The scientific method is a process by which we systematically advance our understanding of the world. True scientists adhere strictly to this method. It is considered the foundation of all branches of science. In fact, a result can only be called 'scientific' if it has been subjected to the standards of the scientific method. Both the power and the limitations of science are the result of the rigorous adherence to this method.
The basic steps involved in the scientific method, especially as applied to sciences such as behavior, are as follows (The order of these steps does not have to be a rigid process and one can move back and forth between them if needed):
- Make observations. All science must begin with observation. Science is only concerned with objects or events that are observable, either directly or indirectly. Think about dog behavior, we are concerned with overt behavior we can see, measure and track. All behavior problems begin with an observation. Even when a dog is demonstrating a behavior that is elicited by a problematic emotional response, we still study the operant - the actual behavior we see. We can observe and measure the behavior across different dimension such as frequency, duration, intensity, and latency.
- Create a hypothesis. We create hypotheses to explain the behaviors we observe. Pet owners often come to us with their own hypothesis regarding their pet’s behavior. Many pet owner hypotheses are wrong as they often tend to be based on cultural myths and outdated information. The hypothesis is a tentative explanation to account for the observations we are making about the pets’ behavior. Because hypotheses are tentative answers to a problem, they must be testable so we can conceive and perform an experiment using the scientific method. As pet professionals after we have conducted an intake procedure, we often make a hypothesis based on our anecdotal data from the intake form and our direct observations of the pet. When we make the step from isolated observations to generalization it is often called induction, or inductive reasoning and when we make the step from generalized question to prediction of outcome is often called deduction, or deductive reasoning.
- Deduce the implications of the hypothesis. A hypothesis is considered an "if... then" statement. The "then" predicts the result of the hypothesis. Implications are predicted based on our hypothesis and it is these implications that are then verified or rejected by testing through further observation. As an example we can predict that if a dog lunges and barks at another dog to create distance and the owner removes the dog from the situation, then the dog is more likely to exhibit this same behavior under these conditions in the future as the dog’s behavior has been negatively reinforced.
- Test the implications. In applied behavior analysis we do not always test the implications due to ethical concerns and safety aspects. However, in some situations we must test either the antecedent package or the postcedent package so we can ascertain what is really going on, what is eliciting the behavior and or maintaining and reinforcing it. When and if we have additional data then further observation and experimentation can be made. This data can then be compared with the predicted implications to confirm or deny the original hypothesis. It is especially important that all data collected be considered, not just the data that you feel supports the original hypothesis. It is also critical to recognize that even if the data you have supports the hypothesis, the hypothesis is not necessarily proven to be true, it simply renders the premise that it is more credible. The ultimate test of data validity in a scientific hypothesis is the data consistency with the totality of other aspects of the scientific framework.
Re-evaluate the hypothesis. After we have collected data we are now in a position to reevaluate the hypothesis. The key question is, was the hypothesis confirmed or denied by further observation or experimentation?
- If the hypothesis is denied, then a new hypothesis must be formed to encompass the new data (we go back to step 2). A hypothesis is valid only if it is consistent with the data accumulated. A good hypothesis is also consistent with the greater body of scientific knowledge.
- If the evidence in favor of a hypothesis is convincing, then the hypothesis is elevated to a theory. A theory is a formalized set of concepts that organizes observations and predicts and explains phenomena.
- Subject the hypothesis to peer review. A valid hypothesis will withstand outside scrutiny by other researchers in the field. This is why scientific papers and research are put under stringent peer review. Making the hypothesis available for constructive criticism is a necessary step in the formulation of valid theories. It allows others to repeat steps 3 and 4 above, thus providing a wider base of knowledge to verify the hypothesis. Any human being can we swayed by prevailing views or biases. The scientific community judges the work of its members objectivity and with rigor, this is how the scientific method prevails.