The Science of Biology

The Scientific Method

Biologists study the living world by posing questions about it and seeking science-based responses. Known as scientific method, this approach is common to other sciences as well. The scientific method was used even in ancient times, but England’s Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626) first documented it (Figure). He set up inductive methods for scientific inquiry. The scientific method is not used only by biologists; researchers from almost all fields of study can apply it as a logical, rational problem-solving method.

Painting depicts Sir Francis Bacon in a long robe.
Historians credit Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626) as the first to define the scientific method. (credit: Paul van Somer)

The scientific process typically starts with an observation (often a problem to solve) that leads to a question. Let’s think about a simple problem that starts with an observation and apply the scientific method to solve the problem. One Monday morning, a student arrives at class and quickly discovers that the classroom is too warm. That is an observation that also describes a problem: the classroom is too warm. The student then asks a question: “Why is the classroom so warm?”

Proposing a Hypothesis

Recall that a hypothesis is a suggested explanation that one can test. To solve a problem, one can propose several hypotheses. For example, one hypothesis might be, “The classroom is warm because no one turned on the air conditioning.” However, there could be other responses to the question, and therefore one may propose other hypotheses. A second hypothesis might be, “The classroom is warm because there is a power failure, and so the air conditioning doesn’t work.”

Once one has selected a hypothesis, the student can make a prediction. A prediction is similar to a hypothesis but it typically has the format “If . . . then . . . .” For example, the prediction for the first hypothesis might be, “If the student turns on the air conditioning, then the classroom will no longer be too warm.”

Testing a Hypothesis

A valid hypothesis must be testable. It should also be falsifiable, meaning that experimental results can disprove it. Importantly, science does not claim to “prove” anything because scientific understandings are always subject to modification with further information. This step—openness to disproving ideas—is what distinguishes sciences from non-sciences. The presence of the supernatural, for instance, is neither testable nor falsifiable. To test a hypothesis, a researcher will conduct one or more experiments designed to eliminate one or more of the hypotheses. Each experiment will have one or more variables and one or more controls. A variable is any part of the experiment that can vary or change during the experiment. The control group contains every feature of the experimental group except it is not given the manipulation that the researcher hypothesizes. Therefore, if the experimental group's results differ from the control group, the difference must be due to the hypothesized manipulation, rather than some outside factor. Look for the variables and controls in the examples that follow. To test the first hypothesis, the student would find out if the air conditioning is on. If the air conditioning is turned on but does not work, there should be another reason, and the student should reject this hypothesis. To test the second hypothesis, the student could check if the lights in the classroom are functional. If so, there is no power failure and the student should reject this hypothesis. The students should test each hypothesis by carrying out appropriate experiments. Be aware that rejecting one hypothesis does not determine whether or not one can accept the other hypotheses. It simply eliminates one hypothesis that is not valid (Figure). Using the scientific method, the student rejects the hypotheses that are inconsistent with experimental data.

While this “warm classroom” example is based on observational results, other hypotheses and experiments might have clearer controls. For instance, a student might attend class on Monday and realize she had difficulty concentrating on the lecture. One observation to explain this occurrence might be, “When I eat breakfast before class, I am better able to pay attention.” The student could then design an experiment with a control to test this hypothesis.

In hypothesis-based science, researchers predict specific results from a general premise. We call this type of reasoning deductive reasoning: deduction proceeds from the general to the particular. However, the reverse of the process is also possible: sometimes, scientists reach a general conclusion from a number of specific observations. We call this type of reasoning inductive reasoning, and it proceeds from the particular to the general. Researchers often use inductive and deductive reasoning in tandem to advance scientific knowledge (Figure).

Art Connection

A flow chart shows the steps in the scientific method. In step 1, an observation is made. In step 2, a question is asked about the observation. In step 3, an answer to the question, called a hypothesis, is proposed. In step 4, a prediction is made based on the hypothesis. In step 5, an experiment is done to test the prediction. In step 6, the results are analyzed to determine whether or not the hypothesis is correct. If the hypothesis is incorrect, another hypothesis is made. In either case, the results are reported.
The scientific method consists of a series of well-defined steps. If a hypothesis is not supported by experimental data, one can propose a new hypothesis.

In the example below, the scientific method is used to solve an everyday problem. Order the scientific method steps (numbered items) with the process of solving the everyday problem (lettered items). Based on the results of the experiment, is the hypothesis correct? If it is incorrect, propose some alternative hypotheses.

  1. Observation
  2. Question
  3. Hypothesis (answer)
  4. Prediction
  5. Experiment
  6. Result
  1. There is something wrong with the electrical outlet.
  2. If something is wrong with the outlet, my coffeemaker also won’t work when plugged into it.
  3. My toaster doesn’t toast my bread.
  4. I plug my coffee maker into the outlet.
  5. My coffeemaker works.
  6. Why doesn’t my toaster work?

Art Connection

Diagram defines two types of reasoning. In inductive reasoning, a general conclusion is drawn from a number of observations. In deductive reasoning, specific results are predicted from a general premise. An example of inductive reasoning is given. In this example, three observations are made: (1) Members of a species are not all the same. (2) Individuals compete for resources. (3) Species are generally adapted to their environment. From these observations, the following conclusion is drawn: Individuals most adapted to their environment are more likely to survive and pass their traits on to the next generation. An example of deductive reasoning is also given. In this example, the general premise is that individuals most adapted to their environment are more likely to survive and pass their traits on to the next generation. From this premise, it is predicted that, if global climate change causes the temperature in an ecosystem to increase, those individuals better adapted to a warmer climate will outcompete those that are not.
Scientists use two types of reasoning, inductive and deductive reasoning, to advance scientific knowledge. As is the case in this example, the conclusion from inductive reasoning can often become the premise for deductive reasoning.

Decide if each of the following is an example of inductive or deductive reasoning.

  1. All flying birds and insects have wings. Birds and insects flap their wings as they move through the air. Therefore, wings enable flight.
  2. Insects generally survive mild winters better than harsh ones. Therefore, insect pests will become more problematic if global temperatures increase.
  3. Chromosomes, the carriers of DNA, are distributed evenly between the daughter cells during cell division. Therefore, each daughter cell will have the same chromosome set as the mother cell.
  4. Animals as diverse as humans, insects, and wolves all exhibit social behavior. Therefore, social behavior must have an evolutionary advantage.

The scientific method may seem too rigid and structured. It is important to keep in mind that, although scientists often follow this sequence, there is flexibility. Sometimes an experiment leads to conclusions that favor a change in approach. Often, an experiment brings entirely new scientific questions to the puzzle. Many times, science does not operate in a linear fashion. Instead, scientists continually draw inferences and make generalizations, finding patterns as their research proceeds. Scientific reasoning is more complex than the scientific method alone suggests. Notice, too, that we can apply the scientific method to solving problems that aren’t necessarily scientific in nature.

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