When is Something Scientific?

What allows a given idea to be defined as scientific? Today the word scientific has in many ways been overused and it has lost its original meaning. So what exactly does “scientific” really mean?

scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of facts that has been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment. Such fact-supported theories are not "guesses" but reliable accounts of the real world.
In other words, when something is scientific it is real and reliable. And that is perhaps the problem because everyone wants to be able to say that their method, product, medicine, etc. is scientifically proven and is therefore reliable.

What is the scientific method?
There are different ways to do “science”. Some say there are three steps, some say four and yet others say five. Here we will look at the five-step process.

1. Make an observation
All science enquiries begin with an observation of something in the natural world. In other words you wonder how something works.
You may notice that cars use more or less fuel depending on their shape. So you may wonder what shape of car would use the least amount of fuel.

2. Ask a question
You now need to formulate a specific question that can be tested and verified, such as which shape of car has the best aerodynamics. If you have ever wanted to know what causes something to happen, then you have probably already asked a question that could launch a scientific investigation.

3. Formulate a hypothesis.
A hypothesis is often defined as an educated guess because it is almost always informed by what you already know about a topic. For example, if you wanted to study the air-resistance problem stated above, you might already have an intuitive sense that a car shaped like a bird would reduce air resistance more effectively than a car shaped like a box. You could use that intuition to help formulate your hypothesis.
Generally, a hypothesis is stated as an "if … then" statement and in making such a statement, scientists engage in deductive reasoning. Deduction requires movement in logic from the general to the specific. Here's an example: if a car's body profile is related to the amount of air resistance it produces (general statement), then a car designed like the body of a bird will be more aerodynamic and reduce air resistance more than a car designed like a box (specific statement).

Notice that there are two important qualities about a hypothesis expressed as an "if … then" statement. First, it can be tested; an experiment can be set up to test the validity of the statement. Second, it can be proved wrong; an experiment can be devised that might reveal that such an idea is not true. If these two qualities are not met, then the question being asked cannot be addressed using the scientific method..

4. Conduct an experiment

Many people think of an experiment as something that takes place in a laboratory. While this can be true, experiments don't have to involve laboratory workbenches, Bunsen burners or test-tubes. They do, however, have to be set up to test a specific hypothesis and they must be controlled. Controlling an experiment means controlling all of the variables so that only a single variable is studied. The independent variable is the one that's controlled and manipulated by the experimenter, whereas the dependent variable is not. As the independent variable is manipulated, the dependent variable is measured for variation. In our car example, the independent variable is the shape of the car's body. The dependent variable -- what we measure as the effect of the car's profile -- could be speed, fuel consumption or a direct measure of the amount of air pressure exerted on the car.

Controlling an experiment means setting it up so that it has a control group and an experimental group. The control group allows the experimenter to compare his test results against a baseline measurement so he can feel confident that his results are not due to chance. Now let’s consider our air-resistance example. If we wanted to run this experiment, we would need at least two cars -- one with a streamlined, birdlike shape and another shaped like a box. The former would be the experimental group, the latter the control. All other variables -- the weight of the cars, the tires, even the paint on the cars -- should be identical. Even the track and the conditions on the track should be controlled as much as possible.

5. Analyse data and draw a conclusion

During an experiment, scientists collect both quantitative and qualitative data. Buried in that information, hopefully, is evidence to support or reject the hypothesis. The amount of analysis required to come to a satisfactory conclusion can vary tremendously. Sometimes, sophisticated statistical tools have to be used to analyse data. Either way, the ultimate goal is to prove or disprove the hypothesis and, in doing so, answer the original question.

Gregor Mendel (1822-1884), an Austrian priest who studied the inheritance of traits in pea plants and helped pioneer the study of genetics, may have fallen victim to a kind of error known as confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency to see data that supports a hypothesis while ignoring data that does not. Mendel obtained a certain result using a small sample size, then continued collecting and censoring data to make sure his original result was confirmed. Later experiments have proven Mendel's hypothesis, but many people still question his methods of experimentation.

Most of the time, however, the scientific method works and works well. When a hypothesis or a group of related hypotheses have been confirmed through repeated experimental tests, it may become a theory, which can be thought of as the pot of gold at the end of the scientific method rainbow. Theories are much broader in scope than hypotheses and hold enormous predictive power. The theory of relativity, for example, predicted the existence of black holes long before there was evidence to support the idea. It should be noted, however, that one of the goals of science is not to prove theories right, but to prove them wrong. When this happens, a theory must be modified or discarded altogether.


In testing the hypothesis, scientists have some good guidelines to follow. They must mot take anything on faith. They must not take anyone’s opinions as fact. The experiment has to be repeatable by anyone, anywhere. The theory must be able to be tested.

It's really straightforward, or is it?
Doctors commonly say that they practice “scientific medicine” and their treatments are scientifically proven. However, the British Medical Journal conducted a “Clinical Evidence” study published in 2007. This reviewed 2,500 common treatments that were supposedly supported by scientifically reliable evidence.
Here is what the study found:
  • 13% or 325 were found to be beneficial.
  • 23% or 575 were likely to be beneficial.
  • 8%   or 200 were as likely to be harmful as beneficial.
  • 6%   or 150 were unlikely to be beneficial.
  • 4%   or 125 were likely to be harmful and ineffective.
  • 46% or 1,040 were unknown to be either effective or harmful.
In the late 70s, the US Office of Technology Assessment (1978) made a similar evaluation and found that only between 10 and 20% of medical treatments had evidence of effectiveness.

Many companies, as do the Doctors themselves, often use the words “scientifically proven as a sales point to make their treatment or products stand out.

Medicine is not scientific, it is an applied science, and the treatments are not scientifically proven except for a small number. In the same way, optometric treatment, putting on glasses, is not scientifically proven to be effective either. The treatment may relieve the symptoms but do not actually address the problem.

Studies were often made which highlighted only a short period of time during or after the treatment was given. At first, it showed great promise but after it was discontinued the problem returned or actually got worse. In some cases the side effects were worse than the problem itself. For example, a very popular anti-anxiety drug called Xanax was shown to reduce panic attacks during a two-month experiment. But once a person discontinued the medication, panic attacks increased 300-400% (Consumer Reports 1983). Some treatments work in 60% of the cases, which is better than using placebos, then is considered to be successful in general, ignoring the fact that it will be useless in 40% of the cases.

Allen Roses, worldwide vice-president of genetics, GlaxoSmithKline, acknowledged that “The vast majority of drugs - more than 90% - only work for 30-50% of the people who take them” (Connor, 2003). 

So much for scientifically proven effectiveness!

Leo Angart


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