The Scientific Method
Original Article: Go Beyond Now
Part 1: Science vs. Pseudoscience
Part 2 : The Scientific Method
Science vs. Pseudoscience:
This table of comparisons between Science and Pseudoscience was adapted from text by Kendrick Frazier in the Introduction to his book, Paranormal Borderlands of Science (Prometheus Books, 1981)
|Always undergoing revision. Has a no-holds-barred, let-the-facts-fall-where-they-may attitude.||Clings emotionally to pet ideas long after they’ve been shown to be wrong.|
|Limits claims to matters that can be supported reasonably well with good evidence.||Makes sensational and exaggerated claims that go far beyond the evidence.|
|Actively seeks out comments and criticism from well-informed colleagues before publishing. Shares research data.||Avoids informed criticism before publication. Often keeps the details of their work obscured and secretive.|
|Claims are first published in professional journals that use peer review to ensure the work meets minimal standards of competence and accuracy.||Goes straight to the public, claims are presented in commercial books, magazines, and other venues whose publishers make no independent effort to verify accuracy.|
|Frames claims in such a way that if wrong, they can be proven wrong.||Frames claims in such a way that they cannot be proven wrong. Constantly shifts the grounds for substantiation, makes vague and ambiguous statements that cannot be tested.|
|Understands that the burden of proof is on the investigator making the claim. A hypothesis is not considered valid until it has stood up to many tests.||Places the burden of disproof on the critics. Holds that the claim is true unless others “disprove” it.|
|The more a claim contradicts previously demonstrated evidence, the greater the new evidence must be before it will be accepted.||Thrives on sensationalism, the more outrageous a claim, the more publicity it will receive, and thus more public following.|
|Realizes all information is imperfect. Attempts to assess the amount of error attached to all measurements and the degree of reliability associated with all claims.||Often presents claims as infallibly true. Does not distinguish between the varying quality of evidence (if any) used to support claims. Claims are often personality-driven, not evidence-oriented.|
|When shown to be wrong, science acknowledges the fact and modifies the work accordingly.||Sees any criticism as the sign of closed minds and ignorance of scientists. Quick to don the role of martyr and appeal to public sympathies.|
|Scientists build on other scientific work. They familiarize themselves with previous relevant work before attempting to extend or modify it.||Pseudoscientists often ignore previous studies altogether, especially work that conflicts with their pet theories.|
|Science is an error-correcting activity.||Pseudoscience is an error-promulgating activity.|
Mr. Frazier acknowledges that scientists are also humans and therefore not perfect. Sometimes they can behave just as emotionally and irrationally as the pseudo scientists, therefore scientists don’t always accurately represent science. That’s a good point for everyone to keep in mind, but you should also remember that the last items in the table are especially significant here. Science is, or at least strives to be, an objective body of error-free knowledge, even if scientists themselves are not always as objective and error-free as they could be.
The important thing is that the guiding principles of the scientific method can always be counted on to lead us to objective and verifiable conclusions, even if we do make a few wrong turns or hit some roadblocks along the way. I hope you will take another close look at the table of comparisons between science and pseudoscience and see if you recognize some of the traits mentioned, either in yourself or in others who are prominent in their field of study, and try to objectively determine which side of the table they’re standing on.
If you want to fight science, there’s only one method that works:
the Scientific Method . . .
The Scientific Method:
Shouldn’t paranormal investigators be held accountable to at least the same standards expected of participants in a junior high school science fair?
If not, what’s the point?
The Scientific Method consists of four essential steps:
1) Observation 2) Hypothesis 3) Experiment 4) Conclusion.
The trend in amateur paranormal research has been to ignore steps 2 and 3, preferring to leap directly from Observation to Conclusion. This approach does save a lot of time and effort, unfortunately though, it isn’t science, and it does nothing to advance credibility for paranormal research as far as the real scientific community is concerned. Most amateur investigators will appropriate all the superficial appearances of doing scientific work but fail to adopt the scientific method. With their EMF meters, infrared thermometers, voice recorders, digital cameras, computers, and the like, they may think they are being very “scientific”, but without adhering to the protocols of scientific method, they might as well trade in all their expensive gear for plastic toys and cardboard boxes.
One school of thought tries to argue that paranormal topics are, by their very nature, excluded from being subject to the scientific method. In fact, dictionaries often state that the word paranormal refers to things which are, by definition, outside the range of science. I think these arguments are mistaken and probably contrived by people who either aren’t competent or just too lazy to follow all the essential steps of a scientifically valid research project. Many who try to claim that paranormal topics are entitled to some sort of diplomatic immunity from scientific analysis are the ones who are personally invested in a particular paranormal cause — one that they know doesn’t hold up to scientific scrutiny. These folks will say anything to keep their own interests afloat, whether it means not allowing their claims to be judged by science, or to try and rebut the fact that science already has judged them and found them to be lacking merit.
Bottom line, the only successful way to fight science is with science!
If paranormal researchers can ever hope to be taken seriously in the scientific arena, they’re going to have to start playing by the rules. No shortcuts, no loopholes, no way around it. So buckle up and let’s get down to basics…
The Scientific Method consists of four essential steps: 1) Observation 2) Hypothesis 3) Experiment 4) Conclusion.
OK, you’ve probably got the Observation part covered, at least the preliminary, or “discovery” stages of observation. Whatever your particular paranormal subject of interest, chances are you’ve read books, watched some TV shows, surfed some websites, or maybe you’ve even had some personal paranormal experiences of your own. Now it’s time to think about all the things you’ve observed, all the information you’ve absorbed, and to try and form a hypothesis regarding some aspect of your observations.
“A hypothesis is a question that has been reworded into a form that can be tested by an experiment.”
Right off the bat we’re in sticky territory because not all questions can be subjected to direct experiment — but that’s not the same as saying that nothing about the paranormal can be subjected to science! The trick is to focus on a narrow and very well-defined aspect of your chosen topic, and to frame your question relating to just that one aspect. In other words, don’t set out thinking you’re going to resolve the question “Do Ghosts Exist?” Instead, try to isolate one specific point in your observations concerning ghosts, and then ask a question about that point in a way that can be determined through objective tests. (Note: It’s OK if you think you already know the answer, the test will serve to either confirm or refute your preconceived notion, your hypothesis.)
For example, let’s say you’ve read a number of ghost sighting reports and in the process you notice that more sightings appear to have occurred at night; thus, you might pose the question, “Do Most Reported Ghost Sightings Occur at Night?” Your next step might be to collect as many ghost reports from as many different sources as possible and to systematically record data concerning the time of day each sighting occurred. The data could be arranged in a table or a graph, statistical analyses performed, and conclusions drawn. Your conclusion would then have a respectable degree of scientific validity.
In this example, we’ve hedged a little with step number 3 from our statement of the Scientific Method since working with an existing body of data is “analytical” rather than “experimental” in the strictest sense. This analytical approach is more characteristic of the “social sciences” than the “physical sciences” but it also yields scientifically valid results. Of course, you will not have proven anything about the actual existence of ghosts, or even anything about the validity of the sightings, but you will have at least helped to advance our knowledge about the nature of ghost reports themselves so that we don’t have to rely merely on conjecture and popular opinion.
There might be any number of similar and relevant questions that you (and others) could address by working from the same data set. Eventually, you might build up quite a ponderous body of data concerning ghost reports: the most common times, locations, gender and age of people who file such reports, etc. Let’s go out on a limb and say that at some point you notice a pattern within your collection of ghost data that leads you to think that a new ghost sighting will occur at a certain time and place. At that point, you might formulate a new hypothesis, this one testable by your being at that place at the appointed time armed with cameras and other appropriate gear to record the event (or to at least to be alert for news of such a sighting by others in that location) and bingo, you’ve just conducted a predictive experiment concerning the nature of ghost activity. Please let me know the results, and what conclusions you reach.
Alright, the overly-simplistic examples above are just something I came up with off the top of my head and I sincerely hope you can do better. The main point I wanted to make here was that paranormal topics can be rendered subject to the process of scientific method, so don’t be misled into thinking they can’t. There’s a lot of painstaking and sometimes tedious preparation involved in conducting a legitimate research project, a lot of thinking, careful attention to every detail, and meticulous record keeping. I hope you will take time to visit the links given below, read some books, take some science classes, and perhaps talk with local science teachers/professors to get more advice.
Furthermore, don’t expect to change the world overnight. In science, progress always comes in baby steps, little by little, piece by piece. Even Einstein’s “revolutionary” equation E=mc² was, after all, the culmination of centuries of slow, sometimes faltering progress, the work of many “giants standing on the shoulders of giants” as it’s been phrased.
Here’s a well-written article on The Scientific Method from Wikipedia: Scientific Method
Of course you can find many more references on the net, in libraries, and bookstores.
Following are selected excerpts from “EXPERIMENTAL SCIENCE PROJECTS: An Intermediate Level Guide” as found at MiniScience.com See the full article here: Experimental Science Projects
What is common among all sciences, is the making of hypotheses to explain observations, the gathering of data, and based on this data, the drawing of conclusions that confirm or deny the original hypothesis.
A hypothesis is a question that has been reworded into a form that can be tested by an experiment.
Not all questions can be dealt with by the experimental scientific method. You must choose a question or problem that can be formulated in terms of a hypothesis that can be tested. Tests done to check hypotheses are called experiments. To design a suitable experiment you must make an educated guess about the things that affect the system you want to investigate. These are called variables.
As you do experiments, you will record data that measures the effect of variables. Using this data you can calculate results. Results are presented in the form of tables or graphs. These results will show you trends related to how the variables affect the system you are working with. Based on these trends, you can draw conclusions about the hypothesis you originally made.
For an experiment to give answers you can trust, it must have a “control.” A control is an additional experimental trial or run. It is a separate experiment, done exactly like the others. The only difference is that no experimental variables are changed. A control is a neutral “reference point” for comparison that allows you to see what changing a variable does by comparing it to not changing anything.
Experiments are often done many times to guarantee that what you observe is reproducible, or to obtain an average result. Reproducibility is a crucial requirement. Without it you cannot trust your results. Reproducible experiments reduce the chance that you have made an experimental error, or observed a random effect during one particular experimental run.
Some Guidelines for Experimental Procedures
- Select only one thing to change in each experiment. Things that can be changed are called variables.
- Change something that will help you answer your questions.
- The procedure must tell how you will change this one thing.
- The procedure must explain how you will measure the amount of change.
- Each experiment should have a “control” for comparison so that you can see what the change actually did.
Other Things You Can Mention in the Conclusion
- If your hypothesis is not correct, what could be the answer to your question?
- Summarize any difficulties or problems you had doing the experiment.
- Do you need to change the procedure and repeat your experiment?
- What would you do different next time?
- List other things you learned.
Try to Answer Related Questions
What you have learned may allow you to answer other questions. Many questions are related. Several new questions may have occurred to you while doing experiments. You may now be able to understand or verify things that you discovered when gathering information for the project. Questions lead to more questions, which lead to additional hypothesis that need to be tested.