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The Nature of the Scientific Method of Inquiry

Sunset at Capitol Reef
Sunset at Capitol Reef
Danny Vaughn, Ph.D., CMS

Science is in part a systematic process of learning in which knowledge is acquired through a structured method of inquiry referred to as the scientific method. The scientific method is designed to identify and explore observations, develop and answer questions (who, what, where, when, how, when), and is based upon the premise that there is some degree of order in the processes operating about the planet.

The Earth is a dynamic (constantly changing) system driven by energy derived from internal (radioactive decay) sources, and external energy exchanges operating as natural surface processes driven by the sun. A process can be loosely defined as any action that results in a change. Atmospheric circulation, weather conditions, global climate, ocean circulation, weathering, and erosion are surface (external) processes driven by the planet’s primary energy source, the sun. A system is any number of components or parts which when assembled, functions as a unit. Energy exchanges occur between the principal open systems of the atmosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, and biosphere, and form the foundation for Earth system’s science.

The full nature and scope of understanding for the interactive processes that drive this dynamic planet have been the life work of scientists seeking to answer a number of questions centering on the what, where, why, how, and when phenomena (any event or observable facts) exist. Many scientific investigations seek to establish a cause and effect relationship, which by extension often enables predictability in phenomena existing about the Earth. The scientific method of inquiry is grounded and tested against known and accepted observable and testable facts. Opening statements are systematically arranged. This systematic arrangement has the following components that may be repeated several times throughout an investigation before conclusions are finally established.

The Scientific Method of Inquiry

· Observe, identify, and state the problem as a question.

· State a hypothesis or hypotheses (an initial explanation to answer the question).

· Identify basic assumptions that have established credibility.

· Gather data, synthesize, and determine what is useful (applicable to the problem) information (variables to test).

· Experiment and observe the interactive nature of selected variables.

· Record observations, the results of experiments, and create modeling scenarios.

· Accept or reject the hypothesis or multiple hypotheses.

· Develop conclusions.

· Test the conclusions and either accept or reject them.

· If rejected, then redesign the problem and repeat the appropriate steps.

The Observation

In an observation, we are observing (sensing) nature without manipulating anything. Sensory observations are recorded and measurements may be taken.

An Example of Observations Established in a Geologic Context

Observation: A rock outcrop is studied in the field.

· Fossils are abundant and several can be identified within a rock.

· A test is performed to determine if the rock is a carbonate.

· The rock effervesces strongly when exposed to a weak solution of hydrochloric acid, with a conclusion that the rock is of the carbonate class, either a limestone or dolostone.

· The rock is determined to be sedimentary since its environment of deposition is by flowing water.

· An index fossil is identified suggesting the relative date of extinction.

· A minimum age or range can be inferred.

· An orientation of the fossil suggests the up side of deposition.

· A shallow sea environment of deposition is inferred based upon the genus and species of the organism that left the original hard parts (fossil) behind upon death.

· Many fossil fragments are noted suggesting a turbulent stage existed during the time of deposition of these fossils.

The Hypothesis

A number of operating premises may be used to build a modeling scenario to best replicate a natural event such as the environment that existed when sediment was laid down to ultimately form the rock type. A probable first explanation or proposal is stated as a hypothesis which can be a correlation between multiple phenomena such as processes and form. A hypothesis may be stated such that the environment of deposition was a shallow sea (due to the presence of remnant fossilized hard parts derived from shallow sea organisms identified as living in a near shore ocean environment); and that it was a turbulent (perhaps near shore) environment since the fossils are fragmented.

Hypotheses and theories cannot be proven, yet they can be disproved when a single observation disagrees with a prediction. A test of the hypothesis must be falsifiable. It must also be possible to imagine a conclusion that is false. Results do not always suggest a cause; rather they often identify a set of valid arguments, which are further tested for validity.

The Theory

A theory may ultimately be proposed and prepared for further testing. If the theory passes a rigorous test to disprove it, the results may conclude an accepted statement defining the veracity of the theory. The final statements may be a provisional mathematical or logical explanation that ties together an interrelated, coherent set of ideas. Like the hypothesis, a theory must be a testable model of reality that codifies an observation. A defensible theory explains a large range of phenomena with few postulates or assumptions (Occam’s Razor). It must also make definite predictions about the results of future observations.

The Experiment

In an experiment, one is manipulating some aspect of nature, and observing the outcome. An experimental group is tested against a control group. Both should have identical variables with at least one variable differing for the control group. A test is introduced to determine if the one variable contributes to a reaction or change. Many treatments are generally required to establish credibility. The experiment must be repeatable with consistent results, thus establishing a reliable conclusion.

Inductive Modeling

Reasoning from specific facts as a function of empirical evidence derived from experiments, measurements, or direct sensory observations. Inductive reasoning is open-ended, explorative and seeks to establish patterns and irregularities leading to the formulation of a hypothesis followed by the development of general theories or conclusions. In Earth Science, one might observe slopes that have failed. Field measurements of slope angles, soil types, water holding capacity, and underlying rock type are collected. Patterns and irregularities are identified leading to a hypothesis. General conclusions or a theory is proposed.

In a Geographic Information System (GIS), one might begin with a large assemblage of data (specific thematic coverages/layers), and reduce it to a more general composition. The problem and all necessary facts are identified based upon the initial collected data. Establish what is missing from available data, determine if it can be obtained, and at what cost? As an example, having a comprehensive set of themes and attributes for a given county, but missing specific critical data (e.g. geology, soils, topography, etc) to undertake a terrain analysis project diminishes the efficiency and ultimately the quality of the project.

Deductive Modeling

Ordered reasoning by observations that leads to testing and experimenting with general principles to derive specific facts to confirm or refute a hypothesis. The attributes of the specific are a function of the distinctive qualities of the general. The proper order would be to ask first what is the ultimate goal. Next, what data is necessary to accomplish the goal? What procedures need to be accomplished to fulfill the goal? As an example, a theory is proposed that high intensity rainfall causes flooding. A hypothesis states, when the intensity of rainfall is greater than two inches per hour, slope failure occurs. Measurements are taken and other variables considered. Conclusions are developed.

What Qualifies As Science?

Observations and measurements must be testable, and results must be repeatable. The following questions must also be answered:

· Are the supporting facts true?

· Can an alternative explanation be stated?

· Is the claim falsifiable?

· Have the claims been rigorously tested?

· Can reasonable changes in accepted thought result?

If these statements can not be affirmatively answered, the investigation is probably pseudoscience.

Beware of the Knowledge Filter: A Scientific Bias

The following questions, if not addressed with integrity and objectivity, will discredit any scientific investigation.

· What do you do when new evidence overwhelmingly contradicts known and accepted beliefs, and the recently acquired data is removed?

· How credible and reliable is an investigator that refuses to re-examine the new evidence?

· Does knowledge advance when the ‘good ole mutual admiration society’ turns against proposed change just because the conclusions do not match theirs?

· Does verbally discrediting an investigator’s credentials expunge the controversy?

· Does any of this behavior reinforce good science?

Circular Reasoning

An argument will fail to prove a hypothesis when it assumes what it is supposed to prove. This poor logic results in a worthless argument termed, circular reasoning. As an example high intensity rainfall causes flooding, therefore, flood damage always results from high intensity rainfall.

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