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1.6.2: Using the Scientific Method

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    Learning Objectives
    • To identify the components of the scientific method
    • Classify measurements as being quantitative or qualitative.
    • Evaluate science in the media.

    The Scientific Method

    Scientists search for answers to questions and solutions to problems by using a procedure called the scientific method. This procedure consists of making observations, formulating hypotheses, and designing experiments, which in turn lead to additional observations, hypotheses, and experiments in repeated cycles (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)).

    The steps of the scientific method are 1. observation 2. hypothesis 3. experiment which can lead to a law, back to step 1, or to becoming a theory. Theories are further tested by experiments and modified as needed.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): The Steps in the Scientific Method. (CC BY-SA-NC; anonymous).

    Step 1: Make observations

    Observations can be qualitative or quantitative. Qualitative observations describe properties or occurrences in ways that do not rely on numbers. Examples of qualitative observations include the following: the outside air temperature is cooler during the winter season, table salt is a crystalline solid, sulfur crystals are yellow, and dissolving a penny in dilute nitric acid forms a blue solution and a brown gas. Quantitative observations are measurements, which by definition consist of both a number and a unit. Examples of quantitative observations include the following: the melting point of crystalline sulfur is 115.21° Celsius, and 35.9 grams of table salt—whose chemical name is sodium chloride—dissolves in 100 grams of water at 20° Celsius. For the question of the dinosaurs’ extinction, the initial observation was quantitative: iridium concentrations in sediments dating to 66 million years ago were 20–160 times higher than normal.

    Step 2: Formulate a hypothesis

    After deciding to learn more about an observation or a set of observations, scientists generally begin an investigation by forming a hypothesis, a tentative explanation for the observation(s). The hypothesis may not be correct, but it puts the scientist’s understanding of the system being studied into a form that can be tested. For example, the observation that we experience alternating periods of light and darkness corresponding to observed movements of the sun, moon, clouds, and shadows is consistent with either of two hypotheses:

    1. Earth rotates on its axis every 24 hours, alternately exposing one side to the sun, or
    2. the sun revolves around Earth every 24 hours.

    Suitable experiments can be designed to choose between these two alternatives. For the disappearance of the dinosaurs, the hypothesis was that the impact of a large extraterrestrial object caused their extinction. Unfortunately (or perhaps, fortunately), this hypothesis does not lend itself to direct testing by any obvious experiment, but scientists can collect additional data that either support or refute it.

    Step 3: Design and perform experiments

    After a hypothesis has been formed, scientists conduct experiments to test its validity. Experiments are systematic observations or measurements, preferably made under controlled conditions—that is, under conditions in which a single variable changes.

    Step 4: Accept or modify the hypothesis

    A properly designed and executed experiment enables a scientist to determine whether the original hypothesis is valid. In which case he can proceed to step 5. In other cases, experiments often demonstrate that the hypothesis is incorrect or that it must be modified thus requiring further experimentation.

    Step 5: Development into law and/or theory

    More experimental data are then collected and analyzed, at which point a scientist may begin to think that the results are sufficiently reproducible (i.e., dependable) to merit being summarized in law, a verbal or mathematical description of a phenomenon that allows for general predictions. A law simply says what happens; it does not address the question of why.

    One example of a law, the law of definite proportions, which was discovered by the French scientist Joseph Proust (1754–1826), states that a chemical substance always contains the same proportions of elements by mass. Thus, sodium chloride (table salt) always contains the same proportion by mass of sodium to chlorine, in this case, 39.34% sodium and 60.66% chlorine by mass, and sucrose (table sugar) is always 42.11% carbon, 6.48% hydrogen, and 51.41% oxygen by mass.

    Whereas a law states only what happens, a theory attempts to explain why nature behaves as it does. Laws are unlikely to change greatly over time unless a major experimental error is discovered. In contrast, a theory, by definition, is incomplete and imperfect, evolving with time to explain new facts as they are discovered.

    Because scientists can enter the cycle shown in Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) at any point, the actual application of the scientific method to different topics can take many different forms. For example, a scientist may start with a hypothesis formed by reading about work done by others in the field, rather than by making direct observations.

    A Real-World Application of the Scientific Method

    In 2007, my husband and I journeyed to China to adopt our daughter. Upon arrival in Beijing, I became violently ill. Due to her visa paperwork, my husband, daughter, and I were required to stay in China for two weeks. Unfortunately, I was ill the entire time. Once the two-week period was up, the three of us flew back to the United States where I continued to be sick. For the next year, I remained ill and lost a total of 30 pounds. The picture below shows me holding my daughter eight months after we returned home from China.

    Baby holding a teddy bear is carried by her mother.

    I would like you to attempt to perform the scientific method on my situation described above. List the steps of the scientific method along with some plausible explanations. * Please have this ready to discuss in class.*

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Classify each statement as a law, a theory, an experiment, a hypothesis, a qualitative observation, or a quantitative observation.

    1. Ice always floats on liquid water.
    2. Birds evolved from dinosaurs.
    3. According to Albert Einstein, mass X speed of light = energy
    4. When 10 g of ice was added to 100 mL of water at 25°C, the temperature of the water decreased to 15.5°C after the ice melted.
    5. The ingredients of Ivory soap were analyzed to see whether it really is 99.44% pure, as advertised.
    1. This is a general statement of a relationship between the properties of liquid and solid water, so it is a law.
    2. This is an educated guess regarding the origin of birds, so it is a hypothesis.
    3. This is a theory that explains an explanation of events and can be disproven at any time.
    4. The temperature is measured before and after a change is made in a system, so these are quantitative observations.
    5. This is an analysis designed to test a hypothesis (in this case, the manufacturer’s claim of purity), so it is an experiment.
    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    Classify each statement as a law, a theory, an experiment, a hypothesis, a qualitative observation, or a quantitative observation.

    1. Measured amounts of acid were added to a Rolaids tablet to see whether it really “consumes 47 times its weight in excess stomach acid.”
    2. Heat always flows from hot objects to cooler ones, not in the opposite direction.
    3. The universe was formed by a massive explosion that propelled matter into a vacuum.
    4. Michael Jordan is the greatest pure shooter ever to play professional basketball.
    5. Limestone is relatively insoluble in water but dissolves readily in dilute acid with the evolution of a gas.
    6. Gas mixtures that contain more than 4% hydrogen in air are potentially explosive.
    Answer a


    Answer b


    Answer c


    Answer d


    Answer e

    qualitative observation

    Answer f

    quantitative observation

    Evaluating Science in the Media

    Signs of bad science include sensationalized headlines, misinterpreted results, conflicts of interest, correlation vs. causation, unsupported conclusions, problems with sample size, unrepresentative samples used, lack of a control group, lack of blind testing, selective reporting of data, unreplicable results, and non-peer reviewed materials.

    Contributors and Attributions

    This page titled 1.6.2: Using the Scientific Method is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Elizabeth Gordon.