Reading: The Method of Scientific Inquiry

Science deals with testable knowledge about physical phenomena in the universe. The goal of science is to understand how the universe works. Biology focuses on understanding living things. To gain knowledge about nature and physical phenomena, scientists use a particular approach called the method of scientific inquiry or the scientific method.

The scientific method is the best approach we have to understanding the natural world and predicting natural phenomena. Evidence for this claim can be found in the successes of science-based technologies. Take medicine, for example. Prior to the 1700s, most medical practices were based on folk traditions or on ideas promoted by religious leaders. Some of these prescientific remedies worked, but the process for discovering new treatments was a slow and haphazard system of trial and error. Ineffective treatments were often accepted simply because there was no clear procedure for evaluating them. Today, with science-based medicine and public health practices, we have gained unprecedented control over threats to our health. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the average life expectancy in the United States has increased by more than 30 years since 1900.

Scientific inquiry has not displaced faith, intuition, and dreams. These traditions and ways of knowing have emotional value and provide moral guidance to many people. But hunches, feelings, deep convictions, old traditions, or dreams cannot be accepted directly as scientifically valid. Instead, science limits itself to ideas that can be tested through verifiable observations. Supernatural claims that events are caused by ghosts, devils, God, or other spiritual entities cannot be tested in this way.

Practice

Your friend sees this image of a circle of mushrooms and excitedly tells you it was caused by fairies dancing in a circle on the grass the night before. Can your friend’s explanation be studied using the process of science?

There are several mushrooms growing together in the pattern of a circular ring

Figure 1. A fairy ring