Scientific Methods and Ongoing Modifications of Theories


By Don Lincoln, Ph.D., University of Notre Dame

Most people have encountered only a simplified description of a scientific method. How is then science really done? With loops and modifications, what are the steps that form an intricate interplay, with which the hypothesis generation phase comes in?

A photograph shows a scientist working in a laboratory
Modification is an inseparable part of scientific research for which every scientist is ready in case the data does not support the idea. (Image: joker1991/Shutterstock)

Modifications in Science

When the data is taken, predictions are needed, with which the observations can be compared. The data may not usually be cut and dry. For example, a theory of gravity saying that things hover above the ground which can then be proved false by dropping a ball. Most data is not conclusive, which might support or contradict an idea. We may observe something unexpected or the data might prove inconclusive. Or those might partially support the idea, causing to modify our hypothesis or change the experiment.

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Welcoming Critique

Once done with the experiment, others should be able to replicate it. There is a need to have others criticize it because even the best scientists can be complacent with their work, resulting in making mistakes and overlooking things. In order to have a bullet proof idea, it is important to have everything vetted by the most critical process. The goal of scientists should not be winning an argument but to be right which means being able to answer all the questions.

The Term, ‘Natural Philosopher’

Philosophy is a purer discipline than science and long before the word scientist was coined in 1833 by British philosopher, William Whewell, the term used for those studying science was ‘natural philosopher,’ implying that they learned about the philosophy of the natural world.

Portrait of British Philosopher,  William Whewell
Before William Whewell coined the term, Scientist, the term used for those studying science was natural philosopher. (Image: Wellcome Images/CC BY ( domain)

Whewell first used it anonymously in his 1834 review of Mary Somerville’s, ‘On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences.’ He used the term satirically as a complaint for the proliferation of terms used to describe other scholars. In an analogy of how the word artist implied a practitioner of art, a scientist would be one who pursued science. Whewell also coined the term physicist as one who studied physics.

Philosophy was regarded as the queen of intellectual disciplines, from which others originated. However, some implied that philosophers were somehow superior to other pursuers of knowledge, more in the manner of evolution.

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Philosophy and Science

Philosophy allowed science to rise, where science is the more interesting. There are two core ideas of philosophy, metaphysics and epistemology. Metaphysics is the study of existence, described as being concerned with two questions, which are ‘What exists?’ and ‘What is it like?’ Metaphysics is related to physics, with some deep questions about existence. For instance, whether there is an objective reality that exists without humans.

Existence of Perception

Some philosophers believed that there was no reality other than what existed in our perception, implying that the existence is in the perceiving, leading to the questions like, whether everyone sees red the same way. Nobody would know the answer to that in detail, meaning that the conversation continues. However, scientists made a choice in this debate to firmly be on the position that there is a reality out there and that would continue to exist.

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The term, epistemology, called the philosophy of knowledge. was concerned with questions of whether we could know anything for sure and what it meant to rationally believe in something. This was an important consideration for scientists, because they built their theories and models on the basis of observations.

Human face wire frame by agsandrew, is a representation of different reasoning of mind.
Scientists build their theories and models on the basis of observations, which in turn is based on epistemology, the philosophy of knowledge. (Image: agsandrew/Shutterstock)

If those observations were flawed, then their theories would also be, meaning that, at the very deepest and most philosophical level, they could never be sure of their science. For example, if someone was held in a giant vat, with all their sensory information fed to them, but they wouldn’t know anything at all and,their science would be totally wrong.

Quest for Science

The quest for what science is unstoppable, by moving on to make great progress in understanding of the universe by taking a leap of faith. That faith involves believing that our senses are most accurate representation of reality. Just because it rests on faith, science is not like religion. Faith is far more integral component in religion, important for those, who want to scientifically understand the universe and the fundamental limitations and weaknesses of this discipline.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the Misconceptions of Science. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

What Science Cannot Prove?

Another important aspect of science is the idea that it doesn’t actually prove that anything is true. Science always tells us, things are true, like the Sun rises everyday, the universe was caused in a ginormous explosion called the big bang.

The idea that science cannot prove things to be true, originated from the Austrian philosopher, Karl Popper, most influential philosophers of science in the 20th century who wrote extensively on scientific epistemology. It was his contention that the scientific method could not prove that something was true because of having a right scientific theory for the wrong reason.

Theory of Predictions

The explanation of the rising and setting of the Sun was held in Greek mythology when the Greek Titan Helios, drove his flaming chariot across the sky. A Greek scientist could predict the rising and setting of the Sun using that theory. According to the scientific method, he’d be justified in believing it, because of the correct predictions it made. The theory may also predict that, looking at the Sun with a suitable telescope, Titan and the chariot could be seen. However, that prediction wouldn’t be observed, and from that, Greek mythology could be disapproved.

Modifying Theories

In modern days, it is a comfortable idea that the rising of the Sun is due to the spinning of the Earth. However, if the Sun stopped to rise, the theory will need modification. The reason cited would be various, like, perhaps the Sun stopped burning, or aliens caused the Earth to stop spinning. More realistic examples would be, Newton’s law of gravity, which worked very well for hundreds of years of observations, but was replaced by Einstein’s theory of general relativity when Newton’s theory couldn’t reproduce measurements of the movements of Mercury.

The Core Idea of Science

Popper’s core idea was that scientific theories can’t be proven, only disproven. The highest status a scientific theory can have is ‘not dead yet,’ reminding of a very important point, that science is a method, more than it is a body of knowledge, generating the body of knowledge.

Common Questions About Misconceptions of Science

Q: What is a common misconception in science?

One of the misconceptions in science is that we cannot prove that something is true because of having a right scientific theory for the wrong reason.

Q: How do you explain epistemology?

Epistemology, also called the philosophy of knowledge is concerned with questions of knowing anything for sure and what it means to rationally believe in something.

Q: What is Karl Popper’s philosophy of science?

Austrian philosopher, Karl Popper, was one of the most influential philosophers of science in the 20th century. His philosophy is that the scientific method cannot prove that something is true because of having a right scientific theory for the wrong reason.

Q: What did William Whewell discover?

British philosopher, William Whewell discovered the word scientist in 1833. Before that the term ‘natural philosopher,’ was used for those studying science, implying that they learned about the philosophy of the natural world.

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