What is the Scientific Method: How does it work and why is it important?

The scientific method is a systematic process involving steps like defining questions, forming hypotheses, conducting experiments, and analyzing data. It minimizes biases and enables replicable research, leading to groundbreaking discoveries like Einstein's theory of relativity, penicillin, and the structure of DNA. This ongoing approach promotes reason, evidence, and the pursuit of truth in science.

Updated on November 18, 2023

What is the Scientific Method: How does it work and why is it important?

Beginning in elementary school, we are exposed to the scientific method and taught how to put it into practice. As a tool for learning, it prepares children to think logically and use reasoning when seeking answers to questions.

Rather than jumping to conclusions, the scientific method gives us a recipe for exploring the world through observation and trial and error. We use it regularly, sometimes knowingly in academics or research, and sometimes subconsciously in our daily lives.

In this article we will refresh our memories on the particulars of the scientific method, discussing where it comes from, which elements comprise it, and how it is put into practice. Then, we will consider the importance of the scientific method, who uses it and under what circumstances.

What is the scientific method?

The scientific method is a dynamic process that involves objectively investigating questions through observation and experimentation. Applicable to all scientific disciplines, this systematic approach to answering questions is more accurately described as a flexible set of principles than as a fixed series of steps.

The following representations of the scientific method illustrate how it can be both condensed into broad categories and also expanded to reveal more and more details of the process. These graphics capture the adaptability that makes this concept universally valuable as it is relevant and accessible not only across age groups and educational levels but also within various contexts.

a graph of the scientific method

Steps in the scientific method

While the scientific method is versatile in form and function, it encompasses a collection of principles that create a logical progression to the process of problem solving:

  1. Define a question: Constructing a clear and precise problem statement that identifies the main question or goal of the investigation is the first step. The wording must lend itself to experimentation by posing a question that is both testable and measurable.
  2. Gather information and resources: Researching the topic in question to find out what is already known and what types of related questions others are asking is the next step in this process. This background information is vital to gaining a full understanding of the subject and in determining the best design for experiments. 
  3. Form a hypothesis: Composing a concise statement that identifies specific variables and potential results, which can then be tested, is a crucial step that must be completed before any experimentation. An imperfection in the composition of a hypothesis can result in weaknesses to the entire design of an experiment.
  4. Perform the experiments: Testing the hypothesis by performing replicable experiments and collecting resultant data is another fundamental step of the scientific method. By controlling some elements of an experiment while purposely manipulating others, cause and effect relationships are established.
  5. Analyze the data: Interpreting the experimental process and results by recognizing trends in the data is a necessary step for comprehending its meaning and supporting the conclusions. Drawing inferences through this systematic process lends substantive evidence for either supporting or rejecting the hypothesis.
  6. Report the results: Sharing the outcomes of an experiment, through an essay, presentation, graphic, or journal article, is often regarded as a final step in this process. Detailing the project's design, methods, and results not only promotes transparency and replicability but also adds to the body of knowledge for future research.
  7. Retest the hypothesis: Repeating experiments to see if a hypothesis holds up in all cases is a step that is manifested through varying scenarios. Sometimes a researcher immediately checks their own work or replicates it at a future time, or another researcher will repeat the experiments to further test the hypothesis.
a chart of the scientific method

Where did the scientific method come from?

Oftentimes, ancient peoples attempted to answer questions about the unknown by:

  • Making simple observations
  • Discussing the possibilities with others deemed worthy of a debate
  • Drawing conclusions based on dominant opinions and preexisting beliefs

For example, take Greek and Roman mythology. Myths were used to explain everything from the seasons and stars to the sun and death itself.

However, as societies began to grow through advancements in agriculture and language, ancient civilizations like Egypt and Babylonia shifted to a more rational analysis for understanding the natural world. They increasingly employed empirical methods of observation and experimentation that would one day evolve into the scientific method

In the 4th century, Aristotle, considered the Father of Science by many, suggested these elements, which closely resemble the contemporary scientific method, as part of his approach for conducting science:

  • Study what others have written about the subject.
  • Look for the general consensus about the subject.
  • Perform a systematic study of everything even partially related to the topic.
a pyramid of the scientific method

By continuing to emphasize systematic observation and controlled experiments, scholars such as Al-Kindi and Ibn al-Haytham helped expand this concept throughout the Islamic Golden Age

In his 1620 treatise, Novum Organum, Sir Francis Bacon codified the scientific method, arguing not only that hypotheses must be tested through experiments but also that the results must be replicated to establish a truth. Coming at the height of the Scientific Revolution, this text made the scientific method accessible to European thinkers like Galileo and Isaac Newton who then put the method into practice.

As science modernized in the 19th century, the scientific method became more formalized, leading to significant breakthroughs in fields such as evolution and germ theory. Today, it continues to evolve, underpinning scientific progress in diverse areas like quantum mechanics, genetics, and artificial intelligence.

Why is the scientific method important?

The history of the scientific method illustrates how the concept developed out of a need to find objective answers to scientific questions by overcoming biases based on fear, religion, power, and cultural norms. This still holds true today.

By implementing this standardized approach to conducting experiments, the impacts of researchers’ personal opinions and preconceived notions are minimized. The organized manner of the scientific method prevents these and other mistakes while promoting the replicability and transparency necessary for solid scientific research.

The importance of the scientific method is best observed through its successes, for example: 

  1. Albert Einstein stands out among modern physicists as the scientist who not only formulated a theory of revolutionary significance but also had the genius to reflect in a conscious and technical way on the scientific method he was using.” Devising a hypothesis based on the prevailing understanding of Newtonian physics eventually led Einstein to devise the theory of general relativity.
  2. Howard Florey “Perhaps the most useful lesson which has come out of the work on penicillin has been the demonstration that success in this field depends on the development and coordinated use of technical methods.” After discovering a mold that prevented the growth of Staphylococcus bacteria, Dr. Alexander Flemimg designed experiments to identify and reproduce it in the lab, thus leading to the development of penicillin.
  3. James D. Watson “Every time you understand something, religion becomes less likely. Only with the discovery of the double helix and the ensuing genetic revolution have we had grounds for thinking that the powers held traditionally to be the exclusive property of the gods might one day be ours. . . .” By using wire models to conceive a structure for DNA, Watson and Crick crafted a hypothesis for testing combinations of amino acids, X-ray diffraction images, and the current research in atomic physics, resulting in the discovery of DNA’s double helix structure.

Final thoughts

As the cases exemplify, the scientific method is never truly completed, but rather started and restarted. It gave these researchers a structured process that was easily replicated, modified, and built upon. 

While the scientific method may “end” in one context, it never literally ends. When a hypothesis, design, methods, and experiments are revisited, the scientific method simply picks up where it left off. Each time a researcher builds upon previous knowledge, the scientific method is restored with the pieces of past efforts.

By guiding researchers towards objective results based on transparency and reproducibility, the scientific method acts as a defense against bias, superstition, and preconceived notions. As we embrace the scientific method's enduring principles, we ensure that our quest for knowledge remains firmly rooted in reason, evidence, and the pursuit of truth.

Research processAcademic writing
Table of contents
Join the newsletter
Sign up for early access to AJE Scholar articles, discounts on AJE services, and more

See our "Privacy Policy"