5X5 Episode 37

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5X5 Episode 37
The Scientific Method
17th September 2008

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5X5 36 5X5 38
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
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Skepticism 101 - The Scientific Method[edit]

You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.

S: This is the SGU 5x5 and our continuing series on Skepticism 101. And tonight we're talking about the scientific method. We certainly talk about it a lot but what exactly is it? Well, first off, it's not a single method. It describes everything that occurs in scientific investigation and exploration. And, I think, for me always the absolute heart of it is hypothesis testing. You have to use some methodology in order to test a hypothesis that can be falsified. If you're doing that, in a systematic way, then you're doing science.

J: And, Steve, the key thing that you just said is that it can be falsified, meaning that you can, with almost certainty, know whether it's true or not true.

S: Well, you can never know for certain that something is true. You can never prove that something is true, scientifically. You can only prove that something isn't true. We say that a hypothesis is probably true if it survives all attempts to falsify it. You can only say it's survived falsification. That never, ever gets to the point of saying that it's a 100% true.

J: And that hypothesis is actually making predictions, correct?

S: It has to make predictions that can actually, some way, be put to the test.

B: That's a common misconception. People, a lot of people, think that science, the goal of science, is 100% truth. But in that sense it's like the speed of light. You only can approach it but you can never hit it.

S: That's right.

R: And, you know, a lot of people think that the scientific method is just for science fair projects or scientists working in a lab somewhere. But you actually use the scientific method in your everyday life, you just might not realize it. It's just a simple matter of developing a hypothesis, testing it. You could use it to find your keys. You lose you keys, you don't go to the psychic, you develop a hypothesis: "I think maybe my keys may be in the couch". You test that hypothesis, you search the couch. And you go from there. So I think a lot of people are kind of, not necessarily scared of the scientific method, but they don't understand exactly how it applies to everyday life.

S: Yeah, certainly, I use it every day in medical diagnosis, a detective would use that in terms of investigating a crime or a situation. Again, it's making a hypothesis that makes a prediction, testing those predictions. One other misconception that often artificially narrows what is science in the minds of some people is that testing a hypothesis has to be done by doing an experiment in a lab. But that's only one way to test a hypothesis. You can also test it by just simply making an observation. For example, historical sciences like paleontology. You know, you can't run evolution in a lab, usually. Actually, you can, but, like the bacterial experiments. But for a lot of, in terms of, like, what evolved from what, what happened in the past, you can't re-run evolutionary past in the lab. So you will make predictions about, for example, what kind of fossils you should find where. If you go out and look in this strata, what kind of fossils will you find there? That's testing a hypothesis, too. So it doesn't have to be test tubes in a lab. That is often a misconception that is used by denialists who want to say that historical sciences aren't real science 'cause they don't do experiments in a lab. But that misunderstands what really constitutes the scientific method.

J: Steve, a couple more things I think we should mention. One is that the scientific method is also a cyclical process. In other words, you come up with a hypothesis, you develop experiments to help you realize if that hypothesis has any truth to it and then you alter your experiments or alter your hypothesis, come back through, do another round of experiments and keep doing it until you, you know, fine-tune it. And then, when you're done with that, when you've actually come up with something worthwhile, then you really do need to publish that and get peer review on it. And then that could bring you right back to the beginning again.

B: And Jay, that's actually a key point that I wanted to mention, that a lot of people leave out, is to actually communicate your results. I mean, not specifically for peer review to refine and challenge your conclusions but just to communicate it, so that other scientists can build on what you've done. 'Cause so much of science is this building process, which kind of relates to the statement of standing on the shoulders of giants. You know, when you communicate it properly, not only do people become aware of it but then it could advance in many ways that you never would've thought of.

S: And, that's right, it is an endless process of refining and altering hypotheses and theories to adjust for evidence and experiment and observation. And then trying to make new predictions based upon that, and then testing those, and then further refining it, et cetera, et cetera, until you slowly, slowly, slowly, as Bob said, get closer and closer to a model of how the universe works, that successfully makes predictions. That's not the same thing as metaphysical truth or certitude. It's just a scientific model that can predict stuff. And that prediction, predicting future information, is the absolute key. Explaining stuff that you already know is not the process of science. That may be a way of generating a hypothesis but it's not a way of testing a hypothesis. In order to test a hypothesis you have to predict new information you don't have yet. That's also a very common mistake that's made that leads to pseudoscientific behavior.

S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.

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