The Scientific Method

The scientific method works like this:

1. I observe a phenomenon. Let’s say I see objects fall.

2. I adopt, usually without doing so consciously, a set of axioms about reality: The only reality that matters is material. We can know this reality through our senses. Inductive reasoning leads to truth but never arrives at it. If many attempts to falsify an inductive hypothesis fail, then that hypothesis is more likely to be true, but if at any time it is falsified, it must be revised or discarded. We are always willing to discard hypotheses.

(If you work in academia, you recognize that even though we all adopt these axioms, none of us really adhere to them too hard. It’s nice to imagine that falsifying a hypothesis is just as good as failing to falsify one, until you have to explain to your tenure board why you haven’t published a paper in three years.)

3. I make a guess about that phenomenon based on my axioms. Objects fall, and heavier ones are heavier and hurt more when they land on my foot, so I guess that objects fall faster if they’re heavier.

4. I set up an experiment, or an observation in nature if an experiment doesn’t work (or a statistical analysis of observations, or . . . several ways to do this step, really). Here it’s easy. I get a light object and a heavy one. A bowling ball, and a feather. I drop them. The bowling ball falls fast, the feature takes a good long while.

5. I publish my results. Hey, Chad, buddy, look. The bowling ball fell faster. Those results are reviewed by peers, who point out flaws or just attempt to repeat the experiment (snort, yeah, right, ’cause that’ll get you tenure). Chad says “wait, but — air pressure, though, right?”)

6. We conduct another experiment, accounting for the earlier critiques. I get two balls, one of lead and one of foam. I evacuate the air from a chamber and drop them both in the vacuum. This time, they fall at the same acceleration.

7. If our experiment falsifies the original guess, we make a new guess and start over.

8. Eventually, we try to express this guess as a universal law. In this case, we will eventually end up with the equations governing the laws that describe gravity.

9. But we have to keep in mind that new observations may falsify that law, leading us to revise it.

That’s science, and it’s awesome, and it’s nearly entirely useless in investigating magic. Not entirely, though, but nearly entirely. Which is the subject of my next post.


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