Scientific Method

Objectives

When you have completed this section, you should be able to

  • describe the inductive and hypothetico-deductive methods of obtaining scientific knowledge;
  • describe some aspects of experimental design that help to ensure objective and reliable results; and
  • explain what is meant by hypothesis, fact, law, and theory in science.

Prior to the seventeenth century, science was done in a haphazard way by a small number of isolated individuals. The philosophers Francis Bacon (1561-1626) in England and René Descartes (1596-1650) in France envisioned science as a far greater, systematic enterprise with enormous possibilities for human health and welfare. They detested those who endlessly debated ancient philosophy without creating anything new. Bacon argued against biased thinking and for more objectivity in science. He outlined a systematic way of seeking similarities, differences, and trends in nature and drawing useful generalizations from observable facts. You will see echoes of Bacon's philosophy in the discussion of scientific method that follows.

Though the followers of Bacon and Descartes argued bitterly with each other, both men wanted science to become a public, cooperative enterprise, supported by governments and conducted by an international community of scholars rather than a few isolated amateurs. Inspired by their vision, the French and English governments established academies of science that still flourish today. Bacon and Descartes are credited with putting science on the path to modernity, not by discovering anything new in nature or inventing any techniques—for neither man was a scientist—but by inventing new habits of scientific thought.

When we say "scientific," we mean that such thinking is based on assumptions and methods that yield reliable, objective, testable information about nature. The assumptions of science are ideas that have proven fruitful in the past—for example, the idea that natural phenomena have natural causes and nature is therefore predictable and understandable. The methods of science are highly variable. Scientific method refers less to observational procedures than to certain habits of disciplined creativity, careful observation, logical thinking, and honest analysis of one's observations and conclusions. It is especially important in health science to understand these habits. This field is littered with more fads and frauds than any other. We are called upon constantly to judge which claims are trustworthy and which are bogus. To make such judgments depends on an appreciation of how scientists think, how they set standards for truth, and why their claims are more reliable than others.

Chapter 1 Major Themes of Anatomy and Physiology 7

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