Scientific method

The scientific method is the typical experimental method or procedure by which it is possible to proceed to achieve objective, reliable, verifiable, and shareable knowledge of reality.

The scientific method step-by-step

The scientific or experimental method is mainly divided into two phases:

  1. inductive phase (i.e., from the study of experimental data we arrive at the formulation of a universal rule);
  2. deductive phase.

The inductive phase is also divided into:

  • Observation: constitutes the starting point of the search for a law that governs an observed phenomenon, and in addition, also the verification that the law found is actually always respected. It is a matter of identifying the characteristics of the observed phenomenon, making appropriate measurements, with exactly reproducible methods. In physics, in fact, this word is often used as a synonym of measurement;
  • Experiment: is programmed by the observer who perturbs the system and measures the responses to the perturbations;
  • Correlation between measurements: it constitutes the initial part of the technical-scientific heritage that can be used for the construction of the model. The raw data, which is usually constituted by tables of measures, can be manipulated in various ways, from the construction of a graph to the logarithmic transformation, from the calculation of the average to the interpolation between the experimental points, using the methods of descriptive statistics;
  • Definition of a physical model: a physical model is built, with elements whose functioning is known, and that are supposed to represent the overall behavior of the phenomenon studied to facilitate the task of writing the law that expresses the trend of a certain phenomenon;
  • Elaboration of a mathematical model: in general a mathematical model is made up of several concatenated elements, each of which is described by an equation and characterized by the parameters that enter into that equation.

The deductive phase is distinguished in:

  • Hypothesis testing (data are subjected to rigorous verification, counterevidence is made, in addition, the identified mathematical model must be validated with a verification phase through an adequate number of experimental data. It is said identifiable if it is possible to determine all the parameters of the equations that describe it);
  • Formulation and formalization of a theory (if the hypothesis is confirmed).

In practice, the scientific method is a way to obtain information on the mechanism of natural events by proposing answers to the questions posed: to determine whether the proposed solutions are valid we use tests (experiments) conducted in a rigorous manner. The rigorousness of the scientific method lies in the fact that a theory is never definitive but is susceptible to change or replacement, if new aspects not yet considered come to light.

The scientific method requires a systematic search for information and a continuous check to see if pre-existing ideas are still supported by new information. If the new evidence is not favorable, scientists discard or modify their original ideas. Scientific thought is therefore subjected to constant criticism, modification but also re-evaluation: this is what makes it so great and universal.

Historical notes

During the scientific revolution, not only the image of the world changed, but also the image of science itself, which was no longer conceived as the intuition of the magician or astrologer nor the commentary on the authority of a philosopher like Aristotle, but as an investigation and discourse on the world of nature. This is a process of slow change that has its origins in Humanism, which had secularized the function of reason by freeing it from the constraints of theology and religious dogmas, and that has its outcome in the foundation of the scientific method especially by Galileo, Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton: science becomes experimental science and through the “experiment” scientists want to formulate true propositions about the world.

With Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was introduced the experimental scientific method: it is based on a first observation, followed by an experiment, developed in a controlled way, so that we can reproduce the phenomenon we want to study. The experiment aims to validate or refute the hypothesis that the scientist has formulated, hypothesis that aims to explain the mechanisms behind that particular event. The characteristic feature of modern science is summarized precisely in the “method”, which requires on the one hand imagination and creativity in the hypothesis and on the other hand their public control. It is precisely on the basis of the experimental method that the autonomy of science is founded.

An important feature of the scientific revolution is the formation of a knowledge that, unlike the medieval one, brings together theory and practice, science and technology, giving rise to a new type of scholar who is no longer the magician or the interpreter of texts of the past, but the experimental scientist who represents a public knowledge, controllable and progressive that is revealed through experiments made more rigorous by new measuring instruments increasingly precise.

This determines the end of the distinction between liberal arts (intellectual work) and mechanical arts (manual work) and the beginning of a collaboration between scientists and technicians and superior craftsmen, such as engineers, architects and artists. Moreover, the idea of a methodologically regulated and publicly controllable knowledge led to the birth of new scientific institutions, such as academies and laboratories, and to the intensification of relations among scholars, but it also gave rise to the need to communicate new discoveries to a wider audience through an accessible language, thus determining the birth of scientific prose in the vernacular.

An important aspect of the reflections of this period concerns the problem of knowledge, that is, how human reason knows the world and manages to represent it, in what way it can bring the multiplicity of reality to a rational order. Scientists and philosophers of the seventeenth century identify as the basic nucleus of reason its mathematical and geometric abilities, so mathematics and geometry are the universal languages of scientific knowledge.

The problem of explaining the principles of human knowledge is a question that Descartes tried to answer, putting forward the proposal to break the ties with the past and to doubt everything, thought as well as the senses and common experience. In one of his most important works, the Discourse on Method, he exposed the individual path of a disoriented and doubtful mind in search of truth.

Descartes is to be considered one of the founding fathers of modern thought; in fact he is one of the first to realize that the foundations of the traditional system of explanation of the world and knowledge no longer held up, attracted as he was by the new Galilean science, mathematics and the Copernican system.

The research on method as well as in Descartes has in Leibniz one of its greatest exponents. According to Leibniz it was necessary to build an artificial language in which to translate all philosophical issues because ordinary language, according to him, was too tied to normal communication between men to be suitable to serve as a clear and definitive tool for the resolution of major disputes. His research was therefore directed towards the creation of a language of the mind that would lead human discourse back to the rigor of mathematics.

Descartes, on the other hand, did not pretend to become a mathematician or an expert in geometry, but rather to extract the methodological heart of these sciences so that it could serve outside the realm of numbers. He therefore thought of a “universal mathematics,” a mathematics of thought without numbers and geometric figures.

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