Hypothesis as Part of the Scientific Method

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MoghLiechty2
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Hypothesis as Part of the Scientific Method

Postby MoghLiechty2 » Sun Jan 25, 2009 8:56 am UTC

I'm sorry if this is unbelievably ignorant, but I just haven't been able to find a decent answer anywhere else.

Does anyone have a good reason why hypothesis is a part of the scientific method? It seems to me that in practice all it ends up being is a wide open door to bias. Intuitively, I can't see a reason why the experimentalist couldn't just ask the question, and move right along to designing a test for it. In short, why should the scientist's own educated guess of the subject matter have any relevance before performing the experiment to test what he supposedly does not know?

Thanks in advance.

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Re: Hypothesis as Part of the Scientific Method

Postby Pa-Patch » Sun Jan 25, 2009 9:12 am UTC

Having a hypothesis is pretty important to designing or coming up with a test, and pretty hard to remove from the process. If you aren't supposing "Maybe X is whatever" you can't really come up with the idea for a test for X. I have a hard time imagining someone deciding to test something without a hypothesis, even if only one they don't write down.
Obviously you need to able to accept when a hypothesis is wrong and that there are people who don't and therefore do bad science, but you still need hypotheses.

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Re: Hypothesis as Part of the Scientific Method

Postby masher » Sun Jan 25, 2009 9:14 am UTC

It's pretty important to the whole process.

Is drinking beer related to bad driving? I hypothesise that the amount of beer you consume does not affect your driving ability.

Now I have a question I can answer.

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Re: Hypothesis as Part of the Scientific Method

Postby MoghLiechty2 » Sun Jan 25, 2009 9:41 am UTC

masher wrote:It's pretty important to the whole process.

Is drinking beer related to bad driving? I hypothesise that the amount of beer you consume does not affect your driving ability.

Now I have a question I can answer.


Hypothesis doesn't cause a more specific question. Couldn't you just make the question, "Does the amount of beer you consume affect your driving ability?" And answer that question?

Of course, whether or not hypothesis is or is not a part of the scientific method is irrelevant, because science is so politicized. Too often, both the question AND the hypothesis aren't even formulated by the scientist, but rather an interest group or a grant organization. Then the scientist plays a game of "prove the hypothesis correct to keep my grant money." Or am I being too cynical?

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Re: Hypothesis as Part of the Scientific Method

Postby idobox » Sun Jan 25, 2009 9:55 am UTC

Couldn't you just make the question, "Does the amount of beer you consume affect your driving ability?" And answer that question?

Why would you ask the question if you don't imagine it can have an effect.

Also, if you don't do hypotheses, and only measures, all you get is facts, not theories, and without theories, you have no models. For example, if Newton just measured the time the apple takes to fall depending of the height of the tree, without ever emitting hypotheses on the mechanism, he wouldn't have "discovered" the laws kinetics.

An other example: imagine the guy in charge of research on cancer, worldwide. He has no idea what cancer is, how it works, or how to cure it, so he decides to test every single chemical on Earth to avoid bias. It would require much more time and lab rats, probably to get worse results. So for a time, searchers made the hypothesis cancer was caused by a virus, they did some tests, and found some cancers were caused by virus, and some not, then they made the hypothesis the cancerous cells had mutated, etc...
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Re: Hypothesis as Part of the Scientific Method

Postby Aradae » Sun Jan 25, 2009 4:30 pm UTC

In designing a scientific experiment it's best to start by predicting what would happen according to theory. I'm going to give the discovery of the quantum mechanical nature of specific heats as an example. Before Quantum Mechanics it was believed that the specific heat (the proportionality constant of internal energy to temperature and volume) was governed by the degrees of freedom of a the molecule and was constant with temperature. A diatomic molecule has six degrees of freedom (translational along 3 axis, rotational along two, and a vibratory motion between the two particles.)

The energy for each degree of freedom is 1/2 kT, plus the potential energy in the oscillatory movement is 1/2 kT therfore giving us that the total energy U = 7/2 kT for each molecule. or 2/7 U = nkT. or .286 U = nKT

Quite a simple constant we have there however experiment shows that it is quite wrong. H2 sits at .404U = nkT.
Oxygen sits at .399. Clearly this is beyond experimental error. We also find that, experimentally, the specific heat rises as we lower the temperature and approaches the classical prediction of 2/7 as the temperature approaches infinity.

Now, why is the classical theory wrong? It's because certain degrees of freedom are "frozen" at lower temperatures because energy can only be absorbed in discrete intervals. If there isn't enough energy for vibration it simply won't vibrate. It won't vibrate more slowly, it will just cease altogether. This theory reinforces the data that it approaches the limit of 2/7 as the temperature increases to infinity because there is a lot more energy available and therefore a higher chance that the atom will exhibit motion in each of the degrees of freedom in a good proportion to the temperature.

Now if physicists hadn't gone about and tried to predict the specific heats before hand, if they hadn't made a hypothesis, we would have no idea there was a problem with our classical interpretations of specific heats. We would just have data that for hydrogen, .404 U = nkT which is all well and good but we'd have no idea what would it means to our classical theory. Hypothesis is a vital indication to finding whether the experiment contradicts our current model of the universe our reinforces it.
Last edited by Aradae on Mon Jan 26, 2009 1:32 pm UTC, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Hypothesis as Part of the Scientific Method

Postby MoghLiechty2 » Sun Jan 25, 2009 8:01 pm UTC

Ah, yes I love these forums, people are so smart,

I really like Aradae's example. I think the flaw in my own definition of hypothesis is what was causing me the most trouble. Would it be reasonable to say that the following statements: "Global Warming is directly attributable to human activity" and "Transpeciation is possible and observable" aren't really valid hypotheses because they don't answer the question to anything remotely testable? In which case the bias I'm complaining about is more a fault of the political system than the scientific method, right?

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Re: Hypothesis as Part of the Scientific Method

Postby gmalivuk » Sun Jan 25, 2009 8:05 pm UTC

Aradae wrote:Now if physicists hadn't gone about and tried to predict the specific heats before hand, if they hadn't made a hypothesis, we would have no Idea there was a problem with our classical interpretations of specific heats.

There really wouldn't even *be* a classical interpretation of specific heat. Previous theories are themselves hypotheses for further observation and experiment, so saying we shouldn't make a hypothesis is akin to saying we shouldn't theorize on the results.
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Re: Hypothesis as Part of the Scientific Method

Postby Sargon » Sun Jan 25, 2009 8:09 pm UTC

MoghLiechty2 wrote:Ah, yes I love these forums, people are so smart,

I really like Aradae's example. I think the flaw in my own definition of hypothesis is what was causing me the most trouble. Would it be reasonable to say that the following statements: "Global Warming is directly attributable to human activity" and "Transpeciation is possible and observable" aren't really valid hypotheses because they don't answer the question to anything remotely testable? In which case the bias I'm complaining about is more a fault of the political system than the scientific method, right?


Short version: not really, and certainly not in the way that I suspect you're going with these examples.

Long version: How are those not testable? We've tested both of them already, and found them to be supported. If anything, I will say that your two statements are rather vague, and that people usually design experiments to answer questions somewhat more specific than that. Through the results of these experiments, we can reach conclusions about the broader questions.
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Re: Hypothesis as Part of the Scientific Method

Postby MoghLiechty2 » Sun Jan 25, 2009 8:19 pm UTC

Sargon wrote:Short version: not really, and certainly not in the way that I suspect you're going with these examples.
Long version: How are those not testable? We've tested both of them already, and found them to be supported. If anything, I will say that your two statements are rather vague, and that people usually design experiments to answer questions somewhat more specific than that. Through the results of these experiments, we can reach conclusions about the broader questions.


My intention here isn't to go anywhere with those examples really... There are other threads for that.

And, sure they're testable, but not directly. Conclusions do have to be drawn from individual tests before one can make a larger claim. (And I make no claims about the examples I provided). But yes, I agree, people usually design and answer more specific questions.

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Re: Hypothesis as Part of the Scientific Method

Postby Sargon » Sun Jan 25, 2009 8:23 pm UTC

MoghLiechty2 wrote:My intention here isn't to go anywhere with those examples really... There are other threads for that.


Good, because I really don't want to go into those topics for the thousandth time. Maybe if I'm feeling more masochistic.

And, sure they're testable, but not directly. Conclusions do have to be drawn from individual tests before one can make a larger claim. (And I make no claims about the examples I provided). But yes, I agree, people usually design and answer more specific questions.


Yeah, that's pretty much right, I think.
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Re: Hypothesis as Part of the Scientific Method

Postby gmalivuk » Sun Jan 25, 2009 8:53 pm UTC

Meteorswarm wrote:To me, the "hypothesis" stage of the SM is tantamount to "ask a question that is testable." In what I learned, it comes after observations and before experiment planning, and whether you phrase it as "Does a do this" or "What effect does a have on this" isn't very important, but realistically, you actually use the first one.

I think the OP is somewhat confused at what a hypothesis even is, which is understandable since I remember it wasn't presented to me very well, either, when I first heard about the scientific method.

But this is really it. When you test the hypothesis, "Alcohol causes unsafe driving", you need not actually believe or expect that alcohol does indeed cause unsafe driving. All it means is that you're asking the question, "does alcohol cause unsafe driving?" Of course, you must already suspect that it might, or you wouldn't even think to ask that question. But you need not expect it or believe it before running experiments.
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Re: Hypothesis as Part of the Scientific Method

Postby MoghLiechty2 » Sun Jan 25, 2009 9:06 pm UTC

gmalivuk wrote:I think the OP is somewhat confused at what a hypothesis even is, which is understandable since I remember it wasn't presented to me very well, either, when I first heard about the scientific method.

Yeah probably, I think I've got a better grasp now... Good thing I asked. I'm not even close to a scientist (unless you count computer science to be science... which it's not. I prefer "software engineer").

gmalivuk wrote:But this is really it. When you test the hypothesis, "Alcohol causes unsafe driving", you need not actually believe or expect that alcohol does indeed cause unsafe driving. All it means is that you're asking the question, "does alcohol cause unsafe driving?" Of course, you must already suspect that it might, or you wouldn't even think to ask that question. But you need not expect it or believe it before running experiments.


Well put sir.

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Re: Hypothesis as Part of the Scientific Method

Postby Interactive Civilian » Mon Jan 26, 2009 12:49 am UTC

Meteorswarm wrote:To me, the "hypothesis" stage of the SM is tantamount to "ask a question that is testable." In what I learned, it comes after observations and before experiment planning, and whether you phrase it as "Does a do this" or "What effect does a have on this" isn't very important, but realistically, you actually use the first one. If you're testing the second, beer could make you drive certain roads more often, but you wouldn't think to test that if you didn't hypothesize it. Really, you were thinking "Does beer cause less safe driving," which is a much better-defined question.

Close. The "hypothesis" is your (testable) answer to a question about observations. The question can simply be, "Why does XX happen?", but that is not a hypothesis. The hypothesis is your answer to that question. You then test your answer to see how well it is supported by the data and how well it can predict future phenomena of a similar nature.

Remember, the scientific method, in a nutshell, goes something like this:
Observe -> Question -> Hypothesize -> Experiment -> Analyze -> Repeat

To the original poster, as you can see, it is highly integral to the scientific method. Without having some kind of testable answers to those questions we have about our observations, we can never attempt to explain anything about the universe. It's only a subtle difference from what has been said, but a hypothesis doesn't ask, it explains. :)
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Re: Hypothesis as Part of the Scientific Method

Postby roundedge » Mon Jan 26, 2009 4:25 am UTC

Close. The "hypothesis" is your (testable) answer to a question about observations. The question can simply be, "Why does XX happen?", but that is not a hypothesis. The hypothesis is your answer to that question. You then test your answer to see how well it is supported by the data and how well it can predict future phenomena of a similar nature.


In the case where you have the question "is drunk driving correlated with car accidents" are you limited to one hypothesis? Couldn't you say "Yes, and if yes, then we will see such and such a straight line" and then also say "No, and if no, we will see no straight line"

Then, if you have both yes and no as a hypothesis, is the hypothesis even necessary? Wont it then equate to asking the question?

Admittedly this wouldn't be true for all experiments, an experiment which provides a verification does not necessarily also provide a falsification. But in the case where you have a yes or no question, and you have an experiment which answers one way or the other, can you make a distinction between a hypothesis and a question without considering personal preference?

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Re: Hypothesis as Part of the Scientific Method

Postby Interactive Civilian » Mon Jan 26, 2009 4:45 am UTC

roundedge wrote:In the case where you have the question "is drunk driving correlated with car accidents" are you limited to one hypothesis? Couldn't you say "Yes, and if yes, then we will see such and such a straight line" and then also say "No, and if no, we will see no straight line"

Then, if you have both yes and no as a hypothesis, is the hypothesis even necessary? Wont it then equate to asking the question?
You can have as many hypotheses as you like, provided you test them all. How do you test the correlation with reality of anything other than a statement?

Sure, you can phrase hypotheses into a yes/no question, but you aren't testing the question, "Does A cause B?". You are testing the statement "A causes B". Your experiment is based on testing the validity of the statement, and the results will either support or refute it.

How do you support or refute a question? You can only support or refute statements.

At least, this is the essence of the scientific method as I've understood it.
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Re: Hypothesis as Part of the Scientific Method

Postby Iv » Mon Jan 26, 2009 4:44 pm UTC

I don't want either to go into arguments about your two examples but I would like to point out that these affirmations are two different beasts with different proof methods to be used.

MoghLiechty2 wrote:"Global Warming is directly attributable to human activity"

One of the problem with this issue is that you can make an hypothesis false by using a more complex model. A more easy to answer question is something like "does a higher CO2 concentration, all other things being equal, causes a warming ?" Naysayer can go on by saying things like "yes but higher CO2 concentration leads to more plants growth, hence it regulates" and then you have to test this new hypothesis. The original hypothesis is not directly testable by a single experiment. It is a single sentence but is in fact a list of hypothesis by itself.

MoghLiechty2 wrote:"Transpeciation is possible and observable"

This affirmation is much easier to test because all it takes is to observe a single transpeciation to be able to state that transpeciation is possible and observable. New facts like "but we found a specie that can't do it" cannot remove the fact that transpeciation is possible.

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Re: Hypothesis as Part of the Scientific Method

Postby Charlie! » Mon Jan 26, 2009 8:53 pm UTC

Meteorswarm wrote:I think a more succinct way of phrasing the scientific method, and the hypothesis's role in it is as follows:

Code: Select all

Observe             What's going on?
Question            Why is that going on?
Hypothesize         I made a theory.  My theory says [x]
Experiment          Is [x] true?
Analyze             [Good|Bad], that means my theory was [true|false]


Nobody actually goes through these steps formally. They all happen, but when I'm thinking of experiments (or thought experiments, as I'm just an undergrad), I mostly go find something we don't know -> theory -> prediction -> test -> analyze, which is equivalent, but constructed differently.

Hmm, I'm of the opinion that conclusions speak in the language of statistics. So people really mean "that means my hypothesis is at least 80% likely to be correct, that's cool," not "that means my hypothesis was 100% true. Go away, statistics."

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Re: Hypothesis as Part of the Scientific Method

Postby Velifer » Mon Jan 26, 2009 10:05 pm UTC

Keep in mind that the scientific method never really proves anything true. It can prove hypotheses to be false, or fail to prove they are false.

So, for Meteorswarm's paraphrase above, the experiment is "Can I fail to prove my hypothesis is false, thus adding some support to it being true?"

The example I was given is the hypothesis "there are no unicorns on the moon."
Test this by looking for unicorns. If you fail, and find no unicorns, then under the constraints of your experiment, you lend support to the absence of unicorns. Still, all it takes is one person to look in the right place at the right time and actually find a unicorn to prove the hypothesis false.

A good experiment with results to get excited about will show that a hypothesis is not false under lots of conditions, in so many ways that the result might as well be true (until someone finds that unicorn).

Also, there is a very important step between coming up with a question and coming up with a hypothesis: research review. Who else looked at this question, how, what tools did they use, what did they find out, etc. The question will change and resolve itself through this process, and the hypothesis as a testable statement will be very different from the original musings.
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Re: Hypothesis as Part of the Scientific Method

Postby Plasma Man » Mon Jan 26, 2009 10:53 pm UTC

Indeed. One of the most important parts of using the scientific method is taking a moment to ask whether there is any way your hypothesis can be proved wrong (falsified). If it can't be falsified, then it's not worth going any further. To put it another way, the hypothesis that there are invisible, intangible, undetectable unicorns on the moon is not a hypothesis that should be advanced, because there is no way to falsify it. The hypothesis that there are no unicorns on the moon is worth advancing, as observation could falsify it.
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Re: Hypothesis as Part of the Scientific Method

Postby doogly » Tue Jan 27, 2009 3:56 am UTC

Meteorswarm wrote:Nobody actually goes through these steps formally.


Yeah I think that is important. "Scientific Method" gets taught as if there were a checklist that scientists all run around with on the top of their clipboards, but this is not the case. It's not even accurate as a general template; it's missing the "make a lot of mistakes" step.
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Re: Hypothesis as Part of the Scientific Method

Postby Rentsy » Tue Jan 27, 2009 3:59 am UTC

http://www.av8n.com/physics/hypothesis.htm

http://www.av8n.com/physics/scientific-methods.htm

You should read the above. They do a very good job of explaining and putting-into-context.

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Re: Hypothesis as Part of the Scientific Method

Postby Senefen » Tue Jan 27, 2009 4:14 am UTC

It helps get you a research grant?
Most experiments aren't just pulled out of no where, you have a vague idea what is going to happen and you want to learn specifically what happens. The hypothesis is your vague idea and justification for doing the experiment in the first place. You don't say "I'll throw some A and B together and see what happens" you say "I'll throw some A and B together, they should react, I want to know what they form and how much". The hypothesis is stating what you want to learn and your justification for the experiment given what you already know. It's part of scientific method so you have a starting point.
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Re: Hypothesis as Part of the Scientific Method

Postby Iv » Tue Jan 27, 2009 10:00 am UTC

Velifer wrote:Keep in mind that the scientific method never really proves anything true. It can prove hypotheses to be false, or fail to prove they are false.

To be more precise, that is more a logical problem in affirmations. Scientific method can prove some things true and will fail to prove other things with a 100% certainty. Basically, there are two types of affirmations :
(1) "There exist a X such as ..."
(2) "For all Y, the affirmation Z is true"

You can prove (1) true by the observation of a single X.
You can prove (2) false by the observation of a Y where Z is false.

It is however possible to prove (2) true by an exhaustive search or by logical inference : "every continent has animals on it" (yes, there are 5-7 continents depending on your definition and they all have animals on them) "every human has a biological mother" (which is logical)

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Re: Hypothesis as Part of the Scientific Method

Postby idobox » Tue Jan 27, 2009 11:27 am UTC

"every human has a biological mother" (which is logical)

To be exact, there are a few ways for a human to not have a mother, or at least a disputable mother. A clone, a GM human, a human born from parthenogenesis...

I'm not sure logical inference can be considered a proof, since a logic error is always possible, or new facts can contradict the axioms on which the reasoning is built. As far as I know, evident things like causality have never be really proved absolutely true.
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Re: Hypothesis as Part of the Scientific Method

Postby Iv » Tue Jan 27, 2009 1:13 pm UTC

idobox wrote:As far as I know, evident things like causality have never be really proved absolutely true.

Ok, I wanted to make a full answer to your post then I stumbled upon this. You owe me a definition of "proof" that does not involve causality. The fact that you require provability implies that you have a notion of accepted causality somewhere. Anyway, this is the science forum, we are dangerously sliding toward the philosophical section where we argue over definition of concepts, sentence and, ultimately, over the definition of definition...
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Re: Hypothesis as Part of the Scientific Method

Postby Aradae » Tue Jan 27, 2009 3:15 pm UTC

doogly wrote:
Meteorswarm wrote:Nobody actually goes through these steps formally.


Yeah I think that is important. "Scientific Method" gets taught as if there were a checklist that scientists all run around with on the top of their clipboards, but this is not the case. It's not even accurate as a general template; it's missing the "make a lot of mistakes" step.


I think that's part of the "Lather, Rinse, Repeat" step. But yeah, they really teach the scientific method to middle and high school students all wrong.
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Re: Hypothesis as Part of the Scientific Method

Postby ThomasS » Tue Jan 27, 2009 3:42 pm UTC

A lot of scientist time is spent filling in the gaps of an existing framework. When you are doing such a thing, you might have some faith that the results will be quantitatively interesting, not qualitatively interesting. It might be hard to see the full usage of the scientific method when doing such day to day science.

But consider Michelson Morley where a quantitative result was expected, and not returned. This turned out to be an unexpected qualitative result and tore down a bit of framework which had been built up, and helped to force people to accept an alternative approach. "Guess and check" is a simplification of the process because the checks to theories come repeatedly over time as people try to fill in the framework that the theory provides, often after they more or less believe in it. Also note that these unexpected and game breaking results can be difficult to accept. The wikipedia entry lists follow up experiment after follow up experiment done by people who didn't simply believe the initial result.


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