Reading: The Steps of the Scientific Method

 

Now we’ll focus on the methods of scientific inquiry.  Science seeks to determine the cause and effect of natural phenomena.  The best approach science has for this purpose is the steps of the scientific method.  These steps of observation, asking a question, forming a hypothesis, experimentation and interpretation of results have provided the groundwork of past discovery and will be the guiding force for future discovery.

Observation and Asking a Question

The first step is observation.  Observation is viewing the natural world, noticing patterns and changes in your environment.  These observations can lead to asking questions.  These questions will ask the why and/or how these natural events occur.   For example, Michael observes that maple trees lose their leaves in the fall.  From this observation, Michael might ask the questions “why do maple trees to lose their leaves in fall?”  or  “what events occurring in the fall cause the leaves to fall from the maple?”.

Forming a Hypothesis

When conducting scientific experiments, researchers develop hypotheses to guide experimental design. A hypothesis is a suggested explanation that is testable, falsifiable and repeatable. Scientist must be able to test and have a measurable result to see if the hypothesis can supported.  If the hypothesis is not support or shown to be false, then the hypothesis will need to be modified.  In addition, the hypothesis must be able to be repeated by other scientist in order to be validated.

Let’s return to Michael’s question “what events occurring in the fall cause the leaves to fall from the maple?”  Michael might propose an explanation for this observation: “cold weather causes maple trees to lose their leaves in the fall.” This statement is testable. He could grow maple trees in a warm enclosed environment such as a greenhouse and see if their leaves drop in the fall.  The hypothesis is also falsifiable, if the greenhouse maple tree dropped their leaves during autumn, then clearly temperature was not the main factor in causing dropping leaves.  This hypothesis is also easily repeatable by Michael and other groups of scientist.

In the Try It below, you can practice recognizing scientific hypotheses. As you consider each statement, try to think as a scientist would: can I test this hypothesis with observations or experiments? Is the statement falsifiable? If the answer to either of these questions is “no,” the statement is not a valid scientific hypothesis.

Practice

Determine whether each following statement is a scientific hypothesis.

  1. Air pollution from automobile exhaust can trigger symptoms in people with asthma.
    1. No. This statement is not testable or falsifiable.
    2. No. This statement is not testable.
    3. No. This statement is not falsifiable.
    4. Yes. This statement is testable and falsifiable.
  2. Natural disasters, such as tornadoes, are punishments for bad thoughts and behaviors.
    1. No. This statement is not testable or falsifiable.
    2. No. This statement is not testable.
    3. No. This statement is not falsifiable.
    4. Yes. This statement is testable and falsifiable.

Experimentation and Interpreting Results

A scientific experiment is a carefully organized procedure in which the scientist intervenes in a system to change something, then observes and interprets the result of the change. Scientific inquiry often involves doing experiments, though not always. For example, a scientist studying the mating behaviors of ladybugs might begin with detailed observations of ladybugs mating in their natural habitats. While this research may not be experimental, it is scientific: it involves careful and verifiable observation of the natural world. The same scientist might then treat some of the ladybugs with a hormone hypothesized to trigger mating and observe whether these ladybugs mated sooner or more often than untreated ones. This would qualify as an experiment because the scientist is now making a change in the system and observing the effects.

VIDEO REVIEW

This video gives another overview of the scientific method:

 

 

Testing a Vaccine

Let’s examine the scientific process by discussing an actual scientific experiment conducted by researchers at the University of Washington. These researchers investigated whether a vaccine may reduce the incidence of the human papillomavirus (HPV). The experimental process and results were published in an article titled, “A controlled trial of a human papillomavirus type 16 vaccine.”

Preliminary observations made by the researchers who conducted the HPV experiment are listed below:

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted virus in the United States.
  • There are about 40 different types of HPV. A significant number of people that have HPV are unaware of it because many of these viruses cause no symptoms.
  • Some types of HPV can cause cervical cancer.
  • About 4,000 women a year die of cervical cancer in the United States.

Practice

Researchers have developed a potential vaccine against HPV and want to test it. What is the first testable hypothesis that the researchers should study?

  1. HPV causes cervical cancer.
  2. People should not have unprotected sex with many partners.
  3. People who get the vaccine will not get HPV.
  4. The HPV vaccine will protect people against cancer.

Experimental Design

You’ve successfully identified a hypothesis for the University of Washington’s study on HPV: People who get the HPV vaccine will not get HPV.

The next step is to design an experiment that will test this hypothesis. There are several important factors to consider when designing a scientific experiment. First, scientific experiments must have an experimental group. This is the group that receives the experimental treatment necessary to address the hypothesis.

The experimental group receives the vaccine, but how can we know if the vaccine made a difference? Many things may change HPV infection rates in a group of people over time. To clearly show that the vaccine was effective in helping the experimental group, we need to include in our study an otherwise similar control group that does not get the treatment. We can then compare the two groups and determine if the vaccine made a difference. The control group shows us what happens in the absence of the factor under study.

However, the control group cannot get “nothing.” Instead, the control group often receives a placebo. A placebo is a procedure that has no expected therapeutic effect—such as giving a person a sugar pill or a shot containing only plain saline solution with no drug. Scientific studies have shown that the “placebo effect” can alter experimental results because when individuals are told that they are or are not being treated, this knowledge can alter their actions or their emotions, which can then alter the results of the experiment.

Moreover, if the doctor knows which group a patient is in, this can also influence the results of the experiment. Without saying so directly, the doctor may show—through body language or other subtle cues—his or her views about whether the patient is likely to get well. These errors can then alter the patient’s experience and change the results of the experiment. Therefore, many clinical studies are “double blind.” In these studies, neither the doctor nor the patient knows which group the patient is in until all experimental results have been collected.

Both placebo treatments and double-blind procedures are designed to prevent bias. Bias is any systematic error that makes a particular experimental outcome more or less likely. Errors can happen in any experiment: people make mistakes in measurement, instruments fail, computer glitches can alter data. But most such errors are random and don’t favor one outcome over another. Patients’ belief in a treatment can make it more likely to appear to “work.” Placebos and double-blind procedures are used to level the playing field so that both groups of study subjects are treated equally and share similar beliefs about their treatment.

Practice

The scientists who are researching the effectiveness of the HPV vaccine will test their hypothesis by separating 2,392 young women into two groups: the control group and the experimental group. Answer the following questions about these two groups.

  1. Which of the following groups most likely represents the control group?
    1. This group is given a placebo.
    2. This group is deliberately infected with HPV.
    3. This group is given nothing.
    4. This group is given the HPV vaccine.
  2. Which of the following groups most likely represents the experimental group?
    1. This group is given a placebo.
    2. This group is deliberately infected with HPV.
    3. This group is given nothing.
    4. This group is given the HPV vaccine.

Experimental Variables

A variable is a characteristic of a subject (in this case, of a person in the study) that can vary over time or among individuals. Sometimes a variable takes the form of a category, such as male or female; often a variable can be measured precisely, such as body height. Ideally, only one variable is different between the control group and the experimental group in a scientific experiment. Otherwise, the researchers will not be able to determine which variable caused any differences seen in the results. For example, imagine that the people in the control group were, on average, much more sexually active than the people in the experimental group. If, at the end of the experiment, the control group had a higher rate of HPV infection, could you confidently determine why? Maybe the experimental subjects were protected by the vaccine, but maybe they were protected by their low level of sexual contact.

To avoid this situation, experimenters make sure that their subject groups are as similar as possible in all variables except for the variable that is being tested in the experiment. This variable, or factor, will be deliberately changed in the experimental group. The one variable that is different between the two groups is called the independent variable. An independent variable is known or hypothesized to cause some outcome. Imagine an educational researcher investigating the effectiveness of a new teaching strategy in a classroom. The experimental group receives the new teaching strategy, while the control group receives the traditional strategy. It is the teaching strategy that is the independent variable in this scenario. In an experiment, the independent variable is the variable that the scientist deliberately changes or imposes on the subjects.

Dependent variables are known or hypothesized consequences; they are the effects that result from changes or differences in an independent variable. In an experiment, the dependent variables are those that the scientist measures before, during, and particularly at the end of the experiment to see if they have changed as expected. The dependent variable must be stated so that it is clear how it will be observed or measured. Rather than comparing “learning” among students (which is a vague and difficult to measure concept), an educational researcher might choose to compare test scores, which are very specific and easy to measure.

In any real-world example, many, many variables MIGHT affect the outcome of an experiment, yet only one or a few independent variables can be tested. Other variables must be kept as similar as possible between the study groups and are called control variables. For our educational research example, if the control group consisted only of people between the ages of 18 and 20 and the experimental group contained people between the ages of 30 and 35, we would not know if it was the teaching strategy or the students’ ages that played a larger role in the results. To avoid this problem, a good study will be set up so that each group contains students with a similar age profile. In a well-designed educational research study, student age will be a controlled variable, along with other possibly important factors like gender, past educational achievement, and pre-existing knowledge of the subject area.

Practice

  1. What is the independent variable in this experiment?
    1. Sex (all of the subjects will be female)
    2. Presence or absence of the HPV vaccine
    3. Age
    4. Presence or absence of HPV (the virus)
  2. List three control variables other than age.
  3. What is the dependent variable in this experiment?
    1. Sex (male or female)
    2. Rates of HPV infection
    3. Age (years)