The Scientific Method

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The scientific methodis the modus operandi of science. It involves formulating and testing a theory. The theory is supported or not supported by the test results. In the event the observation does not agree with the theory, the theory has to be abandoned or revised.

In explaining the scientific method to a non-scientist, I like to use the analogy of a crime scene investigator. Just because the victim was stabbed by the butler’s knife, it doesn’t necessarily “prove” the butler committed the crime. However, additional evidence (e.g. the butler’s fingerprints on the knife, the butler and the victim had an argument the night before, etc) adds support to the theory. Any one piece of evidence is not sufficient to convict the butler, but the accumulation of evidence builds up the case. The scientific method works the same way. We need multipleobservations to support a theory.

In our presentation, “Is It Chemistry or Magic?”, we have a demonstration that illustrates the scientific method. It is simply a box with a string through it. The box is closed; thus, no one can see inside the box. The demonstrator pulls the string through the box and the audience is asked to arrive at a theory regarding the configuration of the string inside the box. This theory is tested by further manipulations of the string, and the theory is modified depending on the results.

We call this demonstration The Box. We run it in conjunction with the Landolt clock reaction (the subject of another blog) to introduce a major theoretical interest of chemists: the atomic/molecular description of chemical reactions. Clock reactions can be used to emphasize that human senses do not directly detect what is going on “inside the chemical reaction box.” Chemists must measure what they see directly and use the scientific reasoning process to infer what human senses cannot detect directly. This demonstration is unique to our presentation; it was developed by one of us (OSR) years ago.

Why do we need multiple observations to support a theory? It is because the scientific method operates from an invalid form of argument.


Consider this argument:

If that object is a bird, then it has wings. 
That object has wings. 
Therefore, that object is a bird.

Clearly there is something wrong with the conclusion. Airplanes have wings, but they are not birds. Additional observations have to be made to support to the theory that the object is a bird.

On the other hand, consider:

If that object is a bird, then it has wings. 
That object has no wings. 
Therefore that object is not a bird.

This is a valid argument. Thus, “disproving” a scientific theory is valid. Which of these arguments is used in the following video, TheBox?

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