Ask A Scientist

How come we have the scientific method?

Asked by: Jonathan Metera
School: Maine Endwell Middle School
Grade: 6
Teacher: Mr. Wagstaff and Mrs. Buchak
Hobbies/Interests: Baseball and basketball
Career Interest: Playing baseball

Answer from Roy T.R. McGrann

Associate Professor, Binghamton University

Research area: Engineering design education Additional interests: Computer-aided design, structural fatigue analysis PhD school: University of Tulsa Interests/hobbies: Philosophy, history of science and technology

*This week is National Engineers Week, a global volunteer effort to cultivate and celebrate the engineering profession.  Roy McGrann is part of the Watson School of Engineering and Applied Science, formed 25 years ago by academic, industrial and community leaders.  The Watson School is proud to reach out to current and future generations of engineering talent with activities throughout the week.  Visit us at http://www2.binghamton.edu/watson/

There are several possible answers to your question depending on how one interprets it.  First, historically, the origin of a scientific method is commonly attributed to the period of the Scientific Revolution of the Renaissance (14th-17th Centuries) and a new-found freedom of enquiry that arose in opposition to the traditional teachings of Aristotle’s scientific theories.  As you know from your classes, the most famous story is that of Galileo. Galileo used experiments to determine how fast things fall.  He timed spheres rolling down inclined planes to slow their motion so that he could determine the acceleration of falling objects (the acceleration of gravity).  In addition, he used devices or tools (what we would today call “scientific instruments”) to observe things he could not investigate without them.  With a telescope, he observed moons orbiting the planet Jupiter.  This combination of experimentation and observation with the intent to discover rules (theories) that are very broad in their application has come to be the core of the scientific method.

The second, and, to me, more interesting, way to answer the question “How come we have the scientific method?” is to interpret it as a asking about human behavior.  We have a scientific method, firstly, because human beings are curious about the world we find ourselves in and we want to know how it works and we want to be able to predict what will happen in the future.  In addition, we are curious about our curiosity itself and how we learn about the world.  We have a scientific method because we think about how we do things.  We reflect on what we do. 

The third answer to your question is the engineering answer. We have the scientific method because for four hundred years it has proved useful for providing things that improve conditions for humans in their everyday lives.  We continue to use the scientific method because it is the best way we know to investigate what is happening in our world so that we can design better things for us to use. The scientific method is not a procedure that we can follow step-by-step.  It is more an approach that we take to guide our curiosity and help us determine what is happening. Ever since the Renaissance, this approach has been to set up controlled experiments where we can select certain variables, run the experiment, and then measure other quantities.  From these specific experiments and measurements we try to determine general rules or theories. We then use these theories to predict what will happen in similar situations.  Those theories help us design the devices that make our lives a little better.

Last Updated: 9/18/13