Process of Science

What is it about a scientific theory that sets it apart from other ideas? How does one conduct and control a scientific experiment? Why do statistical statements weigh so heavily in science? Scientists often talk about the findings of their research, but they are less likely to talk about the processes and methods that lead to those discoveries. Yet these processes and methods, and the surprises scientists face while pursuing them define science. Our process of science modules use in-depth examples to introduce the methods used by scientists, the ways that scientists work with data and communicate their findings, and the culture and diversity of science.

"What is science and how does it work?" This module introduces the Process of Science series, which answers this question, and presents the scientific process as a way of thinking that can help in everyday decision making. A brief overview is given of key concepts that guide the Process of Science module series.


This module explores the nature of scientific knowledge by asking what science is. It emphasizes the importance of a scientific way of thinking and shows how observation and testing add to the body of scientific knowledge. Focusing on astronomy and physics, the module highlights the work of scientists through history who have contributed to our understanding of the age of the universe as a means of conveying the nature of scientific knowledge.


Science benefits from diverse interests and different points of view. This module explores at the human side of science. With a look at the unique background and motivations of individual scientists, it is clear how personal experience, varied perspectives, creativity, and even chance contribute to progress in science.


Ethical standards are a critical part of scientific research. Through examples of scientific fraud, misconduct, and mistakes, this module makes clear how ethical standards help ensure the reliability of research results and the safety of research subjects. The importance and consequences of integrity in the process of science are examined in detail.


Scientific institutions and societies play an essential role in the process of science and contribute to the building of scientific knowledge. This module explores these different bodies and discusses three types in detail: research institutions, professional societies, and funding institutions. Specific examples highlight how these institutions are essential to progress in science.


Theories are not based on one scientist's work but on an accumulation of evidence and ideas from many scientists over time. This module discusses how scientific theories are built and revised. It uses the development of the theory of evolution through natural selection to illustrate how theories are built through a process of testing, expanding, and refining.


Controversy isn't always a bad thing. It exists in every field of science and in many cases clarifies and advances our scientific understanding. This module explains what scientific controversies are and how they differ from other kinds of controversy. Using the example of climate change, the module identifies factors that lead to controversies in science and explains how they are resolved.


Success in science requires a creative mind. This module explores the nature of creativity in the scientific process. It details various discoveries and explains how creativity played a significant role in each. The importance of logical thinking and background knowledge to the creative process is discussed.


Scientists use multiple methods to investigate the natural world and these interconnect and overlap, often with unexpected results. This module gives an overview of scientific research methods, data processing, and the practice of science. It discusses myths that many people believe about the scientific method and provides an introduction to our Research Methods series.


Manipulating and controlling variables are key aspects that set experimentation apart from other scientific research methods. This module highlights the principles of experimentation through examples from history, including the work of Alhazen in 1000 CE and Louis Pasteur in the 1860s.


Observation is an important tool for scientific researchers, and describing what is observed is a valuable method of research. This module explains key features of scientific description and discusses how this method is used in the process of science. Examples from history illustrate the use of description, from the geologic exploration of the US in the 1800s to 20th century studies of primate behavior.


Comparing and contrasting is a critical research tool for making sense of the world. Through scenarios in which scientists would likely choose to do comparative research, this module explores the differences and similarities between comparison and experimentation. Studies of the link between cigarette smoking and health illustrate how comparison along with other research methods provided solid evidence that cigarette smoke is a major cause of lung cancer.


Scientific modeling is a research method scientists use to replicate real-world systems-whether it's a conceptual model of an atom, a physical model of a river delta, or a computer model of global climate. This module describes the principles that scientists use when building models and shows how modeling contributes to the process of science.


Data analysis is at the heart of any scientific investigation. Using weather as an example, this module takes you through the steps of data collection, analysis, interpretation, and evaluation. You will see how scientists (1) collect and record data, (2) find patterns in data, (3) explain those patterns, and (4) share their research with the larger scientific community.


There is uncertainty in all scientific data, and even the best scientists find some degree of error in their measurements. This module uses familiar topics - playing baseball, shooting targets, and calculating the age of an object - to show how scientists identify and measure error and uncertainty, which are reported in terms of confidence.


Scientific research rarely leads to absolute certainty. There is some degree of uncertainty in all conclusions, and statistics allow us to discuss that uncertainty. Statistical methods are used in all areas of science. The module explains the difference between (a) proving that something is true and (b) measuring the probability of getting a certain result. You will see how common words like significant, control and random have a different meaning in the field of statistics than in everyday life.


Understanding graphs and other visual forms of data is an important skill for scientists. This module describes how to read and interpret graphs and introduces other types of visual data. By looking at various examples, you will see how trends can be grasped easily when the data is shown in a visual form.


Using a brief history of scientific writing, this module provides an introduction to the structure and content of scientific journal articles. Key differences between scientific journals and popular media are explained, and basic parts of a scientific article are described through a specific example. The module offers advice on how to approach the reading of a scientific article.


Scientific literature is central to the development of science as a whole. This module explains what scientists mean when they refer to the scientific literature and offers specific examples of how scientists use it to (1) discover what other work has been done on a topic, (2) cite sources of their data, and (3) show how their interpretations relate to existing knowledge.


Peer review is an important part of the process of science. This module describes the history of peer review and shows how the review process helps validate the work of scientists and ensure that quality standards are met. The process is illustrated by actual correspondence among authors, reviewing scientists, and the editor of a scientific journal.


Scientific meetings and conferences play an important role in the process of science. This module describes the history of scientific societies, beginning with the Royal Society of London in 1660. Specific examples illustrate why scientists go to meetings, how these gatherings influence research, and why attending meetings can be important for students and new scientists.


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