The Scientific Method: Reality or Myth?

By Brown, Ronald A.; Kumar, Alok | Journal of College Science Teaching, March-April 2013 | Go to article overview

The Scientific Method: Reality or Myth?


Brown, Ronald A., Kumar, Alok, Journal of College Science Teaching


The scientific method, which supposedly describes a general procedure for scientific investigation, has been recommended by some proponents for use in teaching introductory science courses, whereas others have suggested its use as a research methodology. In our experience, however, we have found basic conceptual and philosophical flaws in the procedure, casting serious doubt as to its credibility and usefulness in scientific inquiry. We have limited our comments to the physical sciences, namely physics and chemistry, partly because these are the areas of our expertise. Further, as argued by famed economics Nobel laureate Gunnar Myrdal, the basic experimental and theoretical approaches of the physical sciences cannot be transferred to other disciplines such as the social sciences (Myrdal, 1973).

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was an influential English natural philosopher who, in his book Novum Organum, established a format for scientific investigation using experimental science. He emphasized that the laws of experimental science had to be established as generalizations (hypotheses, theories) induced from experimental observations, along with the key proviso that a single exception disproves the generalization. This format has come down through history as the scientific method of today, generally defined by the idealized sequential steps: formulate the problem, collect data, generalize, predict, and verify.

The scientific method is an inductive process in which observations and experimental data yield hypotheses and theories. That is, the defining feature of the scientific method is that experiment leads to theory, not the reverse.

There are many important contrary examples in modern physics, particularly the works of Albert Einstein, in which theory takes precedence, or priority, over experiment. In 1917 Einstein established the basic theoretical foundation of stimulated emission of radiation that eventually led to the development of the optical or light laser (Light Amplification by the Stimulated Emission of Radiation) by Theodore Maiman in 1960. Another example in which theory came first is Einstein's general theory of relativity. This monumental work, published in 1916, proposed that matter can cause space to curve. The first experimental test was the prediction that a large mass such as our sun could deflect light, as seen during a solar eclipse. The experiment took place successfully 3 years later in 1919, verifying Einstein's prediction and thereby changing our conception of the universe. The issue here is that the scientific method is supposedly used to infer theories from experiment, as if these two aspects were in strictly sequential order. However, this is an invalid assumption in the previously mentioned cases, in which theory is necessary in order to understand how to design the confirming experiments.

There is a rich and fascinating history of serendipitous discoveries in various fields such as biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, archaeology, photography and medicine. Here, serendipity means the making of accidental discoveries in science. A sampling of such discoveries includes vaccination against smallpox, radioactivity, penicillin, safety glass, nuclear fission, the structure of benzene, Teflon, and x-rays. In 1961 Osamu Shimomura was trying to extract the substance that makes the Aequorea jellyfish glow. …

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