What Is The Scientific Method?

The scientific method. I don’t think a single student has been able to get through all of school without hearing about the scientific method. Do you remember the list of steps you memorized? This version is the one I was most familiar with when I was younger:

And while this structure can be helpful at times, especially if the concept of a scientific method is totally new to you, it is not really an accurate representation of how science is done!

As the University of California, Berkeley, states:

“The simplified, linear scientific method implies that:

  1. Scientific studies follow an unvarying, linear recipe.
  2. Science is done by individual scientists working through these steps in isolation.
  3. Science has little room for creativity.”

Through my own experiences in science, I have not found a single one of these implications to be true! Science definitely doesn’t take a linear path, and requires a lot of creativity and collaboration. If you don’t take my word for it, here’s what Dr. Ellen Matson of the University of Rochester had to say:

“I think that being flexible and creative is the way to be a great scientist.”

I recently got the opportunity to sit down with Ellen and hear about the research her team is doing in synthesizing metal-oxide clusters to use in redox flow batteries. These batteries are designed to store energy from intermittent energy sources such as wind and solar energy so that when the sun isn’t shining, or the wind isn’t blowing, they can use renewable energy that has been stored in the redox flow batteries. I created this comic strip about their research!

 

 

Throughout our talk, Ellen was constantly acknowledging the collaboration necessary to do her work as a scientist. Some of her collaborators included her graduate students, a collaborating scientist in Buffalo who had expertise necessary for the project, and a friend who gave them the suggestion that their metal-oxide clusters would work well in a redox flow battery. This is much different than the conception of scientists as working in isolation without any contact with other humans! It’s clear that the old idea of the scientific method isn’t cutting it.

So I started looking at other representations of the scientific method that might be able to explain what was going on a bit better.

 

This representation of the scientific method is nice for a couple of reasons. First, science is shown as a cycle rather than a linear process. You go through as many iterations of the process as you need to. Your results always lead to new questions and ideas for tests. Second, the mini-loop of developing testable predictions, gathering data to test predictions, and refining, altering, expanding, or rejecting hypotheses better represents how your experiment may go wrong, or may lead you in a different direction than you planned, or help you create even more predictions.

 

 

This representation of the scientific method comes from the University of California, Berkeley’s Understanding Science. If you follow the link to their page, you can navigate around this interactive diagram. In this concept of the scientific method, you may find yourself traveling in any direction at any time! The path your science will take can not be predetermined. Like the last representation, Understanding Science also highlights the cyclical, iterative process of science. This is my favorite way of thinking about the scientific method that I have found.

As you can see, the scientific method is both more complex and more human than the first representation we saw may lead us to assume! I hope this helped you to see a more complete picture of what it means to “do science!”

 

(For some more information about Ellen’s research: Matson Lab / UofR Newscenter / Chemical Science

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