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JAN 31 2013

The scientific method in everyday life

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We know that scientists use it in major breakthroughs and in understanding how the universe works, but did you know that it is so influential in our culture that we also use (a simplified version of) the scientific method in our everyday life?

measure

Photo © 2011 J. Ronald Lee

Say that Regular Guy wakes up one morning and, after addressing minimum needs, he steps on the scale, watches his weight (measures) and finds out he’s five pounds over his regular weight.

While he finishes preparing himself to work, Regular Guy mentally reviews (observes) late changes in his eating habits. “Must be the Twinkies,” he says to himself (hypothesis).

Regular Guy is referring to the habit he has just developed in the last few weeks, of walking to the office’s vending machine at mid morning and mid afternoon for a snack. “That’s ten Twinkies per week,” he says. “That’s too much.”

An instant, primitive model takes place in his mind. He pictures himself (a closed system) eating ten Twinkies (external agent) and acquiring the size of a baby elephant (lousy outcome) – how detailed the model is depends on Regular Guy’s imagination.

Then, based on that information, he makes a plan (prediction). “I bet that, if I cut it down to five per week, I’ll get back to my regular weight (measurable outcome),” He says.

If he decides to record (document) the amount of Twinkies we grabs per week and his weight, and later evaluate his hypothesis, He will be using a scientific method, probably unaware of that he is using an ancient tool.

(The scientific method was probably first suggested by the Arab scholar Alhazen, a thousand years ago, and was later improved by many famous scholars like Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler).

When Regular Guy keeps a record of the speed of his car and compares it with its gas consumption, or keeps a strict measure of the ingredients of his diet – no, the Twinkies reduction hypothesis did not work -, he is using the basic ideas behind the scientific method.

scale

scale

Complex and Simple definitions of The Scientific Method

Since we are already using the scientific method in everyday life, wouldn’t it be wise to know more about it, as in the proper way to use it and when to use it?

We stumble upon the first problem within this attempt when we read about the method in the common bibliography: even though it’s a fairly simple method (which is why it has been so productive) its description is full of complex terms and equal bureaucracy (being the most successful scientific method, some degree of fanaticism is expected).

If you research about the scientific method, it is most likely that you will encounter diverse opinions like the “steps of the scientific method”, the “linear version” or “the cycle”.

In this post we will focus on the core of the method which is – according to some scholars – nothing but common sense taken to the extreme.

If you are not a scientist, but you consider yourself (or want to be) a science critic (spectator), a frugal explorer or just a “pragmatic person”, you would benefit big time just from understanding the method’s philosophy. In this post, we will take a frugal look at its main features and advantages.

Advantages of The Scientific Method

As in any good sales pitch, we will start by stating its advantages: the scientific method is the best option for avoiding bias; whenever you want to know if you are dealing with real (scientific) facts or biased interpretations, the scientific method is a safe way to go.

This is easy to understand because it was build with that goal in mind: to defeat bias. In the case of Twinkies vs. Regular Guy, if the scale keeps showing an overweight, Regular Guy can’t argue over a special gravity effect; he must admit that his plan doesn’t work.

Another highly productive advantage of this this method is that it is evolutive; it provides is the opportunity to keep improving the hypothesis: it doesn’t matter if Regular Guy’s first trial goes right or wrong as long as he keeps an honest record of his weight. The analysis of the results will demand him to review his hypothesis and make some adjustments. The cycle will repeat and Regular would keep making adjustments, improving the model each time.

galileo galilei

Galileo Galilei

Also an important feature is that the scientific method is empirical, which means – in a more poetic phrasing – that allows reality to speak up. Its procedure is based on observations and measures – not in preset concepts.

Conditions of The Scientific Method

How do you know if you are using the scientific method properly? As mentioned before, you don’t have to be a scientist to profit from the scientific method; there are only to requirements you cannot bypass:

1) The procedure of your test must be clearly specified, and you must follow it exactly (this procedure is formally called an operational definition). Any ambiguity about how you make your test nullifies the method.

2) The outcomes of the test must be measurable. Anything that cannot be expressed in numbers (Love, Angry, Ugliness, Fashion…) is not a subject for this technique.

But, if you are a scientist and you are required to prove your results, or if you are a science critic and you want to know if the information on the TV is not BS, then there are two other more strict conditions you should take in consideration.

First of all, it has to be repeatable by anybody who wishes to do the same experiment and she has to be able to obtain the same results.

Secondly, its results have to be properly documented and published so any other scientist can access to them and perform the same experiment.

These two conditions may sound a little annoying but they are necessary; the results of the experiment must be exposed to the scrutiny of the community (peers) to ultimately defeat any form of bias (this feature is called organized skepticism).

These are the main features of the scientific method. Very soon we will be using them in our next exploration (the science behind Super Powers). Stay tuned.

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There are 2 comments

  • Desi on said:

    I think reality remains subjective, even within the scientific method. “Empirical” is a contestable phrase, especially when it comes to reporting results. We did an experiment, way back in highschool, that required us to measure an item, and then write down our findings. Our results ranged within a centimetre either way because of height differences, propensities to round up and down, human error, etc. Anyway, the short version is that empirical analysis can produce personal or limited truth very effectively. Our data reflects what is convincing for us, and (hopefully) for our colleagues as well. I think it’s interesting how “convincing” changes over time. Food for thought, Gustavo!
    Desi recently posted..I Have Nothing Interesting to Say, Today, So, Here – Have a Poem

  • gustavo on said:

    Hi Desi,
    You are right, the perception of reality is always subjective and the proof is that math became the language of scientific method. You are also right about the differences in measurements. That’s why scientists had to commit and accept differences of measurement (until a maximum permitted) and a whole science about error begins. Thank you Desi; profound and on the spot as usual.
    gustavo recently posted..The scientific method in everyday life

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