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The Scientific Method - Elegant Experiments


Because of the rapidly expanding technologies spawned by modern bioscience, advances are occurring that were unimaginable only a short time ago: manufacturing medicines inside cells, deciphering the human genetic code with computers, and using DNA to identify criminals, to name just a few. With the explosion in research, and the rush to produce new breakthroughs, much of it aimed at specific applications in medicine and industry - it's easy to overlook the guiding principles of "pure" scientific inquiry. The most important of these is the scientific method itself. It is the fundamental process by which any sound scientific enterprise is undertaken.

Scientific method is based on the principle of cause and effect: You get a fever because you are sick; the sky looks blue because of the interaction of light and matter in the atmosphere. Not all of these common phenomena are completely understood, and still others cannot be explained at all. The cause of AIDS was at one time a complete mystery. Nevertheless, scientists firmly believed that a cause must exist. And once they discovered the cause - in this case a virus - they could search for a remedy. This belief in cause and effect is what drives all research: If everyone believed that a disease could occur without a rational cause, no rational attempt would be made to control it!

So what does a scientist do when he or she uses the scientific method in the exploration of the unknown? First of all, the scientist tries to learn as much about a subject as time - or funding - allows. This requires a thorough study of the available literature, gathering information and data from a variety of sources, discussions with colleagues, and a lot of thinking.

After data has been collected and analyzed, the scientist formulates an hypothesis. It may be a short leap of logic, or an intuitive leap of faith. The researcher then designs experiments to provide evidence in support of the hypothesis. The experiment may involve creating a theoretical model, which may be tested on a computer. Whatever form the experiment takes, the scientist must gather substantial amounts of data. Analysis of the data will either suggest the validity of the hypothesis or encourage revision.

Once revised and retested, the hypothesis must withstand the scrutiny of other scientists as well. They may repeat the experiment to retest the validity of the hypothesis, along with the validity of the methods used to test the hypothesis. An idea, model, or explanation that has been rigorously tested, analyzed, and accepted by the scientific community is referred to as a theory - a term used, perhaps, because most scientists believe nothing can ever be proved absolutely true. At best, they will say a theory hasn't been proved false. The theory will continue to be an accepted explanation unless new information is uncovered - information that the scientific community agrees disproves the previous explanation. This continuous scrutiny is essential to the credibility and progress of scientific research.

One of the fundamental prerequisites of a healthy scientific method is the quality of experimentation that is designed to test an hypothesis. In this section, we have described some of the key experiments in the history of genetics and biotechnology research. They are not particularly grueling or complicated intellectual enterprises. On the contrary, many of the great experiments have been fundamentally simple. We invite you to review the experiments we have chosen and recommend others we can include.


Go to next story: Experiments that Inspire

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