Section 1: The Scientific Method
Lab 1: Scientific Knowledge
Introduction Science has assumed enormous importance in modern society. Many
decisions affecting our future depend upon scientific discoveries. No one
person can learn all that is now known about science and its practical
applications. As responsible citizens, however, we can follow some of the
important studies that bear on public issues, and we can apply scientific
reasoning to arrive at our own positions on these issues.
There is nothing mysterious about scientific reasoning or experiments.
They are merely logical ways of trying to solve problems that are used by
business people, historians, and each of us in our daily lives. We do not
need specialized training or knowledge to decide whether conclusions are
justified from the data present. We can request further tests of a theory
that does not appear to be well-supported by the evidence, and we can
agree or disagree with the predictions from a theory. The best way for us
to clearly understand a theory, however, is to first understand how a
scientist arrives at a conclusion by conducting a similar process ourselves.
Scientific Method You may never have thought about how you solve problems, test
theories, or decide upon a plan of action before, but let us examine how a
scientist attacks a problem to understand the main types of thinking
The scientific method is a formalized way of answering questions about
causation in the natural world. In principle, the scientific method has three
main steps. The first step is observation of phenomena that can be
detected by the senses. Second, the scientist forms a hypothesis, or idea
Marine Science Curriculum Manual
about the cause of the phenomena that has been observed. The third step
is experimentation, performing tests designed to show that one or more
of the hypotheses is more or less likely to be correct. These tests often
include numerical data so the results can be quantified.
One peculiarity of the scientific method is that a hypothesis can never
formally be proven; it can only be disproved. A correct hypothesis will
make predictions that are borne out by the experiment, but an incorrect
hypothesis may also produce the predicted outcome, meaning the
outcome was right, but for a different reason. Therefore, if the results of
an experiment agree with the prediction, we are still not sure of the
validity of the hypothesis. The more alternative hypotheses we disprove
or cast doubt on, however, the more we increase the likelihood that the
hypothesis that remains is correct.
Sampling Error Scientists also hesitate to accept the results of an experiment until they are
assured of its repeatability. Repetition guards against two types of errors.
First, we may have inadvertently made a mistake in our technique, such
as writing the results in the wrong columns. Second, any experiment is
subject to sampling error due to the number of subjects used. In this
case, we would use statistical tests to tell us how "sure" we are of our
results with a given sample size. We can also use statistical tests to decide
whether our results are so far from our prediction that we should discard
Theory A hypothesis supported by many different lines of evidence from
repeated experiments is generally regarded as a theory and, after even
further testing, comes to be accepted as scientific "fact."
It's a Fact "It's a scientific fact" is often presented as the clincher to an argument.
Most scientists, however, would argue that any scientific finding is open
to question. The doubts and uncertainties inherent in the scientific method
make it impossible to be 100% sure that a scientific discovery is "right."
Section 1: The Scientific Method
The Limitations Scientific discoveries and theories are useful, but they are always open to
of Science question; in science there is no such thing as "proof positive." Time and
time again in the history of science, widely accepted theories have turned
out to be wrong. Even today, scientists are busily discarding or
remodeling some of the supposed truths that you may have already
As a science student, you should try to develop a healthy skepticism
toward scientific findings, both old and new.
Critical Thinking To what extent should scientists be held responsible for the social and
moral consequences of their discoveries? Scan the science section of a
newspaper and find an article that you can critically assess. Are the
claims valid, or does the report seem to be biased in any way that you
References Haines, L. (1997). Consumer Testing: Applying the Scientific Method to
Everyday Life. Science Scope. v21 n4 p34-38 September.
King, Ken. (1996). Addressing Superstitious Beliefs through Science
Activities. Science Activities. v33 n3 p20-22. Fall.
Van den Brul, Caroline. (1995). Perceptions of Science: How Scientists
and Others View the Media Reporting of Science. Studies in Science
Education. v25 p211-37.
http://www.sciam.com/currentissue.html (selections from Scientific
MA.E.3.4. The student explains the limitations of using statistical
techniques and data in making inferences and valid arguments
S.C.H.1.4. The student uses the scientific processes and habits of mind
to solve problems.
S.C.H.3.4. The student understands that science, technology, and society
are interwoven and interdependent.
Section 1: The Scientific Method
Lab 2: Statistics
Introduction What is statistics? Statistics is the science of collecting and interpreting
numerical data. Scientists need to be sure that their results are not due to
The best way to answer "what is statistics" is to consider an example of
its application. Suppose a research biologist wishes to investigate the
food preference of a fish. The fish is placed in a tank with a thread herring
and a shrimp. If the fish liked both prey equally, it would have a 50/50
chance of choosing one randomly. However, if the fish had a strong
preference for shrimp, you would expect it to choose its favorite food
most of the time. If you did the experiment only once, you could not draw
any valid conclusions. If the experiment was repeated twice, and the fish
chose shrimp each time, this would still not be enough of a case for a
preference. After 10 trials, however, if the fish chose the shrimp every
time, this would indicate a strong statistical case for shrimp being the
fish's favorite food.
So, let us now look at the characteristics common to the scientific method
and its application to inferential statistics. First, we make an observation
or measurement that cannot be predicted with any certainty in advance.
We cannot say in advance whether the fish will choose the shrimp or the
thread herring. Then, we sample by using a group of fish from the main
population of fish. Third, we collect the data or measurements with a
measurement corresponding to each fish. Finally, our objective is to
obtain information that can be used to make an inference about a larger
set of measurements called a population.
Putting these four steps together, using random observations, sampling,
numerical data and inference about a population, we can then define
statistics as the science of collecting and interpreting numbers:
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