What is the scientific method? Usually we still wonder about that question even after our class on it in Junior High!
A teacher at the university of Rochester defines it this way:
Well said, if you can understand all the words.
Above all the scientific method is a process; it's a method. It is a method to arrive at an accurate representation of the world. The definition above describes accurate as "reliable, consistent, and non-arbitrary." That means we're trying to find out what is true always in all places and for all people.
But we still haven't said just what is the scientific method. Simply put, the scientific method is five steps …
I say five steps. Other places will say four or six. That's because sometimes the first couple steps are broken up, and my step 5 is self-evident, so some people leave it off.
Let's make an example already. I have observed that grass turns brown in Sacramento, CA in the summer, but it turns brown in Tyler, TX in the winter. I wonder why.
I guess—an educated guess based on what I know from life experience—that this because of lack of rain during a Sacramento summer and cold during a Tyler winter.
Well, if I'm correct, then I ought to be able to water grass in the summer in Sacramento and keep it green. In a Tyler winter, I should be able to put grass in a greenhouse and keep it green.
Okay, this was just an example. I have done the Sacramento experiment. So has almost everyone who lives in Sacramento. It works. Water your lawn, and it stays green even in summer.
I've never put grass in a greenhouse in Tyler, Tx. It's possible that wouldn't work. There may be some seasonal thing that makes grass go dormant, and it may vary from one type of grass to another.
That last step is very important, and I worded it carefully …
"Prove" is a difficult word when it comes to a definition of the scientific method.
Science is—or ought to be—a humble occupation. Only so much can be "proven." Maybe we're all deceived about reality. Maybe we're all hooked up to the matrix that the Wachowski brothers described.
But probably not. Most of us have a very strong confidence level that The Matrix is just a movie, not reality.
Science is all about levels of confidence. Every day the Food and Drug Administration is analyzing the observations and experiments done by drug manufacturers to decide whether a drug is safe enough to be administered to humans.
Whether you think they're doing a good job or not, what they are trying to do is to attain a level of confidence in the safety of a drug. They are not looking for absolute proof. By the time absolute proof comes that a drug works and is safe, thousands of people may have died waiting for it. A certain amount of risk is acceptable in approving drugs. (Ask any person with advanced cancer, and they'll assure you this is so.) How much risk for each particular disease or malady is what the FDA is assigned to determine.
But this site isn't about the FDA or drugs, is it?
What is the scientific method? The scientific method is a way to determine what's true, sometimes to various degrees of accuracy.
Scientists call evolution both a fact and a theory. They are correct in doing so; it is both.
Enough hypotheses (guesses), predictions, observations, and experiments have been conducted to give scientists a tremendous level of confidence that evolution happened. This web site addresses many of those.
Now, it's possible that we are all attached to the matrix or similarly disconnected from reality, but if we're connected to reality, then reality testifies to evolution so clearly that it is acceptable to call it a fact.
On the other hand, evolution is also a theory that is always being adapted and changed. For example, only a decade ago most scientists would have been confident that evolution occurs only through changes in specific genes that control specific attributes. We now have reason to doubt that. It turns out that some genes control other genes.
This is a big discovery because it allows for much wider and faster changes in an organism. If one gene controls the expression of a whole group of genes, then the changes possible from one generation to the next are much larger than previously thought.
Evolutionary theory involves all sorts of details that we understand to varying degrees. We will continue to learn about evolutionary theory. But steps three and four of the scientific method have been carried on for 150 years now, and the odds that we will find evidence that evolution did not occur are now so slim as to be safely dismissed.
I have the following quote in the right column of many of my pages, but it addresses this well and even addresses what is the scientific method!