MethodsThe Scientific Method

by Anthony Carpi, Ph.D., Anne E. Egger, Ph.D.

A common misconception in science is that science provides facts or "truth" about a subject. Science is not collection of facts; rather, it is a process of investigation into the natural world and the knowledge generated through that process. This process of investigation is often referred to as the scientific method and it is typically defined in many textbooks and science courses as a linear set of steps through which a scientist moves from observation through experimentation and to a conclusion as shown below:

Figure 1: The classic view of The Scientific Method is misleading in its representation of scientific practice.

Figure 2: A picture of the Henry Mountains in Utah. image © Ian Parker

However, this classic portrayal has a number of problems. Science is not a linear process - it doesn't have to start with an observation or a question, and it commonly does not even involve experiments. Instead, the scientific method is a much more dynamic and robust process. Scientists get their inspiration from the natural world, from reading what others have done, from talking to colleagues, or from experience. They use multiple types of research toward investigating phenomena, including experimentation, description, comparison, and modeling. Some scientific investigations employ one of these methods, but many involve multiple methods, or some studies may even have characteristics of more than one method. Results from one research study may lead in directions not originally anticipated, or even in multiple directions as different scientists pursue areas of interest to them.

Given the detail needed to understand this practice, a single paragraph or even chapter will not do. Thus, we have developed a series of 11 modules that convey the practice of science and present the different methodologies used in scientific research. These 11 modules are part of a larger series of modules called our Process of Science modules, and these modules provide a detailed answer to the question "What is science and how does it work?" If you would like to learn more about individual scientific methodologies, please visit our Practice of Science modules:

Anthony Carpi, Ph.D., Anne E. Egger, Ph.D. “The Scientific Method” Visionlearning Vol. SCI-1 (1), 2003.

We have to remember that what we observe is not nature herself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.
—Werner Heisenberg 1901-1976