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1.2: The Scientific Method

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  • Modern science is based on the scientific method, a procedure that follows these steps:

    • Formulate a question or observe a problem
    • Apply objective experimentation and observation
    • Analyze collected data and Interpret results
    • Devise an evidence-based theory
    • Submit findings to peer review and/or publication

    This has a long history in human thought but was first fully formed by Ibn al-Haytham over 1,000 years ago. At the forefront of the scientific method are conclusions based on objective evidence, not opinion or hearsay [4].

    The diagram is cyclical.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Diagram of the cyclical nature of the scientific method.

    Step 1: Observation, Problem, or Research Question

    The procedure begins with identifying a problem or research question, such as a geological phenomenon that is not well explained in the scientific community’s collective knowledge. This step usually involves reviewing the scientific literature to understand previous studies that may be related to the question.

    Step 2: Hypothesis

    Once the problem or question is well defined, the scientist proposes a possible answer, a hypothesis, before conducting an experiment or fieldwork. This hypothesis must be specific, falsifiable, and should be based on other scientific work. Geologists often develop multiple working hypotheses because they usually cannot impose strict experimental controls or have limited opportunities to visit a field location [5; 6; 7].

    There are 12 images of the horse, at least one has the legs off the ground.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): A famous hypothesis: Leland Stanford wanted to know if a horse lifted all 4 legs off the ground during a gallop since the legs are too fast for the human eye to perceive it. These series of photographs by Eadweard Muybridge proved the horse, in fact, does have all four legs off the ground during the gallop.

    Step 3: Experiment and Hypothesis Revision

    The next step is developing an experiment that either supports or refutes the hypothesis. Many people mistakenly think experiments are only done in a lab; however, an experiment can consist of observing natural processes in the field. Regardless of what form an experiment takes, it always includes the systematic gathering of objective data. This data is interpreted to determine whether it contradicts or supports the hypothesis, which may be revised and tested again. When a hypothesis holds up under experimentation, it is ready to be shared with other experts in the field.

    The setup is like an hourglass, and the black pitch sits in it
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): An experiment at the University of Queensland has been going since 1927. A petroleum product called pitch, which is highly viscous, drips out of a funnel about once per decade.

    Step 4: Peer Review, Publication, and Publication

    Scientists share the results of their research by publishing articles in scientific journals, such as Science and Nature. Reputable journals and publishing houses will not publish an experimental study until they have determined its methods are scientifically rigorous and the conclusions are supported by evidence. Before an article is published, it undergoes a rigorous peer review by scientific experts who scrutinize the methods, results, and discussion. Once an article is published, other scientists may attempt to replicate the results. This replication is necessary to confirm the reliability of the study’s reported results. A hypothesis that seemed compelling in one study might be proven false in studies conducted by other scientists. New technology can be applied to published studies, which can aid in confirming or rejecting once-accepted ideas and/or hypotheses.

    Step 5: Theory Development

    In casual conversation, the word theory implies guesswork or speculation. In the language of science, an explanation or conclusion made in a theory carries much more weight because it is supported by experimental verification and widely accepted by the scientific community. After a hypothesis has been repeatedly tested for falsifiability through documented and independent studies, it eventually becomes accepted as a scientific theory.

    While a hypothesis provides a tentative explanation before an experiment, a theory is the best explanation after being confirmed by multiple independent experiments. Confirmation of a theory may take years, or even longer. For example, the continental drift hypothesis first proposed by Alfred Wegener in 1912 was initially dismissed. After decades of additional evidence collection by other scientists using more advanced technology, Wegener’s hypothesis was accepted and revised as the theory of plate tectonics.

    The theory of evolution by natural selection is another example. Originating from the work of Charles Darwin in the mid-19th century, the theory of evolution has withstood generations of scientific testing for falsifiability. While it has been updated and revised to accommodate knowledge gained by using modern technologies, the theory of evolution continues to be supported by the latest evidence.

    He is a male in a suit.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Wegener later in his life, ca. 1924-1930.