Triumph of Reason: The Scientific Method
by Groff Schroeder
All modern technology stems from the scientific method. Misrepresented by detractors as everything from fraud to religion, the scientific method defines a group of repeatable, verifiable and predictive practices that have led humans to the pinnacle of technology upon which we now stand. From its first inception in the work of Archimedes, the use of measurement and experiment to unlock the secrets of nature has resulted in some of the most important advancements in history.
The works of Roger Bacon in the 13th century and Sir Francis Bacon in the 17th century employed experimentalism but found limited acceptance in a world focused upon religion and art. In 1600, Dominican philosopher Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake during the Catholic Inquisition after supporting the Copernican heliocentric theory. A contemporary of Bruno, Galileo Galilei brought the use of measurement and experiment into wide acceptance through his experiments with falling bodies, laying the groundwork for modern science. Like Bruno, Galileo also defied church dictates by suggesting that the earth could revolve around the sun. Galileo managed to avoid being burned at the stake by an infallible Pope, instead spending years of his life under house arrest. While the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution brought science to the forefront of human achievement, science once again faces rejection, misunderstanding and fear, even as it provides treasured technologies of SUVs, computers, telecommunications, “smart” bombs and the medical “miracles” of antibiotics, surgery, and vaccines.
The scientific method is a series of not necessarily sequential steps, often beginning with research of previous publications by past scientists in scholarly journals. This step alone can lead to advancements in science as was discovered by three independent scientists who, in 1900, unearthed Gregor Mendel’s brilliant but long forgotten 1865 work on plant genetics. Another step of the scientific method involves the formation of an educated guess called a hypothesis. One example of the hypothesis in science is Einstein’s work on gravitation and his accompanying prediction that strong gravitational fields would bend light. Hypotheses and accompanying predictions are tested in yet another step of the scientific method, observation and experiment. Sir Arthur Eddington verified Einstein’s hypothesis by observing the bending of starlight by the sun during the solar eclipse of 1919.
After observation and experiment, publication places often extremely detailed information about the hypothesis, the experiment, the experimental method and the statistical representations of the results into the public domain. Typically, these publications appear in “peer reviewed” journals that utilize experts from the field to carefully review the work prior to publication. Competing scientists use published journal articles to recreate, repeat and test the experiment and the conclusions of its authors. If the observations can be repeated, they support the hypothesis which is validated to a degree. If a hypothesis is validated repeatedly, often over 100 years or more, the hypothesis becomes a scientific theory such as the Theory of Evolution. After even more extensive validation over time, a hypothesis can become a scientific law such as the Law of Conservation of Energy.
Imperfect yet self-correcting, the scientific method provides a repeatable, verifiable, prognostic mechanism through which humans can accurately and precisely discover, model, and predict the behavior of nature. Without science, none of the technology we take for granted would be possible.
Published March 31, 2021 in the Freethinkers of Colorado Springs, Freethought Views Column in the Colorado Springs Independent with the quotation below.
Original version June 2003.