Understanding Scientific Discovery - January 5, 2011
Jeff Schalau, Associate Agent, Agriculture & Natural Resources
University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, Yavapai County

To start off the New Year, I wanted a topic that inspired readers to appreciate and improve their understanding of science. I also wanted something that was not altogether negative or ominous. Most decision makers think that scientific research and discovery will aid us in identifying rational solutions to these and other issues. If we are to pursue this goal, everyday people should have a basic understanding of the scientific method.

The sciences are divided into many disciplines that address topics from medicine and astrophysics to agriculture and zoology. In each discipline, modern scientists use a process called the scientific method to advance their knowledge and understanding. The scientific method is used by researchers worldwide to increase our knowledge and probe the answers to bigger questions. My job with the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension is driven by careful review and synthesis of relevant scientific research.

The scientific method is a process used to validate observations while minimizing observer bias. Its goal is for research to be conducted in a fair, unbiased and repeatable manner. While conducting research, scientists seek to understand the relationships between cause and effect in order to predict outcomes of future or similar events. The scientific method also seeks to remove biases that may be rooted in religious, political, or philosophical values. It provides a means to formulate questions about general observations and devise theories of explanation. The approach lends itself to answering questions in fair and unbiased statements, as long as questions are posed correctly, using a hypothesis that can be tested.

The hypothesis is a statement made by a researcher that is a working assumption to be tested and proven. It is something "considered true for the purpose of investigation". Scientists make hypotheses that they want to disprove in order that they may prove the working assumption describing the observed phenomena. This is done by declaring the statement or hypothesis as falsifiable. So, a scientist may state a hypothesis as “the earth is not round,” or “the earth is square” making it a working statement to be disproved. A theory is developed from facts that explain observations and can be used to predict new events. An example would be Newton’s theory of gravitation or Einstein’s theory of relativity.

The first step is to make an observation: gather and assimilate information about an event, phenomenon, process, or an exception to a previous observation, etc. Second, we define the problem: ask questions about the observation that are relevant and testable. Third, form the hypothesis: create an explanation, or educated guess, for the observation that is testable and falsifiable. Fourth, devise and conduct an experiment to test the hypothesis. Fifth, derive a theory: a statement based in the outcome of the experiment that explains the observation(s) and predicts the likelihood of future observations.

Many theories change over time – especially if differing results are found when conducting a given experiment. Numerous studies are often necessary to fully test the broad range of results that occur in order that scientists can formulate theories that truly account for the variation we see in our natural environment. Biological systems are especially difficult to study because individual organisms have genetic diversity and environments vary greatly. Here, scientists try to capture this variability through replication. This may include using many individuals under controlled environmental conditions or minimizing genetic diversity and testing across multiple environments.

Experimental results are analyzed using valid statistical methods. Results of scientific experiments are rarely black and white – but they usually indicate the cause of a given phenomenon and the likelihood (probability) of a given outcome occurring again. In addition, experiments are often repeated using new experimental techniques and statistical analyses. Once a given subject has been researched extensively, scientists compare results and, when significant, synthesis papers are published to contrast results and/or identify new opportunities for research. Finally, scientific papers are often difficult to understand. However, publications such as Science News review current science and their writers make research more understandable and relevant to us mere mortals. Below are some relevant links.

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Science News (Magazine of the Society for Science & the Public)

The Scientific Method (University of Nevada Cooperative Extension Publication)

Forest responses to increasing aridity and warmth in the southwestern United States (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: example of a "synthesis paper")

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Arizona Cooperative Extension
Yavapai County
840 Rodeo Dr. #C
Prescott, AZ 86305
(928) 445-6590
Last Updated: December 28, 2010
Content Questions/Comments: jschalau@ag.arizona.edu

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