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The Scientific Method

Initial Publication Date: May 31, 2005

The Scientific Method makes an excellent introduction to an introductory science class, in part because it defines the nature of science, emphasizing the contrast between science and other forms of understanding. The following is an example of a lecture appropriate to the first day of class.

  • Start by having the students turn to their neighbors and come up with as many steps of the Scientific Method as they can remember. Give them two or three minutes, then call on different groups to give the steps one at a time.
  • Write the steps on the board as the students give them to you. They are likely to remember a great many steps, but may give them to you out of order.

Uses of Doubt and Faith

In any of the various formulations of the Scientific Method:

  • Any version of the scientific method, starts with observation.
    • This has been essential to the human understanding of the natural world all along.
    • Science shares this method with a number of other forms of natural philosophy.
  • What sets science apart are the next several steps: not so much identifying a question as formulating hypotheses, testable statements that answer the question (often phrased as predictions).
  • The experimenter must devise a test or experiment that can falsify one or more of the hypotheses, analyze the results objectively, and then discard the hypotheses that are falsified. The qualifications for a valid test are often controversial, even within mainstream science.
    • That does not mean that the surviving hypothesis or hypotheses (which may be exclusive of one another, in which case one or more are wrong!) have been "proven", only that they can be called theories, and be tested again and again against new hypotheses.

Ask the students to pair up again and work out what kinds of evidence can be gathered using tests or experiments. Collect and discuss the findings. Emphasize in this discussion that it must be physical and it must be accessible to other investigators. Private revelations and intuitions can not be used as scientific evidence.

Eocene whale skeleton with hind feet
Research on the Origin and Early Evolution of Whales (Cetacea) - http://www-personal.umich.edu/~gingeric/PDGwhales/Whales.htm (more info)

Ask the student pairs to list different kinds of knowledge one can gain without physical, widely-available/reproducable evidence. The ensuing discussion leads the class from science to art, religion, and philosophy.

Religious beliefs about the world are not technically science because they are based in faith instead of in skepticism, and thus do not make extensive use of the Scientific Method (i.e. Nickels et al., 1996 ).

  • The precepts of Intelligent Design are not testable hypotheses.
  • Likewise, the Young-Earth Creationist community insists that the Bible is literally true, so for them to try to falsify its precepts would be blasphemous.
    • Consequently, there is very little original experimental or field work done by the Young-Earth Creationists and much commenting on work done by evolutionary scientists.
    • Their ideas are supported by their faith rather than by scientific evidence. Since evolutionary scientists cannot really address the creationists' faith, the creationists are likely to ignore evolutionary scientists' criticisms of the details of creationism as irrelevant and unimportant.
  • Creationists and scientists are on different wavelengths. Their priorities, their methods, and their assumptions are very different.

Seeking Causes and Reasons

Other differences between science and religion, or for that matter, science and literary criticism, also relate to the philosophy behind the scientific method. It's worth having students think about these as well.

The Scientific Method is an extremely powerful and specialized tool, but it not useful only for questions that deal with phenomena or features that can be observed and measured. It is not useful for abstracts, ideas, or other unmeasureables such as:

  • Intentions or thoughts
  • Morality, ethics
  • Value or beauty
  • The existence or properties of postulated particles, fields, objects, etc. that are invisible, too small, or too hard to find for measurement, such as chi or yetis
    • With improved records and technologies for observation, some postulated entities can move from this category to that of items that science can deal with. It seems unlikely that all entities will eventually do so, though.

At this point, you can have the students once more turn to their neighbor and come up with questions: one that can be answered by science and one that cannot. Call on a number of pairs and have them report questions from each category.

A well-rounded education seeks to equip people with a variety of perspectives to help them get through life.

  • Students usually study literature, history, and other subjects as well as science to help them develop their intuitive and aesthetic faculties as well as their logical ones.
  • For example, in an environmental studies class, students should be asking ethical as well as scientific questions, and they should be aware that they cannot test moral rights and wrongs using the Scientific Method.
  • Other perspectives on scientific subjects are essential to making them part of a student's long-term useful knowledge base.

Science, religion, aesthetics, and other tools are used to answer different kinds of questions. Science refers to facts (although scientists differentiate between observations, data, statistics, conclusions, and many other kinds of facts) and seek proximate (immediate) causes, religion is about faith and the pursuit of values and of ultimate causes, or reasons.

You can conclude the session by stating that your science class deals with scientific reasoning and the kind of knowledge it gives us. Students are free to believe what they will, but for the purpose of reports, papers, and tests, they need to be able to discuss scientific methods and findings.


  • Nickels et al., 1996 outline an approach for teaching biology using evolution as the organizing theme and stressing the nature of science, particularly its limits.
  • Langen, 2004 stresses the nature of science in his basic biology class. He has his students apply scientific standards to creationist ideas and discuss whether these qualify as scientific theories.