Introduction to Scientific Method

by Jonathan Lau

“Science is more than a body of knowledge, it’s a way of thinking.”
“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”

– Carl Sagan

When we were small, shortly after being born into this world, we often asked “why?” or “how?” to understand things around us. In other words, from our youth, we observed our surroundings, our families, and asked questions or formed a “hypothesis”, a fancy word derived from Greek “hypo-” meaning “under” and “-thesis” meaning “placing”, and together gives the meaning of “foundation”. This is a common human experience, to want to understand the foundation of our observable universe, the place we live in.

For example, you observe a newborn being introduced to you, maybe this is your younger sibling or cousin, and then you may ask an elder “where do babies come from?” This baby came out of seemingly nowhere. The elder may give you a story about a bird carrying the baby from the baby factory, but you feel skepticism, another word for feeling doubtfulness. A month ago, you remembered observing the mother of the newborn having a round, protruding belly. You now feel curious about that belly and you take a look at the mother’s abdomen, which is now surprisingly smaller! You say to that story-telling elder “I actually think babies come from the bellies of mothers!” and the elder looks surprised. You feel the urge to ask the mother about her belly and baby, and she admits she was at the hospital for labour and delivery, the birthing of her child. Now even more curious, you ask if the baby was once inside her belly, which made it so round and big in the past. The mother says yes. You go on to ask your own mother, your grandma, your aunties and they all say yes to your hypothesis. Over time, you observe more once round-bellied mothers showing off their newborns to you, and you also observe that their bellies shrunk after giving birth. You ask your friends Mary, Michael, and Maxine if they observed other mothers’ bellies shrinking after babies show up and they have the same observations as you! You now confidently confirm that babies do in fact come from mothers’ bellies, and not from some bird delivery service.

How strange and wondrous you think to yourself. You now have a million other questions to ask, and you discuss them with your friends, like “if mom grows the baby, what are fathers for?”, “how does the baby grow inside the belly?”, “does the baby grow where food gets digested? If so, why doesn’t the baby get digested?”, or “Is there a separate organ for the growth of the baby?”. You and your friends come up all sorts of explanations and you want to know if these explanations are right or wrong. You now think to yourself, “My friends and I did all of this work to collect this evidence, let’s write it all down for other kids to know!” You type it all up and post it to social media to share with your friends. Your classmate, Marcus, comments that he doesn’t agree with your findings because his mother’s belly did not shrink after his little sister was born. You find that a bit funny, and form new hypotheses to explain why his mother’s belly didn’t shrink. You respond with “maybe it takes a while for the belly to shrink”, “try looking again in a week”, but you don’t say “maybe your mom is overweight” – that would be rude to say publicly, perhaps say that in private.
Congratulations, you are now thinking like a (respectful) scientist!

“Wah? Wait, mi cyah believe it! It can’t be that easy! Cho man!”

Let me justify my claim. In that example, you:
(1) observed something, became curious about it, and started asking questions;
(2) heard an answer and felt skeptical about that answer;
(3) you formed a hypothesis to provide an alternative explanation;
(4) took action to gain more evidence to support or oppose your hypothesis;
(5) developed a method for confirming the evidence;
(6) worked with your friends to confirm the evidence;
(7) developed confidence in your hypothesis through evidence;
(8) generated even more curiosity, and started a discussion amongst you and your friends;
(9) documented your findings for others to see for themselves and either agree or be skeptical and give their own criticisms of your evidence; and
(10) responded to their criticisms, which affects how confidently you believe your evidence.

Science does have a lot of facts to memorize, especially from textbooks, but the nature of Science is not memorization. Rather, the scientific method is used to fulfill that curiosity inside all of us. We take for granted the facts we memorize, but understand that it was another human being, or teams of humans just like us, that worked very hard to prove them. However, scientific facts only stay facts if other people can repeatedly confirm they get the same results, no matter if they live in Jamaica, Haiti, Canada, China, or Antarctica! Most importantly, scientific findings must stand the test of time – does the evidence discovered centuries ago still remain true today? If I looked through a telescope pointed at Jupiter, would I still see its four moons that the father of Physics, Galileo Galilei, discovered 400 years ago? Yes, I would, except I would expect to see 63 more known smaller moons orbiting Jupiter discovered by others since then, meaning there could be more moons left to discover! This is the progress of science– discovering truth by building on previous discoveries.

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
– Isaac Newton, 1676

Scientific facts would be questioned if people got different conflicting results, giving people more reason to be skeptical. The scientific method is by no means perfect as some people lie about their evidence, some evidence never gets validated by other teams of scientists around the world, some experiments are just badly designed, or sometimes politics gets involved. However, right now, the scientific method is the best way for humankind to systematically understand the observable universe and reliably produce facts for the expansion of our knowledge. If scientists ever make a mistake, the great thing is that there will always be another group of scientists to challenge them. This keeps the pursuit of truth pure and exposed, and any flaws will eventually be detected by someone skeptical – perhaps it will be you!