By Melody Xu
Art by Alex Hanson
Everyone has heard of the scientific method. It’s mentioned in practically every high school science textbook, presented to students as some sort of divine method to conduct experiments. In a way, the idea of the scientific method has been black-boxed for us; we know that it yields results, but do we know how it works? How has the scientific method come to be the process that we know it as today? Has it always been the same? In order to gain a better understanding of the scientific method, the history of it must also be examined.
There have been many different variations, where some steps may be combined or implied rather than explicitly stated, but the underlying concept, I would argue, remains pretty consistent. The steps are to (1) ask a question, (2) do background research, (3) construct a hypothesis, (4) conduct an experiment to test the hypothesis, (5) analyze the data, (6) draw a conclusion, and finally, (7) determine whether your hypothesis was correct or not. There are a plethora of different cultures and people that have had an influence on our modern scientific method, but I will be describing just a few of the earliest contributors: Aristotle, Ibn al-Haytham, Francis Bacon, and just briefly, Isaac Newton.
People often assume that science and empiricism have always come hand-in-hand. However, early Greek philosophers initially did not believe in empiricism. Plato believed that pure reasoning was all that was needed; there was no need to actually go out and gather measurements and observations. Aristotle, as the proclaimed father of science, is one of the first documented philosophers to recognize the key role that empirical measurements have. His “scientific method,” which was essentially making meticulous observations about anything and everything, was not as structured as the one that we recognize today. The steps are (1) reading previous literature written by others on the subject, (2) draw a general consensus from what you have read, and finally, (3) conduct a study yourself on everything related to the subject. Aristotle’s work serves as the first appearance of any sort of list that resembles the method we are familiar with today, although it was far more general than what we are used to seeing.
The brilliant and enlightened philosophers during the early Islamic ages also had an incredible influence on the development of the scientific method. Following the footsteps of the Ancient Greeks, they drew upon the knowledge put forward by the former and continued to form a scientific method more akin to the one used by modern scholars and scientists. Ibn al-Haytham, the brilliant author of “The Book of Optics”, had developed a scientific method with the following steps of (1) identifying a problem, (2) testing or criticizing an assumption through experiments, (3) gathering data and drawing a conclusion, and ultimately, (4) sharing your findings, usually through publication. The Muslim philosophers were also key in discovering many other important facts in the scientific sphere. For instance, Al-Biruni had been one of the first to recognize the importance of controlled experimentation and replication, as well as the lack of objectivity in both human observation and measuring tools.
Two of the most influential names attached to the concept of the scientific method are no doubt Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton. Often dubbed the “Father of Empiricism”, Francis Bacon (not to be confused with the lovely Roger Bacon, who was also influential in the development of the scientific method). Francis Bacon was a huge advocator of the use of induction— drawing a conclusion or a general law through specific instances— in science. He believed that all scientific discovery must go through a process of observation, experimentation, analyzation, and logical inductive reasoning. This process could also be used to isolate and perfect a single theory amongst several conflicting ones, allowing humankind to move closer to truth. It wasn’t until Isaac Newton, perhaps the most influential contributor of the scientific method during the Scientific Revolution, recognized the significance of and promoted both deduction and induction in the mainstream scientific method that the structure and application of the scientific method that we know today was truly set in place.
There are, no doubt, more names than I have mentioned who have played an instrumental part in shaping the development of the scientific method. Writing a complete history of the scientific method would require an entire lifetime’s worth of research. Especially difficult is the fact that the creation of something so intrinsic to an entire field, joining so many subfields together, has been and will constantly be, in my opinion, shaped and influenced by the people of the time. Decades could be spent researching every single name who has left a mark on the scientific method; for now, though, the understanding that these concepts that we hold to such high standards and such great value have developed through the minds of many brilliant individuals and groups is already a fantastic start.