Overview of the Scientific Method
- Identify the conclusions researchers can make based on the outcome of their studies.
- Describe why scientists avoid the term “scientific proof.”
- Explain the different ways that scientists share their findings.
Since statistics are probabilistic in nature and findings can reflect type I or type II errors, we cannot use the results of a single study to conclude with certainty that a theory is true. Rather theories are supported, refuted, or modified based on the results of research.
If the results are statistically significant and consistent with the hypothesis and the theory that was used to generate the hypothesis, then researchers can conclude that the theory is supported. Not only did the theory make an accurate prediction, but there is now a new phenomenon that the theory accounts for. If a hypothesis is disconfirmed in a systematic empirical study, then the theory has been weakened. It made an inaccurate prediction, and there is now a new phenomenon that it does not account for.
Although this seems straightforward, there are some complications. First, confirming a hypothesis can strengthen a theory but it can never prove a theory. In fact, scientists tend to avoid the word “prove” when talking and writing about theories. One reason for this avoidance is that the result may reflect a type I error. Another reason for this avoidance is that there may be other plausible theories that imply the same hypothesis, which means that confirming the hypothesis strengthens all those theories equally. A third reason is that it is always possible that another test of the hypothesis or a test of a new hypothesis derived from the theory will be disconfirmed. This difficulty is a version of the famous philosophical “problem of induction.” One cannot definitively prove a general principle (e.g., “All swans are white.”) just by observing confirming cases (e.g., white swans)—no matter how many. It is always possible that a disconfirming case (e.g., a black swan) will eventually come along. For these reasons, scientists tend to think of theories—even highly successful ones—as subject to revision based on new and unexpected observations.
A second complication has to do with what it means when a hypothesis is disconfirmed. According to the strictest version of the hypothetico-deductive method, disconfirming a hypothesis disproves the theory it was derived from. In formal logic, the premises “if A then B” and “not B” necessarily lead to the conclusion “not A.” If A is the theory and B is the hypothesis (“if A then B”), then disconfirming the hypothesis (“not B”) must mean that the theory is incorrect (“not A”). In practice, however, scientists do not give up on their theories so easily. One reason is that one disconfirmed hypothesis could be a missed opportunity (the result of a type II error) or it could be the result of a faulty research design. Perhaps the researcher did not successfully manipulate the independent variable or measure the dependent variable.
A disconfirmed hypothesis could also mean that some unstated but relatively minor assumption of the theory was not met. For example, if Zajonc had failed to find social facilitation in cockroaches, he could have concluded that drive theory is still correct but it applies only to animals with sufficiently complex nervous systems. That is, the evidence from a study can be used to modify a theory. This practice does not mean that researchers are free to ignore disconfirmations of their theories. If they cannot improve their research designs or modify their theories to account for repeated disconfirmations, then they eventually must abandon their theories and replace them with ones that are more successful.
The bottom line here is that because statistics are probabilistic in nature and because all research studies have flaws there is no such thing as scientific proof, there is only scientific evidence.
Reporting the Results
The final step in the research process involves reporting the results. As described in the section on Reviewing the Research Literature in this chapter, results are typically reported in peer-reviewed journal articles and at conferences.
The most prestigious way to report one’s findings is by writing a manuscript and having it published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Manuscripts published in psychology journals typically must adhere to the writing style of the American Psychological Association (APA style). You will likely be learning the major elements of this writing style in this course.
Another way to report findings is by writing a book chapter that is published in an edited book. Preferably the editor of the book puts the chapter through peer review but this is not always the case and some scientists are invited by editors to write book chapters.
A fun way to disseminate findings is to give a presentation at a conference. This can either be done as an oral presentation or a poster presentation. Oral presentations involve getting up in front of an audience of fellow scientists and giving a talk that might last anywhere from 10 minutes to 1 hour (depending on the conference) and then fielding questions from the audience. Alternatively, poster presentations involve summarizing the study on a large poster that provides a brief overview of the purpose, methods, results, and discussion. The presenter stands by their poster for an hour or two and discusses it with people who pass by. Presenting one’s work at a conference is a great way to get feedback from one’s peers before attempting to undergo the more rigorous peer-review process involved in publishing a journal article.