phrase “ hypotheses non fingo ” (commonly translated as “I frame no hypotheses”.) The scientist was not to invent systems but infer explanations from observations, as Bacon had advocated. This would come to be known as inductivism. In the century after Newton, significant clarifications of the Newtonian method were made. Colin Maclaurin (1698–1746), for instance, reconstructed the essential structure of the method as having complementary analysis and synthesis phases, one proceeding away from the phenomena in generalization, the other from the general propositions to derive explanations of new phenomena. Denis Diderot (1713–1784) and editors of the Encyclopédie did much to consolidate and popularize Newtonianism, as did Francesco Algarotti (1721–1764). The emphasis was often the same, as much on the character of the scientist as on their process, a character which is still commonly assumed. The scientist is humble in the face of nature, not beholden to dogma, obeys only his eyes, and follows the truth wherever it leads. It was certainly Voltaire (1694–1778) and du Chatelet (1706–1749) who were most influential in propagating the latter vision of the scientist and their craft, with Newton as hero. Scientific method became a revolutionary force of the Enlightenment. (See also the entries on Newton , Leibniz , Descartes , Boyle , Hume , enlightenment , as well as Shank 2008 for a historical overview.)

Not all 18 th century reflections on scientific method were so celebratory. Famous also are George Berkeley’s (1685–1753) attack on the mathematics of the new science, as well as the over-emphasis of Newtonians on observation; and David Hume’s (1711–1776) undermining of the warrant offered for scientific claims by inductive justification (see the entries on: George Berkeley ; David Hume ; Hume’s Newtonianism and Anti-Newtonianism ). Hume’s problem of induction motivated Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) to seek new foundations for empirical method, though as an epistemic reconstruction, not as any set of practical guidelines for scientists. Both Hume and Kant influenced the methodological reflections of the next century, such as the debate between Mill and Whewell over the certainty of inductive inferences in science.

The debate between John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) and William Whewell (1794–1866) has become the canonical methodological debate of the 19 th century. Although often characterized as a debate between inductivism and hypothetico-deductivism, the role of the two methods on each side is actually more complex. On the hypothetico-deductive account, scientists work to come up with hypotheses from which true observational consequences can be deduced—hence, hypothetico-deductive. Because Whewell emphasizes both hypotheses and deduction in his account of method, he can be seen as a convenient foil to the inductivism of Mill. However, equally if not more important to Whewell’s portrayal of scientific method is what he calls the “fundamental antithesis”. Knowledge is a product of the objective (what we see in the world around us) and subjective (the contributions of our mind to how we perceive and understand what we experience, which he called the Fundamental Ideas). Both elements are essential according to Whewell, and he was therefore critical of Kant for too much focus on the subjective, and John Locke (1632–1704) and Mill for too much focus on the senses. Whewell’s fundamental ideas can be discipline relative. An idea can be fundamental even if it is necessary for knowledge only within a given scientific discipline (e.g., chemical affinity for chemistry). This distinguishes fundamental ideas from the forms and categories of intuition of Kant. (See the entry on Whewell .)

Clarifying fundamental ideas would therefore be an essential part of scientific method and scientific progress. Whewell called this process “Discoverer’s Induction”. It was induction, following Bacon or Newton, but Whewell sought to revive Bacon’s account by emphasising the role of ideas in the clear and careful formulation of inductive hypotheses. Whewell’s induction is not merely the collecting of objective facts. The subjective plays a role through what Whewell calls the Colligation of Facts, a creative act of the scientist, the invention of a theory. A theory is then confirmed by testing, where more facts are brought under the theory, called the Consilience of Inductions. Whewell felt that this was the method by which the true laws of nature could be discovered: clarification of fundamental concepts, clever invention of explanations, and careful testing. Mill, in his critique of Whewell, and others who have cast Whewell as a fore-runner of the hypothetico-deductivist view, seem to have under-estimated the importance of this discovery phase in Whewell’s understanding of method (Snyder 1997a,b, 1999). Down-playing the discovery phase would come to characterize methodology of the early 20 th century (see section 3 ).

Mill, in his System of Logic , put forward a narrower view of induction as the essence of scientific method. For Mill, induction is the search first for regularities among events. Among those regularities, some will continue to hold for further observations, eventually gaining the status of laws. One can also look for regularities among the laws discovered in a domain, i.e., for a law of laws. Which “law law” will hold is time and discipline dependent and open to revision. One example is the Law of Universal Causation, and Mill put forward specific methods for identifying causes—now commonly known as Mill’s methods. These five methods look for circumstances which are common among the phenomena of interest, those which are absent when the phenomena are, or those for which both vary together. Mill’s methods are still seen as capturing basic intuitions about experimental methods for finding the relevant explanatory factors ( System of Logic (1843), see Mill entry). The methods advocated by Whewell and Mill, in the end, look similar. Both involve inductive generalization to covering laws. They differ dramatically, however, with respect to the necessity of the knowledge arrived at; that is, at the meta-methodological level (see the entries on Whewell and Mill entries).

3. Logic of method and critical responses

The quantum and relativistic revolutions in physics in the early 20 th century had a profound effect on methodology. Conceptual foundations of both theories were taken to show the defeasibility of even the most seemingly secure intuitions about space, time and bodies. Certainty of knowledge about the natural world was therefore recognized as unattainable. Instead a renewed empiricism was sought which rendered science fallible but still rationally justifiable.

Analyses of the reasoning of scientists emerged, according to which the aspects of scientific method which were of primary importance were the means of testing and confirming of theories. A distinction in methodology was made between the contexts of discovery and justification. The distinction could be used as a wedge between the particularities of where and how theories or hypotheses are arrived at, on the one hand, and the underlying reasoning scientists use (whether or not they are aware of it) when assessing theories and judging their adequacy on the basis of the available evidence. By and large, for most of the 20 th century, philosophy of science focused on the second context, although philosophers differed on whether to focus on confirmation or refutation as well as on the many details of how confirmation or refutation could or could not be brought about. By the mid-20 th century these attempts at defining the method of justification and the context distinction itself came under pressure. During the same period, philosophy of science developed rapidly, and from section 4 this entry will therefore shift from a primarily historical treatment of the scientific method towards a primarily thematic one.

Advances in logic and probability held out promise of the possibility of elaborate reconstructions of scientific theories and empirical method, the best example being Rudolf Carnap’s The Logical Structure of the World (1928). Carnap attempted to show that a scientific theory could be reconstructed as a formal axiomatic system—that is, a logic. That system could refer to the world because some of its basic sentences could be interpreted as observations or operations which one could perform to test them. The rest of the theoretical system, including sentences using theoretical or unobservable terms (like electron or force) would then either be meaningful because they could be reduced to observations, or they had purely logical meanings (called analytic, like mathematical identities). This has been referred to as the verifiability criterion of meaning. According to the criterion, any statement not either analytic or verifiable was strictly meaningless. Although the view was endorsed by Carnap in 1928, he would later come to see it as too restrictive (Carnap 1956). Another familiar version of this idea is operationalism of Percy William Bridgman. In The Logic of Modern Physics (1927) Bridgman asserted that every physical concept could be defined in terms of the operations one would perform to verify the application of that concept. Making good on the operationalisation of a concept even as simple as length, however, can easily become enormously complex (for measuring very small lengths, for instance) or impractical (measuring large distances like light years.)

Carl Hempel’s (1950, 1951) criticisms of the verifiability criterion of meaning had enormous influence. He pointed out that universal generalizations, such as most scientific laws, were not strictly meaningful on the criterion. Verifiability and operationalism both seemed too restrictive to capture standard scientific aims and practice. The tenuous connection between these reconstructions and actual scientific practice was criticized in another way. In both approaches, scientific methods are instead recast in methodological roles. Measurements, for example, were looked to as ways of giving meanings to terms. The aim of the philosopher of science was not to understand the methods per se , but to use them to reconstruct theories, their meanings, and their relation to the world. When scientists perform these operations, however, they will not report that they are doing them to give meaning to terms in a formal axiomatic system. This disconnect between methodology and the details of actual scientific practice would seem to violate the empiricism the Logical Positivists and Bridgman were committed to. The view that methodology should correspond to practice (to some extent) has been called historicism, or intuitionism. We turn to these criticisms and responses in section 3.4 . [ 4 ]

Positivism also had to contend with the recognition that a purely inductivist approach, along the lines of Bacon-Newton-Mill, was untenable. There was no pure observation, for starters. All observation was theory laden. Theory is required to make any observation, therefore not all theory can be derived from observation alone. (See the entry on theory and observation in science .) Even granting an observational basis, Hume had already pointed out that one could not deductively justify inductive conclusions without begging the question by presuming the success of the inductive method. Likewise, positivist attempts at analyzing how a generalization can be confirmed by observations of its instances were subject to a number of criticisms. Goodman (1965) and Hempel (1965) both point to paradoxes inherent in standard accounts of confirmation. Recent attempts at explaining how observations can serve to confirm a scientific theory are discussed in section 4 below.

The standard starting point for a non-inductive analysis of the logic of confirmation is known as the Hypothetico-Deductive (H-D) method. In its simplest form, a sentence of a theory which expresses some hypothesis is confirmed by its true consequences. As noted in section 2 , this method had been advanced by Whewell in the 19 th century, as well as Nicod (1924) and others in the 20 th century. Often, Hempel’s (1966) description of the H-D method, illustrated by the case of Semmelweiss’ inferential procedures in establishing the cause of childbed fever, has been presented as a key account of H-D as well as a foil for criticism of the H-D account of confirmation (see, for example, Lipton’s (2004) discussion of inference to the best explanation; also the entry on confirmation ). Hempel described Semmelsweiss’ procedure as examining various hypotheses explaining the cause of childbed fever. Some hypotheses conflicted with observable facts and could be rejected as false immediately. Others needed to be tested experimentally by deducing which observable events should follow if the hypothesis were true (what Hempel called the test implications of the hypothesis), then conducting an experiment and observing whether or not the test implications occurred. If the experiment showed the test implication to be false, the hypothesis could be rejected. If the experiment showed the test implications to be true, however, this did not prove the hypothesis true. The confirmation of a test implication does not verify a hypothesis, though Hempel did allow that “it provides at least some support, some corroboration or confirmation for it” (Hempel 1966: 8). The degree of this support then depends on the quantity, variety and precision of the supporting evidence.

Another approach that took off from the difficulties with inductive inference was Karl Popper’s critical rationalism or falsificationism (Popper 1959, 1963). Falsification is deductive and similar to H-D in that it involves scientists deducing observational consequences from the hypothesis under test. For Popper, however, the important point was not the degree of confirmation that successful prediction offered to a hypothesis. The crucial thing was the logical asymmetry between confirmation, based on inductive inference, and falsification, which can be based on a deductive inference. (This simple opposition was later questioned, by Lakatos, among others. See the entry on historicist theories of scientific rationality. )

Popper stressed that, regardless of the amount of confirming evidence, we can never be certain that a hypothesis is true without committing the fallacy of affirming the consequent. Instead, Popper introduced the notion of corroboration as a measure for how well a theory or hypothesis has survived previous testing—but without implying that this is also a measure for the probability that it is true.

Popper was also motivated by his doubts about the scientific status of theories like the Marxist theory of history or psycho-analysis, and so wanted to demarcate between science and pseudo-science. Popper saw this as an importantly different distinction than demarcating science from metaphysics. The latter demarcation was the primary concern of many logical empiricists. Popper used the idea of falsification to draw a line instead between pseudo and proper science. Science was science because its method involved subjecting theories to rigorous tests which offered a high probability of failing and thus refuting the theory.

A commitment to the risk of failure was important. Avoiding falsification could be done all too easily. If a consequence of a theory is inconsistent with observations, an exception can be added by introducing auxiliary hypotheses designed explicitly to save the theory, so-called ad hoc modifications. This Popper saw done in pseudo-science where ad hoc theories appeared capable of explaining anything in their field of application. In contrast, science is risky. If observations showed the predictions from a theory to be wrong, the theory would be refuted. Hence, scientific hypotheses must be falsifiable. Not only must there exist some possible observation statement which could falsify the hypothesis or theory, were it observed, (Popper called these the hypothesis’ potential falsifiers) it is crucial to the Popperian scientific method that such falsifications be sincerely attempted on a regular basis.

The more potential falsifiers of a hypothesis, the more falsifiable it would be, and the more the hypothesis claimed. Conversely, hypotheses without falsifiers claimed very little or nothing at all. Originally, Popper thought that this meant the introduction of ad hoc hypotheses only to save a theory should not be countenanced as good scientific method. These would undermine the falsifiabililty of a theory. However, Popper later came to recognize that the introduction of modifications (immunizations, he called them) was often an important part of scientific development. Responding to surprising or apparently falsifying observations often generated important new scientific insights. Popper’s own example was the observed motion of Uranus which originally did not agree with Newtonian predictions. The ad hoc hypothesis of an outer planet explained the disagreement and led to further falsifiable predictions. Popper sought to reconcile the view by blurring the distinction between falsifiable and not falsifiable, and speaking instead of degrees of testability (Popper 1985: 41f.).

From the 1960s on, sustained meta-methodological criticism emerged that drove philosophical focus away from scientific method. A brief look at those criticisms follows, with recommendations for further reading at the end of the entry.

Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) begins with a well-known shot across the bow for philosophers of science:

History, if viewed as a repository for more than anecdote or chronology, could produce a decisive transformation in the image of science by which we are now possessed. (1962: 1)

The image Kuhn thought needed transforming was the a-historical, rational reconstruction sought by many of the Logical Positivists, though Carnap and other positivists were actually quite sympathetic to Kuhn’s views. (See the entry on the Vienna Circle .) Kuhn shares with other of his contemporaries, such as Feyerabend and Lakatos, a commitment to a more empirical approach to philosophy of science. Namely, the history of science provides important data, and necessary checks, for philosophy of science, including any theory of scientific method.

The history of science reveals, according to Kuhn, that scientific development occurs in alternating phases. During normal science, the members of the scientific community adhere to the paradigm in place. Their commitment to the paradigm means a commitment to the puzzles to be solved and the acceptable ways of solving them. Confidence in the paradigm remains so long as steady progress is made in solving the shared puzzles. Method in this normal phase operates within a disciplinary matrix (Kuhn’s later concept of a paradigm) which includes standards for problem solving, and defines the range of problems to which the method should be applied. An important part of a disciplinary matrix is the set of values which provide the norms and aims for scientific method. The main values that Kuhn identifies are prediction, problem solving, simplicity, consistency, and plausibility.

An important by-product of normal science is the accumulation of puzzles which cannot be solved with resources of the current paradigm. Once accumulation of these anomalies has reached some critical mass, it can trigger a communal shift to a new paradigm and a new phase of normal science. Importantly, the values that provide the norms and aims for scientific method may have transformed in the meantime. Method may therefore be relative to discipline, time or place

Feyerabend also identified the aims of science as progress, but argued that any methodological prescription would only stifle that progress (Feyerabend 1988). His arguments are grounded in re-examining accepted “myths” about the history of science. Heroes of science, like Galileo, are shown to be just as reliant on rhetoric and persuasion as they are on reason and demonstration. Others, like Aristotle, are shown to be far more reasonable and far-reaching in their outlooks then they are given credit for. As a consequence, the only rule that could provide what he took to be sufficient freedom was the vacuous “anything goes”. More generally, even the methodological restriction that science is the best way to pursue knowledge, and to increase knowledge, is too restrictive. Feyerabend suggested instead that science might, in fact, be a threat to a free society, because it and its myth had become so dominant (Feyerabend 1978).

An even more fundamental kind of criticism was offered by several sociologists of science from the 1970s onwards who rejected the methodology of providing philosophical accounts for the rational development of science and sociological accounts of the irrational mistakes. Instead, they adhered to a symmetry thesis on which any causal explanation of how scientific knowledge is established needs to be symmetrical in explaining truth and falsity, rationality and irrationality, success and mistakes, by the same causal factors (see, e.g., Barnes and Bloor 1982, Bloor 1991). Movements in the Sociology of Science, like the Strong Programme, or in the social dimensions and causes of knowledge more generally led to extended and close examination of detailed case studies in contemporary science and its history. (See the entries on the social dimensions of scientific knowledge and social epistemology .) Well-known examinations by Latour and Woolgar (1979/1986), Knorr-Cetina (1981), Pickering (1984), Shapin and Schaffer (1985) seem to bear out that it was social ideologies (on a macro-scale) or individual interactions and circumstances (on a micro-scale) which were the primary causal factors in determining which beliefs gained the status of scientific knowledge. As they saw it therefore, explanatory appeals to scientific method were not empirically grounded.

A late, and largely unexpected, criticism of scientific method came from within science itself. Beginning in the early 2000s, a number of scientists attempting to replicate the results of published experiments could not do so. There may be close conceptual connection between reproducibility and method. For example, if reproducibility means that the same scientific methods ought to produce the same result, and all scientific results ought to be reproducible, then whatever it takes to reproduce a scientific result ought to be called scientific method. Space limits us to the observation that, insofar as reproducibility is a desired outcome of proper scientific method, it is not strictly a part of scientific method. (See the entry on reproducibility of scientific results .)

By the close of the 20 th century the search for the scientific method was flagging. Nola and Sankey (2000b) could introduce their volume on method by remarking that “For some, the whole idea of a theory of scientific method is yester-year’s debate …”.

Despite the many difficulties that philosophers encountered in trying to providing a clear methodology of conformation (or refutation), still important progress has been made on understanding how observation can provide evidence for a given theory. Work in statistics has been crucial for understanding how theories can be tested empirically, and in recent decades a huge literature has developed that attempts to recast confirmation in Bayesian terms. Here these developments can be covered only briefly, and we refer to the entry on confirmation for further details and references.

Statistics has come to play an increasingly important role in the methodology of the experimental sciences from the 19 th century onwards. At that time, statistics and probability theory took on a methodological role as an analysis of inductive inference, and attempts to ground the rationality of induction in the axioms of probability theory have continued throughout the 20 th century and in to the present. Developments in the theory of statistics itself, meanwhile, have had a direct and immense influence on the experimental method, including methods for measuring the uncertainty of observations such as the Method of Least Squares developed by Legendre and Gauss in the early 19 th century, criteria for the rejection of outliers proposed by Peirce by the mid-19 th century, and the significance tests developed by Gosset (a.k.a. “Student”), Fisher, Neyman & Pearson and others in the 1920s and 1930s (see, e.g., Swijtink 1987 for a brief historical overview; and also the entry on C.S. Peirce ).

These developments within statistics then in turn led to a reflective discussion among both statisticians and philosophers of science on how to perceive the process of hypothesis testing: whether it was a rigorous statistical inference that could provide a numerical expression of the degree of confidence in the tested hypothesis, or if it should be seen as a decision between different courses of actions that also involved a value component. This led to a major controversy among Fisher on the one side and Neyman and Pearson on the other (see especially Fisher 1955, Neyman 1956 and Pearson 1955, and for analyses of the controversy, e.g., Howie 2002, Marks 2000, Lenhard 2006). On Fisher’s view, hypothesis testing was a methodology for when to accept or reject a statistical hypothesis, namely that a hypothesis should be rejected by evidence if this evidence would be unlikely relative to other possible outcomes, given the hypothesis were true. In contrast, on Neyman and Pearson’s view, the consequence of error also had to play a role when deciding between hypotheses. Introducing the distinction between the error of rejecting a true hypothesis (type I error) and accepting a false hypothesis (type II error), they argued that it depends on the consequences of the error to decide whether it is more important to avoid rejecting a true hypothesis or accepting a false one. Hence, Fisher aimed for a theory of inductive inference that enabled a numerical expression of confidence in a hypothesis. To him, the important point was the search for truth, not utility. In contrast, the Neyman-Pearson approach provided a strategy of inductive behaviour for deciding between different courses of action. Here, the important point was not whether a hypothesis was true, but whether one should act as if it was.

Similar discussions are found in the philosophical literature. On the one side, Churchman (1948) and Rudner (1953) argued that because scientific hypotheses can never be completely verified, a complete analysis of the methods of scientific inference includes ethical judgments in which the scientists must decide whether the evidence is sufficiently strong or that the probability is sufficiently high to warrant the acceptance of the hypothesis, which again will depend on the importance of making a mistake in accepting or rejecting the hypothesis. Others, such as Jeffrey (1956) and Levi (1960) disagreed and instead defended a value-neutral view of science on which scientists should bracket their attitudes, preferences, temperament, and values when assessing the correctness of their inferences. For more details on this value-free ideal in the philosophy of science and its historical development, see Douglas (2009) and Howard (2003). For a broad set of case studies examining the role of values in science, see e.g. Elliott & Richards 2017.

In recent decades, philosophical discussions of the evaluation of probabilistic hypotheses by statistical inference have largely focused on Bayesianism that understands probability as a measure of a person’s degree of belief in an event, given the available information, and frequentism that instead understands probability as a long-run frequency of a repeatable event. Hence, for Bayesians probabilities refer to a state of knowledge, whereas for frequentists probabilities refer to frequencies of events (see, e.g., Sober 2008, chapter 1 for a detailed introduction to Bayesianism and frequentism as well as to likelihoodism). Bayesianism aims at providing a quantifiable, algorithmic representation of belief revision, where belief revision is a function of prior beliefs (i.e., background knowledge) and incoming evidence. Bayesianism employs a rule based on Bayes’ theorem, a theorem of the probability calculus which relates conditional probabilities. The probability that a particular hypothesis is true is interpreted as a degree of belief, or credence, of the scientist. There will also be a probability and a degree of belief that a hypothesis will be true conditional on a piece of evidence (an observation, say) being true. Bayesianism proscribes that it is rational for the scientist to update their belief in the hypothesis to that conditional probability should it turn out that the evidence is, in fact, observed (see, e.g., Sprenger & Hartmann 2019 for a comprehensive treatment of Bayesian philosophy of science). Originating in the work of Neyman and Person, frequentism aims at providing the tools for reducing long-run error rates, such as the error-statistical approach developed by Mayo (1996) that focuses on how experimenters can avoid both type I and type II errors by building up a repertoire of procedures that detect errors if and only if they are present. Both Bayesianism and frequentism have developed over time, they are interpreted in different ways by its various proponents, and their relations to previous criticism to attempts at defining scientific method are seen differently by proponents and critics. The literature, surveys, reviews and criticism in this area are vast and the reader is referred to the entries on Bayesian epistemology and confirmation .

5. Method in Practice

Attention to scientific practice, as we have seen, is not itself new. However, the turn to practice in the philosophy of science of late can be seen as a correction to the pessimism with respect to method in philosophy of science in later parts of the 20 th century, and as an attempted reconciliation between sociological and rationalist explanations of scientific knowledge. Much of this work sees method as detailed and context specific problem-solving procedures, and methodological analyses to be at the same time descriptive, critical and advisory (see Nickles 1987 for an exposition of this view). The following section contains a survey of some of the practice focuses. In this section we turn fully to topics rather than chronology.

A problem with the distinction between the contexts of discovery and justification that figured so prominently in philosophy of science in the first half of the 20 th century (see section 2 ) is that no such distinction can be clearly seen in scientific activity (see Arabatzis 2006). Thus, in recent decades, it has been recognized that study of conceptual innovation and change should not be confined to psychology and sociology of science, but are also important aspects of scientific practice which philosophy of science should address (see also the entry on scientific discovery ). Looking for the practices that drive conceptual innovation has led philosophers to examine both the reasoning practices of scientists and the wide realm of experimental practices that are not directed narrowly at testing hypotheses, that is, exploratory experimentation.

Examining the reasoning practices of historical and contemporary scientists, Nersessian (2008) has argued that new scientific concepts are constructed as solutions to specific problems by systematic reasoning, and that of analogy, visual representation and thought-experimentation are among the important reasoning practices employed. These ubiquitous forms of reasoning are reliable—but also fallible—methods of conceptual development and change. On her account, model-based reasoning consists of cycles of construction, simulation, evaluation and adaption of models that serve as interim interpretations of the target problem to be solved. Often, this process will lead to modifications or extensions, and a new cycle of simulation and evaluation. However, Nersessian also emphasizes that

creative model-based reasoning cannot be applied as a simple recipe, is not always productive of solutions, and even its most exemplary usages can lead to incorrect solutions. (Nersessian 2008: 11)

Thus, while on the one hand she agrees with many previous philosophers that there is no logic of discovery, discoveries can derive from reasoned processes, such that a large and integral part of scientific practice is

the creation of concepts through which to comprehend, structure, and communicate about physical phenomena …. (Nersessian 1987: 11)

Similarly, work on heuristics for discovery and theory construction by scholars such as Darden (1991) and Bechtel & Richardson (1993) present science as problem solving and investigate scientific problem solving as a special case of problem-solving in general. Drawing largely on cases from the biological sciences, much of their focus has been on reasoning strategies for the generation, evaluation, and revision of mechanistic explanations of complex systems.

Addressing another aspect of the context distinction, namely the traditional view that the primary role of experiments is to test theoretical hypotheses according to the H-D model, other philosophers of science have argued for additional roles that experiments can play. The notion of exploratory experimentation was introduced to describe experiments driven by the desire to obtain empirical regularities and to develop concepts and classifications in which these regularities can be described (Steinle 1997, 2002; Burian 1997; Waters 2007)). However the difference between theory driven experimentation and exploratory experimentation should not be seen as a sharp distinction. Theory driven experiments are not always directed at testing hypothesis, but may also be directed at various kinds of fact-gathering, such as determining numerical parameters. Vice versa , exploratory experiments are usually informed by theory in various ways and are therefore not theory-free. Instead, in exploratory experiments phenomena are investigated without first limiting the possible outcomes of the experiment on the basis of extant theory about the phenomena.

The development of high throughput instrumentation in molecular biology and neighbouring fields has given rise to a special type of exploratory experimentation that collects and analyses very large amounts of data, and these new ‘omics’ disciplines are often said to represent a break with the ideal of hypothesis-driven science (Burian 2007; Elliott 2007; Waters 2007; O’Malley 2007) and instead described as data-driven research (Leonelli 2012; Strasser 2012) or as a special kind of “convenience experimentation” in which many experiments are done simply because they are extraordinarily convenient to perform (Krohs 2012).

5.2 Computer methods and ‘new ways’ of doing science

The field of omics just described is possible because of the ability of computers to process, in a reasonable amount of time, the huge quantities of data required. Computers allow for more elaborate experimentation (higher speed, better filtering, more variables, sophisticated coordination and control), but also, through modelling and simulations, might constitute a form of experimentation themselves. Here, too, we can pose a version of the general question of method versus practice: does the practice of using computers fundamentally change scientific method, or merely provide a more efficient means of implementing standard methods?

Because computers can be used to automate measurements, quantifications, calculations, and statistical analyses where, for practical reasons, these operations cannot be otherwise carried out, many of the steps involved in reaching a conclusion on the basis of an experiment are now made inside a “black box”, without the direct involvement or awareness of a human. This has epistemological implications, regarding what we can know, and how we can know it. To have confidence in the results, computer methods are therefore subjected to tests of verification and validation.

The distinction between verification and validation is easiest to characterize in the case of computer simulations. In a typical computer simulation scenario computers are used to numerically integrate differential equations for which no analytic solution is available. The equations are part of the model the scientist uses to represent a phenomenon or system under investigation. Verifying a computer simulation means checking that the equations of the model are being correctly approximated. Validating a simulation means checking that the equations of the model are adequate for the inferences one wants to make on the basis of that model.

A number of issues related to computer simulations have been raised. The identification of validity and verification as the testing methods has been criticized. Oreskes et al. (1994) raise concerns that “validiation”, because it suggests deductive inference, might lead to over-confidence in the results of simulations. The distinction itself is probably too clean, since actual practice in the testing of simulations mixes and moves back and forth between the two (Weissart 1997; Parker 2008a; Winsberg 2010). Computer simulations do seem to have a non-inductive character, given that the principles by which they operate are built in by the programmers, and any results of the simulation follow from those in-built principles in such a way that those results could, in principle, be deduced from the program code and its inputs. The status of simulations as experiments has therefore been examined (Kaufmann and Smarr 1993; Humphreys 1995; Hughes 1999; Norton and Suppe 2001). This literature considers the epistemology of these experiments: what we can learn by simulation, and also the kinds of justifications which can be given in applying that knowledge to the “real” world. (Mayo 1996; Parker 2008b). As pointed out, part of the advantage of computer simulation derives from the fact that huge numbers of calculations can be carried out without requiring direct observation by the experimenter/​simulator. At the same time, many of these calculations are approximations to the calculations which would be performed first-hand in an ideal situation. Both factors introduce uncertainties into the inferences drawn from what is observed in the simulation.

For many of the reasons described above, computer simulations do not seem to belong clearly to either the experimental or theoretical domain. Rather, they seem to crucially involve aspects of both. This has led some authors, such as Fox Keller (2003: 200) to argue that we ought to consider computer simulation a “qualitatively different way of doing science”. The literature in general tends to follow Kaufmann and Smarr (1993) in referring to computer simulation as a “third way” for scientific methodology (theoretical reasoning and experimental practice are the first two ways.). It should also be noted that the debates around these issues have tended to focus on the form of computer simulation typical in the physical sciences, where models are based on dynamical equations. Other forms of simulation might not have the same problems, or have problems of their own (see the entry on computer simulations in science ).

In recent years, the rapid development of machine learning techniques has prompted some scholars to suggest that the scientific method has become “obsolete” (Anderson 2008, Carrol and Goodstein 2009). This has resulted in an intense debate on the relative merit of data-driven and hypothesis-driven research (for samples, see e.g. Mazzocchi 2015 or Succi and Coveney 2018). For a detailed treatment of this topic, we refer to the entry scientific research and big data .

6. Discourse on scientific method

Despite philosophical disagreements, the idea of the scientific method still figures prominently in contemporary discourse on many different topics, both within science and in society at large. Often, reference to scientific method is used in ways that convey either the legend of a single, universal method characteristic of all science, or grants to a particular method or set of methods privilege as a special ‘gold standard’, often with reference to particular philosophers to vindicate the claims. Discourse on scientific method also typically arises when there is a need to distinguish between science and other activities, or for justifying the special status conveyed to science. In these areas, the philosophical attempts at identifying a set of methods characteristic for scientific endeavors are closely related to the philosophy of science’s classical problem of demarcation (see the entry on science and pseudo-science ) and to the philosophical analysis of the social dimension of scientific knowledge and the role of science in democratic society.

One of the settings in which the legend of a single, universal scientific method has been particularly strong is science education (see, e.g., Bauer 1992; McComas 1996; Wivagg & Allchin 2002). [ 5 ] Often, ‘the scientific method’ is presented in textbooks and educational web pages as a fixed four or five step procedure starting from observations and description of a phenomenon and progressing over formulation of a hypothesis which explains the phenomenon, designing and conducting experiments to test the hypothesis, analyzing the results, and ending with drawing a conclusion. Such references to a universal scientific method can be found in educational material at all levels of science education (Blachowicz 2009), and numerous studies have shown that the idea of a general and universal scientific method often form part of both students’ and teachers’ conception of science (see, e.g., Aikenhead 1987; Osborne et al. 2003). In response, it has been argued that science education need to focus more on teaching about the nature of science, although views have differed on whether this is best done through student-led investigations, contemporary cases, or historical cases (Allchin, Andersen & Nielsen 2014)

Although occasionally phrased with reference to the H-D method, important historical roots of the legend in science education of a single, universal scientific method are the American philosopher and psychologist Dewey’s account of inquiry in How We Think (1910) and the British mathematician Karl Pearson’s account of science in Grammar of Science (1892). On Dewey’s account, inquiry is divided into the five steps of

(i) a felt difficulty, (ii) its location and definition, (iii) suggestion of a possible solution, (iv) development by reasoning of the bearing of the suggestions, (v) further observation and experiment leading to its acceptance or rejection. (Dewey 1910: 72)

Similarly, on Pearson’s account, scientific investigations start with measurement of data and observation of their correction and sequence from which scientific laws can be discovered with the aid of creative imagination. These laws have to be subject to criticism, and their final acceptance will have equal validity for “all normally constituted minds”. Both Dewey’s and Pearson’s accounts should be seen as generalized abstractions of inquiry and not restricted to the realm of science—although both Dewey and Pearson referred to their respective accounts as ‘the scientific method’.

Occasionally, scientists make sweeping statements about a simple and distinct scientific method, as exemplified by Feynman’s simplified version of a conjectures and refutations method presented, for example, in the last of his 1964 Cornell Messenger lectures. [ 6 ] However, just as often scientists have come to the same conclusion as recent philosophy of science that there is not any unique, easily described scientific method. For example, the physicist and Nobel Laureate Weinberg described in the paper “The Methods of Science … And Those By Which We Live” (1995) how

The fact that the standards of scientific success shift with time does not only make the philosophy of science difficult; it also raises problems for the public understanding of science. We do not have a fixed scientific method to rally around and defend. (1995: 8)

Interview studies with scientists on their conception of method shows that scientists often find it hard to figure out whether available evidence confirms their hypothesis, and that there are no direct translations between general ideas about method and specific strategies to guide how research is conducted (Schickore & Hangel 2019, Hangel & Schickore 2017)

Reference to the scientific method has also often been used to argue for the scientific nature or special status of a particular activity. Philosophical positions that argue for a simple and unique scientific method as a criterion of demarcation, such as Popperian falsification, have often attracted practitioners who felt that they had a need to defend their domain of practice. For example, references to conjectures and refutation as the scientific method are abundant in much of the literature on complementary and alternative medicine (CAM)—alongside the competing position that CAM, as an alternative to conventional biomedicine, needs to develop its own methodology different from that of science.

Also within mainstream science, reference to the scientific method is used in arguments regarding the internal hierarchy of disciplines and domains. A frequently seen argument is that research based on the H-D method is superior to research based on induction from observations because in deductive inferences the conclusion follows necessarily from the premises. (See, e.g., Parascandola 1998 for an analysis of how this argument has been made to downgrade epidemiology compared to the laboratory sciences.) Similarly, based on an examination of the practices of major funding institutions such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Biomedical Sciences Research Practices (BBSRC) in the UK, O’Malley et al. (2009) have argued that funding agencies seem to have a tendency to adhere to the view that the primary activity of science is to test hypotheses, while descriptive and exploratory research is seen as merely preparatory activities that are valuable only insofar as they fuel hypothesis-driven research.

In some areas of science, scholarly publications are structured in a way that may convey the impression of a neat and linear process of inquiry from stating a question, devising the methods by which to answer it, collecting the data, to drawing a conclusion from the analysis of data. For example, the codified format of publications in most biomedical journals known as the IMRAD format (Introduction, Method, Results, Analysis, Discussion) is explicitly described by the journal editors as “not an arbitrary publication format but rather a direct reflection of the process of scientific discovery” (see the so-called “Vancouver Recommendations”, ICMJE 2013: 11). However, scientific publications do not in general reflect the process by which the reported scientific results were produced. For example, under the provocative title “Is the scientific paper a fraud?”, Medawar argued that scientific papers generally misrepresent how the results have been produced (Medawar 1963/1996). Similar views have been advanced by philosophers, historians and sociologists of science (Gilbert 1976; Holmes 1987; Knorr-Cetina 1981; Schickore 2008; Suppe 1998) who have argued that scientists’ experimental practices are messy and often do not follow any recognizable pattern. Publications of research results, they argue, are retrospective reconstructions of these activities that often do not preserve the temporal order or the logic of these activities, but are instead often constructed in order to screen off potential criticism (see Schickore 2008 for a review of this work).

Philosophical positions on the scientific method have also made it into the court room, especially in the US where judges have drawn on philosophy of science in deciding when to confer special status to scientific expert testimony. A key case is Daubert vs Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals (92–102, 509 U.S. 579, 1993). In this case, the Supreme Court argued in its 1993 ruling that trial judges must ensure that expert testimony is reliable, and that in doing this the court must look at the expert’s methodology to determine whether the proffered evidence is actually scientific knowledge. Further, referring to works of Popper and Hempel the court stated that

ordinarily, a key question to be answered in determining whether a theory or technique is scientific knowledge … is whether it can be (and has been) tested. (Justice Blackmun, Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals; see Other Internet Resources for a link to the opinion)

But as argued by Haack (2005a,b, 2010) and by Foster & Hubner (1999), by equating the question of whether a piece of testimony is reliable with the question whether it is scientific as indicated by a special methodology, the court was producing an inconsistent mixture of Popper’s and Hempel’s philosophies, and this has later led to considerable confusion in subsequent case rulings that drew on the Daubert case (see Haack 2010 for a detailed exposition).

The difficulties around identifying the methods of science are also reflected in the difficulties of identifying scientific misconduct in the form of improper application of the method or methods of science. One of the first and most influential attempts at defining misconduct in science was the US definition from 1989 that defined misconduct as

fabrication, falsification, plagiarism, or other practices that seriously deviate from those that are commonly accepted within the scientific community . (Code of Federal Regulations, part 50, subpart A., August 8, 1989, italics added)

However, the “other practices that seriously deviate” clause was heavily criticized because it could be used to suppress creative or novel science. For example, the National Academy of Science stated in their report Responsible Science (1992) that it

wishes to discourage the possibility that a misconduct complaint could be lodged against scientists based solely on their use of novel or unorthodox research methods. (NAS: 27)

This clause was therefore later removed from the definition. For an entry into the key philosophical literature on conduct in science, see Shamoo & Resnick (2009).

The question of the source of the success of science has been at the core of philosophy since the beginning of modern science. If viewed as a matter of epistemology more generally, scientific method is a part of the entire history of philosophy. Over that time, science and whatever methods its practitioners may employ have changed dramatically. Today, many philosophers have taken up the banners of pluralism or of practice to focus on what are, in effect, fine-grained and contextually limited examinations of scientific method. Others hope to shift perspectives in order to provide a renewed general account of what characterizes the activity we call science.

One such perspective has been offered recently by Hoyningen-Huene (2008, 2013), who argues from the history of philosophy of science that after three lengthy phases of characterizing science by its method, we are now in a phase where the belief in the existence of a positive scientific method has eroded and what has been left to characterize science is only its fallibility. First was a phase from Plato and Aristotle up until the 17 th century where the specificity of scientific knowledge was seen in its absolute certainty established by proof from evident axioms; next was a phase up to the mid-19 th century in which the means to establish the certainty of scientific knowledge had been generalized to include inductive procedures as well. In the third phase, which lasted until the last decades of the 20 th century, it was recognized that empirical knowledge was fallible, but it was still granted a special status due to its distinctive mode of production. But now in the fourth phase, according to Hoyningen-Huene, historical and philosophical studies have shown how “scientific methods with the characteristics as posited in the second and third phase do not exist” (2008: 168) and there is no longer any consensus among philosophers and historians of science about the nature of science. For Hoyningen-Huene, this is too negative a stance, and he therefore urges the question about the nature of science anew. His own answer to this question is that “scientific knowledge differs from other kinds of knowledge, especially everyday knowledge, primarily by being more systematic” (Hoyningen-Huene 2013: 14). Systematicity can have several different dimensions: among them are more systematic descriptions, explanations, predictions, defense of knowledge claims, epistemic connectedness, ideal of completeness, knowledge generation, representation of knowledge and critical discourse. Hence, what characterizes science is the greater care in excluding possible alternative explanations, the more detailed elaboration with respect to data on which predictions are based, the greater care in detecting and eliminating sources of error, the more articulate connections to other pieces of knowledge, etc. On this position, what characterizes science is not that the methods employed are unique to science, but that the methods are more carefully employed.

Another, similar approach has been offered by Haack (2003). She sets off, similar to Hoyningen-Huene, from a dissatisfaction with the recent clash between what she calls Old Deferentialism and New Cynicism. The Old Deferentialist position is that science progressed inductively by accumulating true theories confirmed by empirical evidence or deductively by testing conjectures against basic statements; while the New Cynics position is that science has no epistemic authority and no uniquely rational method and is merely just politics. Haack insists that contrary to the views of the New Cynics, there are objective epistemic standards, and there is something epistemologically special about science, even though the Old Deferentialists pictured this in a wrong way. Instead, she offers a new Critical Commonsensist account on which standards of good, strong, supportive evidence and well-conducted, honest, thorough and imaginative inquiry are not exclusive to the sciences, but the standards by which we judge all inquirers. In this sense, science does not differ in kind from other kinds of inquiry, but it may differ in the degree to which it requires broad and detailed background knowledge and a familiarity with a technical vocabulary that only specialists may possess.

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  • Blackmun opinion , in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals (92–102), 509 U.S. 579 (1993).
  • Scientific Method at philpapers. Darrell Rowbottom (ed.).
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Scientific Method

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The scientific method is the process by which scientists of all fields attempt to explain the phenomena in the world. It is how science is conducted--through experimentation. Generally, the scientific method refers to a set of steps whereby a scientist can form a conjecture (the hypothesis) for why something functions the way it does and then test their hypothesis. It is an empirical process; it uses real world data to prove the hypothesis. There is no exact set of \(x\) number of steps to conduct scientific experiments, or even some exact \(y\) number of experiments, but the general process involves making an observation, forming an hypothesis, forming a prediction from that hypothesis, and then experimental testing. The scientific method isn't limited to the physical or biological sciences, but also the social sciences, mathematics, computing and other fields where experimentation can be used to prove beliefs.

We could observe that whenever a fire is smothered, it goes out. For instance a small fire that is covered with a blanket is extinguished. We could hypothesize that the reason for this is that fire requires some gas in our air to form and remain a flame. We could then use a vacuum chamber to test this theory. We would predict that outside of a vacuum, a fire could be lit but inside of a vacuum, with no air, that the fire would not ignite. If we were to test this theory, perhaps in multiple vacuums with multiple forms of tinder/fuel (wood, paper, petrol, etc.) and multiple means of ignition, we would notice that the fire never ignites. If we wished, we could further refine our hypothesis, suggesting that fire can only ignite if there is sufficient oxygen in the air. This we'd also test in the vacuum chamber, by pulling out all the air, then adding in different gases. We would notice that the fire would only ignite in the presence of oxygen or an oxidizing agent . It is possible that other, incorrect hypothesis could have been initially formed--such as smothering decreases the surface area the fire has, and could try making different sized fires--and been proven incorrect. Also, it is important to note that this single set of experiments is not enough to turn this hypothesis into a theorem. More experimentation and discovery would be necessary.

The scientific method also refers to the fact that science is ongoing . In some cases scientists continue to collect data to prove and disprove old theories. Or in other cases, scientists have hypothesis for why the universe behaves the way it does but are unable to gather sufficient data to prove their hypothesis. For instance, until recent discoveries at LIGO scientists could not confirm what happened when two black holes collided, although they believed (and it was confirmed in February 2016) that colliding black holes produced gravitational waves .

Steps of the Scientific Method

Falsifiability and why "theory" doesn't mean "untrue", avoiding bias, history and philosophy of science.

The scientific method is often presented as a set of steps, but not always with the same number or type of steps. However, philosophers of science generally agree that any presentation of the scientific method should have the following four steps:

  • Observe - Sometimes referred to as characterizing, defining, or measuring, experimenters first witness some aspect of the universe, for instance, an apple falling. These observations then form a question, such as "Why do objects fall to the earth?"
  • Hypothesize - Scientists then come up with a theory as to why this happens, for instance, the mass of the earth attracts the apple from the air to the ground.
  • Predict - Using the hypothesis, a scientist calculates what measurable data points they believe will result in a given experiment, for instance an apple at a height of \(9.8\) meters should fall to the ground in \(\sqrt{2}\) seconds, or should be at a velocity of \(9.8\sqrt{2}\) m/s the moment before it hits the ground.
  • Experiment - A test is run to determine if the prediction was correct.

With the notion that repeating these steps is also important. If a prediction is proven to be incorrect then alternative predictions and tests are conducted. Maybe even a new hypothesis could be formulated. Even if the hypothesis and prediction are correct, additional predictions and tests need to be run to best support any theory.

While this process can be explained or categorized differently than this, all formulations of the scientific method have empirical observations, a testable hypothesis, and testing data to prove or disprove that hypothesis. Crucial to this, is that an experimenter searches for experiments that produce the most unlikely results and experiments that are least likely to be coincidental . Hypotheses that produce highly unlikely predictions, in situations where little else could explain the result, are more likely to be true. Bayes' theorem can be used to show which predictions are more or less unlikely given some evidence, i.e. which proven predictions are "stronger" than others. For instance, the theory of evolution has been supported by the consistency of DNA across species whose phenomenology are significantly different. Despite the diversity of plant and animal species on Earth, the majority of our DNA is the same, and only 20 amino acids are the building blocks for every known living organism. It would be highly unlikely that vastly different forms of life have the same building blocks after millions, if not billions, of years of external manipulation, if not for some common origin.

The word "theory" can lead to confusion about how true some scientific principle is. Under the scientific method scientists use the word "theory" even for key principles (like gravity) that have been rigorously proven by modern science. This is because the scientific community believes it is important that hypothesis be falsifiable . Falsifiability refers to the fact that theories have been tested in experiments where they could have failed but did not. So when scientists refer to a principle as a theory, for instance Einstein's theory of relativity , they're actually referring to a hypothesis that has undergone the scientific method, i.e. that has been tested and proven true.

For instance, scientists sometimes refer to evolution as the "theory of evolution," which has contributed to the erroneous belief that the modern scientific theory of evolution is false. Really what the "theory of evolution" refers to is the ample research, testing, and empirical evidence that all consistently prove evolution to be true.

That isn't to say that theories can't be later disproven. Part of the advantage to the scientific method is that no theory is ever considered an unbreakable rule. Some theories seem correct given experiments that are run at the time they're created, but are proven wrong as new methods of experimentation are conducted. For instance, Einstein himself believed that the universe was static, not growing or contracting. That was later proven to be false and replaced with a theory that the universe was expanding (the Friedmann-LeMaitre model of an expanding universe , which Einstein himself accepted), but that its rate of expansion was slowing down. This was, in turn, also proven incorrect. The rate of the universe's expansion is speeding up. [1] Generally though, theories are modified over time, they are shown to be true under certain conditions, or partly true, and the strength of a theory may also be related to how long it has held up, without modification, to scrutiny.

Peer review: In modern science, experimenters present both their findings and their methodology for review by their peers, other talented scientists and experimenters. This is done before a work is published, but also publication itself is considered a way of inviting peer review. By sharing and disseminating work widely, the greatest number of others can review the work and offer criticism as needed.

Reproducibility: Related to peer review, is the notion that the results from experiments should be possible to reproduce. If one scientist conducts some experiment, others should be able to conduct the same experiment on their own and achieve the same results. Reproducible experiments strengthen theories.

Double-Blind Testing: Primarily used in medical , psychological , and behavioral economic testing, double-blind testing refers to having a test and control group, and running the experiment such that the person conducting the experiment does not know which is which. For instance, in testing the efficacy of a new drug, a pharmaceutical company may have a medical practitioner administer the new drug to one third of the test population, an existing known drug to another third, and a placebo, meaning something that isn't a drug but seems like it, to the remaining third of the test population, but without the nurse knowing which drug is which. The practitioner would then, still blind, track the progress of the entire testing population, gathering data about each test subject.

Double-blind studies are done to avoid biases that manipulate data, like controlling for the placebo effect where just giving a patient a drug that they perceive will be a cure can be causally linked to a decrease in symptoms. This positive causal effect occurs even with the drug that shouldn't affect the patient in anyway, when it is a sugar pill, or water, so long as the patient believes they are receiving a cure. Also double-blind studies help prevent observation bias, where the administrator of the drug may expect the population who received the new drug to outperform others, and so many inadvertently rate their progress better than other test groups.

A pharmaceutical company has a new drug they want to test to determine its efficacy. They have a hypothesis that this drug is super effective at curing a disease. Which of the following experiments/results best reflects the principles of the scientific method? Which is most scientific?

A) They gave 100 patients with the disease the drug and 100 patients a placebo from a population of 100,000 with the disease, they strictly controlled these patient's diet, limited other medication, and 77 of the subjects reported that their happiness improved significantly.

B) They found a remote island with an indigenous population that's genetically different from other populations and where 200 patients have the disease. They gave 100 patients on the island the drug and 100 a placebo. They strictly controlled these patient's diet, limited other medication, and found that 84 of the test patients had higher red and white blood cell count than the control group, and lower incidents of mortality from the disease than non-island populations.

C) They gave 100 patients with the disease the drug and 100 patients a placebo from a population of 100,000 with the disease, they strictly controlled these patient's diet, limited other medication, and found that only 5 of the test patients had higher red and white blood cell count than the control group, with no other changes in health.

D) They gave 100 patients with the disease the drug and 100 patients a placebo from a population of 100,000 with the disease, allowed both patients to consume and medicate in whatever way those patients desired, and found that 68 of the test patients had higher red and white blood cell count than the control group, with faster speed-to-recovery.

The theory of the scientific method has evolved over time, with modern historians pointing to Aristotle as an originator, and many looking to Thomas Kuhn's seminal work "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" as a key influence on current conceptions of the method.

Aristotle classified reasoning into three types:

  • Abductive - Also known as guessing, abductive reasoning supposes that the most likely inference is correct. While this isn't rigorous, a well-informed individual is likely to make good guesses, and many significant theories of science have developed first from a guess.
  • Deductive - Deductive reasoning uses premises to reach conclusions. One of the most famous examples being "All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal."
  • Inductive - Inductive reasoning is the one preferred by scientists, and can be considered an early version of the scientific method. Namely, inductive reasoning uses empirical observations to make inferences, and accounts for probability in those inferences. A theory reached by induction is said to be more or less likely to be true, stronger or weaker.

The philosophy of science refers to the logic and thinking behind the scientific method. It questions what makes something scientifically valid. For instance, the scientific method assumes that reality is objective, and that explanations exist for all phenomena humans can observe.

Thomas Kuhn's book is foundational to the philosophy of science and the way sociologists and historians look at science through the ages. In it, he popularized the term "paradigm shift" and promoted a historical understanding of scientific discovery not as a linear accumulation of understanding, but as a set of scientific revolutions that "shift" humanity's understanding. Further, paradigm shifts open up whole fields (for instance quantum mechanics , behavioral economics or genetics ) with new approaches to understand the universe. Also what scientists consider true is not purely objective, but based on the consensus of the scientific community.

  • Nobelprize.org, . The Nobel Prize in Physics 2011 Saul Perlmutter, Brian P. Schmidt, Adam G. Riess . Retrieved October 24th 2016, from http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/2011/

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show/hide words to know

Biased: when someone presents only one viewpoint. Biased articles do not give all the facts and often mislead the reader.

Conclusion: what a person decides based on information they get through research including experiments.

Method: following a certain set of steps to make something, or find an answer to a question. Like baking a pie or fixing the tire on a bicycle.

Research: looking for answers to questions using tools like the scientific method.

What is the Scientific Method?

If you have ever seen something going on and wondered why or how it happened, you have started down the road to discovery. If you continue your journey, you are likely to guess at some of your own answers for your question. Even further along the road you might think of ways to find out if your answers are correct. At this point, whether you know it or not, you are following a path that scientists call the scientific method. If you do some experiments to see if your answer is correct and write down what you learn in a report, you have pretty much completed everything a scientist might do in a laboratory or out in the field when doing research. In fact, the scientific method works well for many things that don’t usually seem so scientific.

The Flashlight Mystery...

Like a crime detective, you can use the elements of the scientific method to find the answer to everyday problems. For example you pick up a flashlight and turn it on, but the light does not work. You have observed that the light does not work. You ask the question, Why doesn't it work? With what you already know about flashlights, you might guess (hypothesize) that the batteries are dead. You say to yourself, if I buy new batteries and replace the old ones in the flashlight, the light should work. To test this prediction you replace the old batteries with new ones from the store. You click the switch on. Does the flashlight work? No?

What else could be the answer? You go back and hypothesize that it might be a broken light bulb. Your new prediction is if you replace the broken light bulb the flashlight will work. It’s time to go back to the store and buy a new light bulb. Now you test this new hypothesis and prediction by replacing the bulb in the flashlight. You flip the switch again. The flashlight lights up. Success!

If this were a scientific project, you would also have written down the results of your tests and a conclusion of your experiments. The results of only the light bulb hypothesis stood up to the test, and we had to reject the battery hypothesis. You would also communicate what you learned to others with a published report, article, or scientific paper.

More to the Mystery...

Not all questions can be answered with only two experiments. It can often take a lot more work and tests to find an answer. Even when you find an answer it may not always be the only answer to the question. This is one reason that different scientists will work on the same question and do their own experiments.

In our flashlight example, you might never get the light to turn on. This probably means you haven’t made enough different guesses (hypotheses) to test the problem. Were the new batteries in the right way? Was the switch rusty, or maybe a wire is broken. Think of all the possible guesses you could test.

No matter what the question, you can use the scientific method to guide you towards an answer. Even those questions that do not seem to be scientific can be solved using this process. Like with the flashlight, you might need to repeat several of the elements of the scientific method to find an answer. No matter how complex the diagram, the scientific method will include the following pieces in order to be complete.

The elements of the scientific method can be used by anyone to help answer questions. Even though these elements can be used in an ordered manner, they do not have to follow the same order. It is better to think of the scientific method as fluid process that can take different paths depending on the situation. Just be sure to incorporate all of the elements when seeking unbiased answers. You may also need to go back a few steps (or a few times) to test several different hypotheses before you come to a conclusion. Click on the image to see other versions of the scientific method. 

  • Observation – seeing, hearing, touching…
  • Asking a question – why or how?
  • Hypothesis – a fancy name for an educated guess about what causes something to happen.
  • Prediction – what you think will happen if…
  • Testing – this is where you get to experiment and be creative.
  • Conclusion – decide how your test results relate to your predictions.
  • Communicate – share your results so others can learn from your work.

Other Parts of the Scientific Method…

Now that you have an idea of how the scientific method works there are a few other things to learn so that you will be able test out your new skills and test your hypotheses.

  • Control - A group that is similar to other groups but is left alone so that it can be compared to see what happened to the other groups that are tested.
  • Data - the numbers and measurements you get from the test in a scientific experiment.
  • Independent variable - a variable that you change as part of your experiment. It is important to only change one independent variable for each experiment. 
  • Dependent variable - a variable that changes when the independent variable is changed.
  • Controlled Variable - these are variables that you never change in your experiment.

Practicing Observations and Wondering How and Why...

It is really hard not to notice things around us and wonder about them. This is how the scientific method begins, by observing and wondering why and how. Why do leaves on trees in many parts of the world turn from green to red, orange, or yellow and fall to the ground when winter comes? How does a spider move around their web without getting stuck like its victims? Both of these questions start with observing something and asking questions. The next time you see something and ask yourself, “I wonder why that does that, or how can it do that?” try out your new detective skills, and see what answer you can find. 

Try Out Your Detective Skills

Now that you have the basics of the scientific method, why not test your skills? The Science Detectives Training Room will test your problem solving ability. Step inside and see if you can escape the room. While you are there, look around and see what other interesting things might be waiting. We think you find this game a great way to learn the scientific method. In fact, we bet you will discover that you already use the scientific method and didn't even know it.

After you've learned the basics of being a detective, practice those skills in The Case of the Mystery Images . While you are there, pay attention to what's around you as you figure out just what is happening in the mystery photos that surround you.

Ready for your next challenge? Try Science Detectives: Case of the Mystery Images for even more mysteries to solve. Take your scientific abilities one step further by making observations and formulating hypothesis about the mysterious images you find within.

Acknowledgements:  

We thank John Alcock for his feedback and suggestions on this article.

Science Detectives - Mystery Room Escape was produced in partnership with the Arizona Science Education Collaborative (ASEC) and funded by ASU Women & Philanthropy.

Flashlight image via Wikimedia Commons - The Oxygen Team

Read more about: Using the Scientific Method to Solve Mysteries

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  • Article: Using the Scientific Method to Solve Mysteries
  • Author(s): CJ Kazilek and David Pearson
  • Publisher: Arizona State University School of Life Sciences Ask A Biologist
  • Site name: ASU - Ask A Biologist
  • Date published: October 8, 2009
  • Date accessed: May 29, 2024
  • Link: https://askabiologist.asu.edu/explore/scientific-method

CJ Kazilek and David Pearson. (2009, October 08). Using the Scientific Method to Solve Mysteries . ASU - Ask A Biologist. Retrieved May 29, 2024 from https://askabiologist.asu.edu/explore/scientific-method

Chicago Manual of Style

CJ Kazilek and David Pearson. "Using the Scientific Method to Solve Mysteries ". ASU - Ask A Biologist. 08 October, 2009. https://askabiologist.asu.edu/explore/scientific-method

MLA 2017 Style

CJ Kazilek and David Pearson. "Using the Scientific Method to Solve Mysteries ". ASU - Ask A Biologist. 08 Oct 2009. ASU - Ask A Biologist, Web. 29 May 2024. https://askabiologist.asu.edu/explore/scientific-method

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1.1: The Scientific Method

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  • Page ID 24832

  • Laci M. Gerhart-Barley
  • College of Biological Sciences - UC Davis

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Biologists, and other scientists, study the world using a formal process referred to as the scientific method . The scientific method was first documented by Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626) of England, and can be applied to almost all fields of study. The scientific method is founded upon observation, which then leads to a question and the development of a hypothesis which answers that question. The scientist can then design an experiment to test the proposed hypothesis, and makes a prediction for the outcome of the experiment, if the proposed hypothesis is true. In the following sections, we will use a simple example of the scientific method, based on a simple observation of the classroom being too warm.

Proposing a Hypothesis

A hypothesis is one possible answer to the question that arises from observations. In our example, the observation is that the classroom is too warm, and the question taht arises from that observation is why the classroom is too warm. One (of many) hypotheses is “The classroom is warm because no one turned on the air conditioning.” Another hypothesis could be “The classroom is warm because the heating is set too high."

Once a hypothesis has been developed, the scientist then makes a prediction, which is similar to a hypothesis, but generally follows the format of “If . . . then . . . .” In our example, a prediction arising from the first hypothesis might be, “ If the air-conditioning is turned on, then the classroom will no longer be too warm.” The initial steps of the scientific method (observation to prediction) are outlined in Figure 1.1.1.

Fig1_1_1.png

Testing a Hypothesis

A valid hypothesis must be testable. It should also be falsifiable, meaning that it can be disproven by experimental results. Importantly, science does not claim to “prove” anything because scientific understandings are always subject to modification with further information. To test a hypothesis, a researcher will conduct one or more experiments designed to eliminate one or more of the hypotheses. Each experiment will have one or more variables and one or more controls. A variable is any part of the experiment that can vary or change during the experiment. The control group contains every feature of the experimental group except it is not given the manipulation that tests the hypothesis. Therefore, if the results of the experimental group differ from the control group, the difference must be due to the hypothesized manipulation, rather than some outside factor. Look for the variables and controls in the examples that follow. To test the first hypothesis, the student would find out if the air conditioning is on. If the air conditioning is turned on but does not work, then the hypothesis that the air conditioning was not turned on should be rejected. To test the second hypothesis, the student could check the settings of the classroom heating unit. If the heating unit is set at an appropriate temperature, then this hypothesis should also be rejected. Each hypothesis should be tested by carrying out appropriate experiments. Be aware that rejecting one hypothesis does not determine whether or not the other hypotheses can be accepted; it simply eliminates one hypothesis that is not valid. Using the scientific method, the hypotheses that are inconsistent with experimental data are rejected.

While this “warm classroom” example is based on observational results, other hypotheses and experiments might have clearer controls. For instance, a student might attend class on Monday and realize they had difficulty concentrating on the lecture. One observation to explain this occurrence might be, “When I eat breakfast before class, I am better able to pay attention.” The student could then design an experiment with a control to test this hypothesis.

Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

In the example below, the scientific method is used to solve an everyday problem. Order the scientific method steps (numbered items) with the process of solving the everyday problem (lettered items). Based on the results of the experiment, is the hypothesis correct? If it is incorrect, propose some alternative hypotheses.

  • Observation
  • Hypothesis (answer)
  • The car battery is dead.
  • If the battery is dead, then the headlights also will not turn on.
  • My car won't start.
  • I turn on the headlights.
  • The headlights work.
  • Why does the car not start?

C, F, A, B, D, E

The scientific method may seem overly rigid and structured; however, there is flexibility. Often, the process of science is not as linear as the scientific method suggests and experimental results frequently inspire a new approach, highlight patterns or themes in the study system, or generate entirely new and different observations and questions. In our warm classroom example, testing the air conditioning hypothesis could, for example, unearth evidence of faulty wiring in the classroom. This observation could then inspire additional questions related to other classroom electrical concerns such as inconsistent wireless internet access, faulty audio/visual equipment functioning, non-functional power outlets, flickering lighting, etc. Notice, too, that the scientific method can be applied to solving problems that aren’t necessarily scientific in nature.

This section was adapted from OpenStax Chapter 1:2 The Process of Science

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A Guide to Using the Scientific Method in Everyday Life

scientific method of problem solving is

The  scientific method —the process used by scientists to understand the natural world—has the merit of investigating natural phenomena in a rigorous manner. Working from hypotheses, scientists draw conclusions based on empirical data. These data are validated on large-scale numbers and take into consideration the intrinsic variability of the real world. For people unfamiliar with its intrinsic jargon and formalities, science may seem esoteric. And this is a huge problem: science invites criticism because it is not easily understood. So why is it important, then, that every person understand how science is done?

Because the scientific method is, first of all, a matter of logical reasoning and only afterwards, a procedure to be applied in a laboratory.

Individuals without training in logical reasoning are more easily victims of distorted perspectives about themselves and the world. An example is represented by the so-called “ cognitive biases ”—systematic mistakes that individuals make when they try to think rationally, and which lead to erroneous or inaccurate conclusions. People can easily  overestimate the relevance  of their own behaviors and choices. They can  lack the ability to self-estimate the quality of their performances and thoughts . Unconsciously, they could even end up selecting only the arguments  that support their hypothesis or beliefs . This is why the scientific framework should be conceived not only as a mechanism for understanding the natural world, but also as a framework for engaging in logical reasoning and discussion.

A brief history of the scientific method

The scientific method has its roots in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Philosophers Francis Bacon and René Descartes are often credited with formalizing the scientific method because they contrasted the idea that research should be guided by metaphysical pre-conceived concepts of the nature of reality—a position that, at the time,  was highly supported by their colleagues . In essence, Bacon thought that  inductive reasoning based on empirical observation was critical to the formulation of hypotheses  and the  generation of new understanding : general or universal principles describing how nature works are derived only from observations of recurring phenomena and data recorded from them. The inductive method was used, for example, by the scientist Rudolf Virchow to formulate the third principle of the notorious  cell theory , according to which every cell derives from a pre-existing one. The rationale behind this conclusion is that because all observations of cell behavior show that cells are only derived from other cells, this assertion must be always true. 

Inductive reasoning, however, is not immune to mistakes and limitations. Referring back to cell theory, there may be rare occasions in which a cell does not arise from a pre-existing one, even though we haven’t observed it yet—our observations on cell behavior, although numerous, can still benefit from additional observations to either refute or support the conclusion that all cells arise from pre-existing ones. And this is where limited observations can lead to erroneous conclusions reasoned inductively. In another example, if one never has seen a swan that is not white, they might conclude that all swans are white, even when we know that black swans do exist, however rare they may be.  

The universally accepted scientific method, as it is used in science laboratories today, is grounded in  hypothetico-deductive reasoning . Research progresses via iterative empirical testing of formulated, testable hypotheses (formulated through inductive reasoning). A testable hypothesis is one that can be rejected (falsified) by empirical observations, a concept known as the  principle of falsification . Initially, ideas and conjectures are formulated. Experiments are then performed to test them. If the body of evidence fails to reject the hypothesis, the hypothesis stands. It stands however until and unless another (even singular) empirical observation falsifies it. However, just as with inductive reasoning, hypothetico-deductive reasoning is not immune to pitfalls—assumptions built into hypotheses can be shown to be false, thereby nullifying previously unrejected hypotheses. The bottom line is that science does not work to prove anything about the natural world. Instead, it builds hypotheses that explain the natural world and then attempts to find the hole in the reasoning (i.e., it works to disprove things about the natural world).

How do scientists test hypotheses?

Controlled experiments

The word “experiment” can be misleading because it implies a lack of control over the process. Therefore, it is important to understand that science uses controlled experiments in order to test hypotheses and contribute new knowledge. So what exactly is a controlled experiment, then? 

Let us take a practical example. Our starting hypothesis is the following: we have a novel drug that we think inhibits the division of cells, meaning that it prevents one cell from dividing into two cells (recall the description of cell theory above). To test this hypothesis, we could treat some cells with the drug on a plate that contains nutrients and fuel required for their survival and division (a standard cell biology assay). If the drug works as expected, the cells should stop dividing. This type of drug might be useful, for example, in treating cancers because slowing or stopping the division of cells would result in the slowing or stopping of tumor growth.

Although this experiment is relatively easy to do, the mere process of doing science means that several experimental variables (like temperature of the cells or drug, dosage, and so on) could play a major role in the experiment. This could result in a failed experiment when the drug actually does work, or it could give the appearance that the drug is working when it is not. Given that these variables cannot be eliminated, scientists always run control experiments in parallel to the real ones, so that the effects of these other variables can be determined.  Control experiments  are designed so that all variables, with the exception of the one under investigation, are kept constant. In simple terms, the conditions must be identical between the control and the actual experiment.     

Coming back to our example, when a drug is administered it is not pure. Often, it is dissolved in a solvent like water or oil. Therefore, the perfect control to the actual experiment would be to administer pure solvent (without the added drug) at the same time and with the same tools, where all other experimental variables (like temperature, as mentioned above) are the same between the two (Figure 1). Any difference in effect on cell division in the actual experiment here can be attributed to an effect of the drug because the effects of the solvent were controlled.

scientific method of problem solving is

In order to provide evidence of the quality of a single, specific experiment, it needs to be performed multiple times in the same experimental conditions. We call these multiple experiments “replicates” of the experiment (Figure 2). The more replicates of the same experiment, the more confident the scientist can be about the conclusions of that experiment under the given conditions. However, multiple replicates under the same experimental conditions  are of no help  when scientists aim at acquiring more empirical evidence to support their hypothesis. Instead, they need  independent experiments  (Figure 3), in their own lab and in other labs across the world, to validate their results. 

scientific method of problem solving is

Often times, especially when a given experiment has been repeated and its outcome is not fully clear, it is better  to find alternative experimental assays  to test the hypothesis. 

scientific method of problem solving is

Applying the scientific approach to everyday life

So, what can we take from the scientific approach to apply to our everyday lives?

A few weeks ago, I had an agitated conversation with a bunch of friends concerning the following question: What is the definition of intelligence?

Defining “intelligence” is not easy. At the beginning of the conversation, everybody had a different, “personal” conception of intelligence in mind, which – tacitly – implied that the conversation could have taken several different directions. We realized rather soon that someone thought that an intelligent person is whoever is able to adapt faster to new situations; someone else thought that an intelligent person is whoever is able to deal with other people and empathize with them. Personally, I thought that an intelligent person is whoever displays high cognitive skills, especially in abstract reasoning. 

The scientific method has the merit of providing a reference system, with precise protocols and rules to follow. Remember: experiments must be reproducible, which means that an independent scientists in a different laboratory, when provided with the same equipment and protocols, should get comparable results.  Fruitful conversations as well need precise language, a kind of reference vocabulary everybody should agree upon, in order to discuss about the same “content”. This is something we often forget, something that was somehow missing at the opening of the aforementioned conversation: even among friends, we should always agree on premises, and define them in a rigorous manner, so that they are the same for everybody. When speaking about “intelligence”, we must all make sure we understand meaning and context of the vocabulary adopted in the debate (Figure 4, point 1).  This is the first step of “controlling” a conversation.

There is another downside that a discussion well-grounded in a scientific framework would avoid. The mistake is not structuring the debate so that all its elements, except for the one under investigation, are kept constant (Figure 4, point 2). This is particularly true when people aim at making comparisons between groups to support their claim. For example, they may try to define what intelligence is by comparing the  achievements in life of different individuals: “Stephen Hawking is a brilliant example of intelligence because of his great contribution to the physics of black holes”. This statement does not help to define what intelligence is, simply because it compares Stephen Hawking, a famous and exceptional physicist, to any other person, who statistically speaking, knows nothing about physics. Hawking first went to the University of Oxford, then he moved to the University of Cambridge. He was in contact with the most influential physicists on Earth. Other people were not. All of this, of course, does not disprove Hawking’s intelligence; but from a logical and methodological point of view, given the multitude of variables included in this comparison, it cannot prove it. Thus, the sentence “Stephen Hawking is a brilliant example of intelligence because of his great contribution to the physics of black holes” is not a valid argument to describe what intelligence is. If we really intend to approximate a definition of intelligence, Steven Hawking should be compared to other physicists, even better if they were Hawking’s classmates at the time of college, and colleagues afterwards during years of academic research. 

In simple terms, as scientists do in the lab, while debating we should try to compare groups of elements that display identical, or highly similar, features. As previously mentioned, all variables – except for the one under investigation – must be kept constant.

This insightful piece  presents a detailed analysis of how and why science can help to develop critical thinking.

scientific method of problem solving is

In a nutshell

Here is how to approach a daily conversation in a rigorous, scientific manner:

  • First discuss about the reference vocabulary, then discuss about the content of the discussion.  Think about a researcher who is writing down an experimental protocol that will be used by thousands of other scientists in varying continents. If the protocol is rigorously written, all scientists using it should get comparable experimental outcomes. In science this means reproducible knowledge, in daily life this means fruitful conversations in which individuals are on the same page. 
  • Adopt “controlled” arguments to support your claims.  When making comparisons between groups, visualize two blank scenarios. As you start to add details to both of them, you have two options. If your aim is to hide a specific detail, the better is to design the two scenarios in a completely different manner—it is to increase the variables. But if your intention is to help the observer to isolate a specific detail, the better is to design identical scenarios, with the exception of the intended detail—it is therefore to keep most of the variables constant. This is precisely how scientists ideate adequate experiments to isolate new pieces of knowledge, and how individuals should orchestrate their thoughts in order to test them and facilitate their comprehension to others.   

Not only the scientific method should offer individuals an elitist way to investigate reality, but also an accessible tool to properly reason and discuss about it.

Edited by Jason Organ, PhD, Indiana University School of Medicine.

scientific method of problem solving is

Simone is a molecular biologist on the verge of obtaining a doctoral title at the University of Ulm, Germany. He is Vice-Director at Culturico (https://culturico.com/), where his writings span from Literature to Sociology, from Philosophy to Science. His writings recently appeared in Psychology Today, openDemocracy, Splice Today, Merion West, Uncommon Ground and The Society Pages. Follow Simone on Twitter: @simredaelli

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This has to be the best article I have ever read on Scientific Thinking. I am presently writing a treatise on how Scientific thinking can be adopted to entreat all situations.And how, a 4 year old child can be taught to adopt Scientific thinking, so that, the child can look at situations that bothers her and she could try to think about that situation by formulating the right questions. She may not have the tools to find right answers? But, forming questions by using right technique ? May just make her find a way to put her mind to rest even at that level. That is why, 4 year olds are often “eerily: (!)intelligent, I have iften been intimidated and plain embarrassed to see an intelligent and well spoken 4 year old deal with celibrity ! Of course, there are a lot of variables that have to be kept in mind in order to train children in such controlled thinking environment, as the screenplay of little Sheldon shows. Thanking the author with all my heart – #ershadspeak #wearescience #weareallscientists Ershad Khandker

Simone, thank you for this article. I have the idea that I want to apply what I learned in Biology to everyday life. You addressed this issue, and have given some basic steps in using the scientific method.

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Solving Everyday Problems with the Scientific Method: Thinking Like a Scientist (Second Edition)

This book describes how one can use The Scientific Method to solve everyday problems including medical ailments, health issues, money management, traveling, shopping, cooking, household chores, etc. It illustrates how to exploit the information collected from our five senses, how to solve problems when no information is available for the present problem situation, how to increase our chances of success by redefining a problem, and how to extrapolate our capabilities by seeing a relationship among heretofore unrelated concepts. One should formulate a hypothesis as early as possible in order to have a sense of direction regarding which path to follow. Occasionally, by making wild conjectures, creative solutions can transpire. However, hypotheses need to be well-tested. Through this way, The Scientific Method can help readers solve problems in both familiar and unfamiliar situations. Containing real-life examples of how various problems are solved — for instance, how some observant patients cure their own illnesses when medical experts have failed — this book will train readers to observe what others may have missed and conceive what others may not have contemplated. With practice, they will be able to solve more problems than they could previously imagine. In this second edition, the authors have added some more theories which they hope can help in solving everyday problems. At the same time, they have updated the book by including quite a few examples which they think are interesting. Readership: General public interested in self-help books; undergraduates majoring in education and behavioral psychology; graduates and researchers with research interests in problem solving, creativity and scientific research methodology.

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1.4: The Scientific Method- How Chemists Think

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Learning Objectives

  • Identify the components of the scientific method.

Scientists search for answers to questions and solutions to problems by using a procedure called the scientific method. This procedure consists of making observations, formulating hypotheses, and designing experiments; which leads to additional observations, hypotheses, and experiments in repeated cycles (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)).

1.4.jpg

Step 1: Make observations

Observations can be qualitative or quantitative. Qualitative observations describe properties or occurrences in ways that do not rely on numbers. Examples of qualitative observations include the following: "the outside air temperature is cooler during the winter season," "table salt is a crystalline solid," "sulfur crystals are yellow," and "dissolving a penny in dilute nitric acid forms a blue solution and a brown gas." Quantitative observations are measurements, which by definition consist of both a number and a unit. Examples of quantitative observations include the following: "the melting point of crystalline sulfur is 115.21° Celsius," and "35.9 grams of table salt—the chemical name of which is sodium chloride—dissolve in 100 grams of water at 20° Celsius." For the question of the dinosaurs’ extinction, the initial observation was quantitative: iridium concentrations in sediments dating to 66 million years ago were 20–160 times higher than normal.

Step 2: Formulate a hypothesis

After deciding to learn more about an observation or a set of observations, scientists generally begin an investigation by forming a hypothesis, a tentative explanation for the observation(s). The hypothesis may not be correct, but it puts the scientist’s understanding of the system being studied into a form that can be tested. For example, the observation that we experience alternating periods of light and darkness corresponding to observed movements of the sun, moon, clouds, and shadows is consistent with either one of two hypotheses:

  • Earth rotates on its axis every 24 hours, alternately exposing one side to the sun.
  • The sun revolves around Earth every 24 hours.

Suitable experiments can be designed to choose between these two alternatives. For the disappearance of the dinosaurs, the hypothesis was that the impact of a large extraterrestrial object caused their extinction. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), this hypothesis does not lend itself to direct testing by any obvious experiment, but scientists can collect additional data that either support or refute it.

Step 3: Design and perform experiments

After a hypothesis has been formed, scientists conduct experiments to test its validity. Experiments are systematic observations or measurements, preferably made under controlled conditions—that is—under conditions in which a single variable changes.

Step 4: Accept or modify the hypothesis

A properly designed and executed experiment enables a scientist to determine whether or not the original hypothesis is valid. If the hypothesis is valid, the scientist can proceed to step 5. In other cases, experiments often demonstrate that the hypothesis is incorrect or that it must be modified and requires further experimentation.

Step 5: Development into a law and/or theory

More experimental data are then collected and analyzed, at which point a scientist may begin to think that the results are sufficiently reproducible (i.e., dependable) to merit being summarized in a law, a verbal or mathematical description of a phenomenon that allows for general predictions. A law simply states what happens; it does not address the question of why.

One example of a law, the law of definite proportions , which was discovered by the French scientist Joseph Proust (1754–1826), states that a chemical substance always contains the same proportions of elements by mass. Thus, sodium chloride (table salt) always contains the same proportion by mass of sodium to chlorine, in this case 39.34% sodium and 60.66% chlorine by mass, and sucrose (table sugar) is always 42.11% carbon, 6.48% hydrogen, and 51.41% oxygen by mass.

Whereas a law states only what happens, a theory attempts to explain why nature behaves as it does. Laws are unlikely to change greatly over time unless a major experimental error is discovered. In contrast, a theory, by definition, is incomplete and imperfect, evolving with time to explain new facts as they are discovered.

Because scientists can enter the cycle shown in Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) at any point, the actual application of the scientific method to different topics can take many different forms. For example, a scientist may start with a hypothesis formed by reading about work done by others in the field, rather than by making direct observations.

Example \(\PageIndex{1}\)

Classify each statement as a law, a theory, an experiment, a hypothesis, an observation.

  • Ice always floats on liquid water.
  • Birds evolved from dinosaurs.
  • Hot air is less dense than cold air, probably because the components of hot air are moving more rapidly.
  • When 10 g of ice were added to 100 mL of water at 25°C, the temperature of the water decreased to 15.5°C after the ice melted.
  • The ingredients of Ivory soap were analyzed to see whether it really is 99.44% pure, as advertised.
  • This is a general statement of a relationship between the properties of liquid and solid water, so it is a law.
  • This is a possible explanation for the origin of birds, so it is a hypothesis.
  • This is a statement that tries to explain the relationship between the temperature and the density of air based on fundamental principles, so it is a theory.
  • The temperature is measured before and after a change is made in a system, so these are observations.
  • This is an analysis designed to test a hypothesis (in this case, the manufacturer’s claim of purity), so it is an experiment.

Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\) 

Classify each statement as a law, a theory, an experiment, a hypothesis, a qualitative observation, or a quantitative observation.

  • Measured amounts of acid were added to a Rolaids tablet to see whether it really “consumes 47 times its weight in excess stomach acid.”
  • Heat always flows from hot objects to cooler ones, not in the opposite direction.
  • The universe was formed by a massive explosion that propelled matter into a vacuum.
  • Michael Jordan is the greatest pure shooter to ever play professional basketball.
  • Limestone is relatively insoluble in water, but dissolves readily in dilute acid with the evolution of a gas.

The scientific method is a method of investigation involving experimentation and observation to acquire new knowledge, solve problems, and answer questions. The key steps in the scientific method include the following:

  • Step 1: Make observations.
  • Step 2: Formulate a hypothesis.
  • Step 3: Test the hypothesis through experimentation.
  • Step 4: Accept or modify the hypothesis.
  • Step 5: Develop into a law and/or a theory.

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For everyone whose relationship with mathematics is distant or broken, Jo Boaler , a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education (GSE), has ideas for repairing it. She particularly wants young people to feel comfortable with numbers from the start – to approach the subject with playfulness and curiosity, not anxiety or dread.

“Most people have only ever experienced what I call narrow mathematics – a set of procedures they need to follow, at speed,” Boaler says. “Mathematics should be flexible, conceptual, a place where we play with ideas and make connections. If we open it up and invite more creativity, more diverse thinking, we can completely transform the experience.”

Boaler, the Nomellini and Olivier Professor of Education at the GSE, is the co-founder and faculty director of Youcubed , a Stanford research center that provides resources for math learning that has reached more than 230 million students in over 140 countries. In 2013 Boaler, a former high school math teacher, produced How to Learn Math , the first massive open online course (MOOC) on mathematics education. She leads workshops and leadership summits for teachers and administrators, and her online courses have been taken by over a million users.

In her new book, Math-ish: Finding Creativity, Diversity, and Meaning in Mathematics , Boaler argues for a broad, inclusive approach to math education, offering strategies and activities for learners at any age. We spoke with her about why creativity is an important part of mathematics, the impact of representing numbers visually and physically, and how what she calls “ishing” a math problem can help students make better sense of the answer.

What do you mean by “math-ish” thinking?

It’s a way of thinking about numbers in the real world, which are usually imprecise estimates. If someone asks how old you are, how warm it is outside, how long it takes to drive to the airport – these are generally answered with what I call “ish” numbers, and that’s very different from the way we use and learn numbers in school.

In the book I share an example of a multiple-choice question from a nationwide exam where students are asked to estimate the sum of two fractions: 12/13 + 7/8. They’re given four choices for the closest answer: 1, 2, 19, or 21. Each of the fractions in the question is very close to 1, so the answer would be 2 – but the most common answer 13-year-olds gave was 19. The second most common was 21.

I’m not surprised, because when students learn fractions, they often don’t learn to think conceptually or to consider the relationship between the numerator or denominator. They learn rules about creating common denominators and adding or subtracting the numerators, without making sense of the fraction as a whole. But stepping back and judging whether a calculation is reasonable might be the most valuable mathematical skill a person can develop.

But don’t you also risk sending the message that mathematical precision isn’t important?

I’m not saying precision isn’t important. What I’m suggesting is that we ask students to estimate before they calculate, so when they come up with a precise answer, they’ll have a real sense for whether it makes sense. This also helps students learn how to move between big-picture and focused thinking, which are two different but equally important modes of reasoning.

Some people ask me, “Isn’t ‘ishing’ just estimating?” It is, but when we ask students to estimate, they often groan, thinking it’s yet another mathematical method. But when we ask them to “ish” a number, they're more willing to offer their thinking.

Ishing helps students develop a sense for numbers and shapes. It can help soften the sharp edges in mathematics, making it easier for kids to jump in and engage. It can buffer students against the dangers of perfectionism, which we know can be a damaging mindset. I think we all need a little more ish in our lives.

You also argue that mathematics should be taught in more visual ways. What do you mean by that?

For most people, mathematics is an almost entirely symbolic, numerical experience. Any visuals are usually sterile images in a textbook, showing bisecting angles, or circles divided into slices. But the way we function in life is by developing models of things in our minds. Take a stapler: Knowing what it looks like, what it feels and sounds like, how to interact with it, how it changes things – all of that contributes to our understanding of how it works.

There’s an activity we do with middle-school students where we show them an image of a 4 x 4 x 4 cm cube made up of smaller 1 cm cubes, like a Rubik’s Cube. The larger cube is dipped into a can of blue paint, and we ask the students, if they could take apart the little cubes, how many sides would be painted blue? Sometimes we give the students sugar cubes and have them physically build a larger 4 x 4 x 4 cube. This is an activity that leads into algebraic thinking.

Some years back we were interviewing students a year after they’d done that activity in our summer camp and asked what had stayed with them. One student said, “I’m in geometry class now, and I still remember that sugar cube, what it looked like and felt like.” His class had been asked to estimate the volume of their shoes, and he said he’d imagined his shoes filled with 1 cm sugar cubes in order to solve that question. He had built a mental model of a cube.

When we learn about cubes, most of us don’t get to see and manipulate them. When we learn about square roots, we don’t take squares and look at their diagonals. We just manipulate numbers.

I wonder if people consider the physical representations more appropriate for younger kids.

That’s the thing – elementary school teachers are amazing at giving kids those experiences, but it dies out in middle school, and by high school it’s all symbolic. There’s a myth that there’s a hierarchy of sophistication where you start out with visual and physical representations and then build up to the symbolic. But so much of high-level mathematical work now is visual. Here in Silicon Valley, if you look at Tesla engineers, they're drawing, they're sketching, they're building models, and nobody says that's elementary mathematics.

There’s an example in the book where you’ve asked students how they would calculate 38 x 5 in their heads, and they come up with several different ways of arriving at the same answer. The creativity is fascinating, but wouldn’t it be easier to teach students one standard method?

A depiction of various ways to calculate 38 x 5, numerically and visually.

A depiction of various ways to calculate 38 x 5, numerically and visually. | Courtesy Jo Boaler

That narrow, rigid version of mathematics where there’s only one right approach is what most students experience, and it’s a big part of why people have such math trauma. It keeps them from realizing the full range and power of mathematics. When you only have students blindly memorizing math facts, they’re not developing number sense. They don’t learn how to use numbers flexibly in different situations. It also makes students who think differently believe there’s something wrong with them.

When we open mathematics to acknowledge the different ways a concept or problem can be viewed, we also open the subject to many more students. Mathematical diversity, to me, is a concept that includes both the value of diversity in people and the diverse ways we can see and learn mathematics. When we bring those forms of diversity together, it’s powerful. If we want to value different ways of thinking and problem-solving in the world, we need to embrace mathematical diversity.

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  • Published: 30 May 2024

Distributed constrained combinatorial optimization leveraging hypergraph neural networks

  • Nasimeh Heydaribeni   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0001-8097-9885 1 ,
  • Xinrui Zhan 1 ,
  • Ruisi Zhang   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-9554-8073 1 ,
  • Tina Eliassi-Rad 2 &
  • Farinaz Koushanfar   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0003-0798-3794 1  

Nature Machine Intelligence ( 2024 ) Cite this article

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A preprint version of the article is available at arXiv.

Scalable addressing of high-dimensional constrained combinatorial optimization problems is a challenge that arises in several science and engineering disciplines. Recent work introduced novel applications of graph neural networks for solving quadratic-cost combinatorial optimization problems. However, effective utilization of models such as graph neural networks to address general problems with higher-order constraints is an unresolved challenge. This paper presents a framework, HypOp, that advances the state of the art for solving combinatorial optimization problems in several aspects: (1) it generalizes the prior results to higher-order constrained problems with arbitrary cost functions by leveraging hypergraph neural networks; (2) it enables scalability to larger problems by introducing a new distributed and parallel training architecture; (3) it demonstrates generalizability across different problem formulations by transferring knowledge within the same hypergraph; (4) it substantially boosts the solution accuracy compared with the prior art by suggesting a fine-tuning step using simulated annealing; and (5) it shows remarkable progress on numerous benchmark examples, including hypergraph MaxCut, satisfiability and resource allocation problems, with notable run-time improvements using a combination of fine-tuning and distributed training techniques. We showcase the application of HypOp in scientific discovery by solving a hypergraph MaxCut problem on a National Drug Code drug-substance hypergraph. Through extensive experimentation on various optimization problems, HypOp demonstrates superiority over existing unsupervised-learning-based solvers and generic optimization methods.

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scientific method of problem solving is

Data availability

In this paper, we used publicly available datasets of the American Physical Society 26 , NDC 29 , Gset 27 and SATLIB 31 , together with synthetic hypergraphs and graphs. The procedure under which the synthetic hypergraphs and graphs are generated is explained throughout the paper. Some examples of the synthetic hypergraphs are provided with the code at ref. 32 .

Code availability

The code has been made publicly available at ref. 32 . We used Python v.3.8 together with the following packages: torch v.2.1.1, tqdm v.4.66.1, h5py v.3.10.0, matplotlib v.3.8.2, networkx v.3.2.1, numpy v.1.21.6, pandas v.2.0.3, scipy v.1.11.4 and sklearn v.0.0. We used PyCharm v.2023.1.2 and Visual Studio Code v.1.83.1 software.

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Acknowledgements

We acknowledge the support of the MURI programme of the Army Research Office under award no. W911NF-21-1-0322 and the National Science Foundation AI Institute for Learning-Enabled Optimization at Scale under award no. 2112665.

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Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of California, San Diego, CA, USA

Nasimeh Heydaribeni, Xinrui Zhan, Ruisi Zhang & Farinaz Koushanfar

Khoury College of Computer Sciences, Northeastern University, Boston, MA, USA

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All authors participated in developing the ideas implemented in the article, with N.H. taking the lead. The code was developed by X.Z., N.H. and R.Z. Experiment design and execution were carried out by N.H. and R.Z. The paper was initially drafted by N.H. and was later revised by F.K. F.K. and T.E.-R. supervised the work and reviewed the paper.

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Correspondence to Nasimeh Heydaribeni .

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N.H., R.Z., T.E.-R. and F.K are listed as inventors on a patent application (serial number 63/641,601) on distributed constrained combinatorial optimization leveraging HyperGNNs. X.Z. declares no competing interests.

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Extended data

Extended data fig. 1 hypop vs. bipartite gnn..

Comparison of HypOp with the bipartite GNN baseline for hypergraph MaxCut problem on synthetic random hypergraphs. For almost the same performance (a), HypOp has a remarkably less run time compared to the bipartite GNN baseline (b). HypOp performance is presented as the average of the results from 10 sets of experiments, with the error region showing the standard deviation of the results.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Transfer Learning.

Transfer Learning using HypOp from MaxCut to MIS problem on random regular graphs with d = 3. For almost the same performance (a), transfer learning provides the results in almost no amount of time compared to vanilla training (b).

Extended Data Fig. 3 Transfer Learning.

Transfer Learning using HypOp from Hypergraph MaxCut to Hypergraph MinCut on synthetic random hypergraphs. Compared to vanilla training, similar or better results are obtained using transfer learning (a) in a considerable less amount of time (b). Note that in the context of the Hypergraph MinCut problem, smaller cut sizes are favored.

Supplementary information

Supplementary information.

Supplementary Discussion, Figs 1–6 and Tables 1–3.

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Heydaribeni, N., Zhan, X., Zhang, R. et al. Distributed constrained combinatorial optimization leveraging hypergraph neural networks. Nat Mach Intell (2024). https://doi.org/10.1038/s42256-024-00833-7

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scientific method of problem solving is

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    The six steps of the scientific method include: 1) asking a question about something you observe, 2) doing background research to learn what is already known about the topic, 3) constructing a hypothesis, 4) experimenting to test the hypothesis, 5) analyzing the data from the experiment and drawing conclusions, and 6) communicating the results ...

  15. Scientific Method

    The elements of the scientific method can be used by anyone to help answer questions. Even though these elements can be used in an ordered manner, they do not have to follow the same order. It is better to think of the scientific method as fluid process that can take different paths depending on the situation.

  16. PDF Scientific Method How do Scientists Solve problems

    Formulate student's ideas into a chart of steps in the scientific method. Determine with the students how a scientist solves problems. • Arrange students in working groups of 3 or 4. Students are to attempt to discover what is in their mystery box. • The group must decide on a procedure to determine the contents of their box and formulate ...

  17. 1.3: The Science of Biology

    The scientific method can be applied to almost all fields of study as a logical, rational, problem-solving method. Figure 1.3.1 1.3. 1: Sir Francis Bacon: Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) is credited with being the first to define the scientific method. The scientific process typically starts with an observation (often a problem to be solved ...

  18. 1.1: The Scientific Method

    In the example below, the scientific method is used to solve an everyday problem. Order the scientific method steps (numbered items) with the process of solving the everyday problem (lettered items). Based on the results of the experiment, is the hypothesis correct? If it is incorrect, propose some alternative hypotheses. Observation; Question

  19. A Guide to Using the Scientific Method in Everyday Life

    The scientific method—the process used by scientists to understand the natural world—has the merit of investigating natural phenomena in a rigorous manner. Working from hypotheses, scientists draw conclusions based on empirical data. These data are validated on large-scale numbers and take into consideration the intrinsic variability of the real world.

  20. The Scientific Method Of Problem Solving

    The Scientific Method Of Problem Solving. The Basic Steps: State the Problem - A problem can't be solved if it isn't understood.; Form a Hypothesis - This is a possible solution to the problem formed after gathering information about the problem.The term "research" is properly applied here. Test the Hypothesis - An experiment is performed to determine if the hypothesis solves the problem or not.

  21. Solving Everyday Problems with the Scientific Method: Thinking Like a

    This book describes how one can use The Scientific Method to solve everyday problems including medical ailments, health issues, money management, traveling, shopping, cooking, household chores, etc. ... graduates and researchers with research interests in problem solving, creativity and scientific research methodology. There are no customer ...

  22. 1.4: The Scientific Method- How Chemists Think

    The scientific method is a method of investigation involving experimentation and observation to acquire new knowledge, solve problems, and answer questions. The key steps in the scientific method include the following: Step 1: Make observations. Step 2: Formulate a hypothesis. Step 3: Test the hypothesis through experimentation.

  23. Problem solving

    Problem solving is the process of achieving a goal by overcoming obstacles, a frequent part of most activities. Problems in need of solutions range from simple personal tasks (e.g. how to turn on an appliance) to complex issues in business and technical fields. The former is an example of simple problem solving (SPS) addressing one issue ...

  24. The case for 'math-ish' thinking

    The creativity is fascinating, but wouldn't it be easier to teach students one standard method? ... If we want to value different ways of thinking and problem-solving in the world, we need to ...

  25. Distributed constrained combinatorial optimization leveraging ...

    In this section, we describe our method, called HypOp, for solving problem (1). An overview of our algorithm is provided in Fig. 2, with each component explained subsequently.The main steps of the ...