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WORKING TOWARDS SUSTAINABLE COMMUNITIES

Sustainability Matters 4: The Scientific Method

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Natural Laws of Energy and Matter

There is a set of natural laws in the universe that govern the physical realities we experience.

These laws represent the physical rules by which, like it or not, all living things, including humans must play. If you jump off a cliff, the fact that you don’t understand gravity does not protect you from the results. It does not matter if we understand the rules, we still have to play by them. To discern these rules, humans have developed a systematic process for figuring out the ways of nature. It is called the scientific method.

What Is the Scientific Method?

The universe does not come with an operator’s manual.

Since the 17th century, humans have developed a systematic way of acquiring knowledge about the natural world called the scientific method. Using the scientific method to determine the physical reality of the universe which allows us to understand some of the basic rules. As a result, we can predict some behaviors relating to the physical world.

The scientific method is a process that includes systematic observation, measurement and experimentation. The process starts with a question based on observation and an educated guess, called a hypothesis, as a potential answer to that question.

To test whether or not our hypothesis is correct, we can conduct one or more experiments, which usually involve some form of measurement and comparison.  This experimentation gives us further information about our hypothesis. The results may yield new information, which helps to explain what is being questioned.

From this information, a scientific theory may be developed. A theory is an idea which explains what we have observed and may predict future events.

Scientists use the term “theory” quite differently from non-scientists. In common vernacular, a “theory” is merely an idea. For example, one might theorize that the world behaves as it does because of divine interventions.  But that idea alone does not rise to the level of a scientific theory, which also starts with an idea, but which is supported by evidence garnered according to scientific methodology.

That said, even the most revered and time-tested scientific findings – for example, Einstein’s theory of relativity or Darwin’s theory of evolution – are considered “theories” because scientific humility is loath to call them “laws of nature.”  Instead, scientists always leave open the possibility of further refinements to be uncovered through application of the scientific method.

Sir Isaac Newton described a law of gravity in the 1680’s, and his ideas stand basically unchallenged. Until Einstein came along in the 1920’s, we could describe how gravity acted through a mathematical equation, but we did not understand why what we saw occurred.  Newton wasn’t wrong; his equations are still used to predict the movement of objects in space. They’ve been used to land space robots on tiny, far away asteroids. They just don’t explain the physical phenomenon they describe.

It is important to understand that the term “theory” is often used to describe unproven ideas spun from well-intended imaginations, such as the “theory” of intelligent design. This kind of use does not rise to the scientifically respected status of a theory which describes a fundamental principle of our physical world.

A scientific law describes an observed phenomenon; a theory explains it.

We may very well further refine Einstein’s theory on gravity further allowing us to better understand why what we observe occurs, but we can be relatively sure no revision to the law of gravity will allow us to fall up if we roll out of bed at night.

What does the process of the scientific method involve?

The scientific method is the most effective process found to date for discerning the objective reality of a property of nature.

 

  1. Begin with a question based on observation.
  2. Research the question to see what is already known.
  3. Make a hypothesis based on the first two steps.
  4. Test the hypothesis with an experiment.

 

When conducting the scientific method, make sure to keep these points in mind:

  • Determine if results of experiment are consistent with hypothesis.  If they are, communicate the results including procedure so the experiment can be repeated.
  • If results are not consistent with hypothesis, communicate results and issues. Go back to step 3, make adjustments and repeat until results and hypothesis are consistent.
  • If that consistency is obtained, the hypothesis may contribute to a theory, which explains a particular phenomenon.

Figure 2-1 (Need arrow from ‘results align…..” to communicate results)

Notice that whatever the result of the experiment, a key to the scientific method is the free flow of ideas and open communication.  Does the experiment actually test what it sets out to investigate?  Can an experiment be repeated?  Can different experiments be done which could prove or disprove the hypothesis?

These and the implications of research are all discussed in a process called peer review. A peer in this case means someone who is trained in the discipline being studied. It does not mean we go out on the street and ask a passerby about their opinion on a piece of research.

Real science is about empirically determining the physical realities of the universe, not about predetermined political or economic ideas.

No matter how much we don’t like the results of a fall, voting about the the results of jumping off a cliff will have no effect on the outcome. It is important to differentiate between information gained through science about the world and the human processes that determine our actions.  Science gives us information, human non-scientific processes determine what, if anything we will do with that information.  That said, it would be foolhardy to base a government policy on an idea that technology is going to find a cure for gravity.

The scientific method is dependent upon open communication.

In our modern world, the economic nature of competition and patents understandably limits sharing of information. This sometimes temporarily derails the pursuit of objective reality, but using the scientific method over the course of time can revise mistakes.

People with social, political and economic agendas sometimes support activities to promote predetermined ends and dress it up to look like science. This so-called research may ignore or change data that does not further their goal and may not be shared, communicated or vetted in the way we have discussed above.

Understand that determining objective reality through the scientific method does not imply or cause human action. Humans must take new information, analyze it and make policy determinations. Science gives us information; it is up to us to use that information.  Nothing in the scientific method dictates human actions.

Science and Hoaxes

Notice the emphasis on the communication of results. Results are often misleading, and require more experiments to clarify the question. There may occasionally be a deliberate deception or hoax, but more likely it was a mistake that was not caught.

In the next blog, I will outline an example of a famous hoax or mistake that occurred in 1989, which I believe shows the effectiveness of the scientific method as a system for discerning truth.

Annual New Years Eve Kayak Race
Jan 1, 2021
Winnipesaukee River
Franklin NH
Temperature 28 F

 

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