In the preceding sections, we described science as knowledge acquired through a scientific method. So what exactly is the “scientific method”? Scientific method refers to a standardized set of techniques for building scientific knowledge, such as how to make valid observations, how to interpret results, and how to generalize those results. The scientific method allows researchers to independently and impartially test preexisting theories and prior findings, and subject them to open debate, modifications, or enhancements. The scientific method must satisfy four characteristics:
- Replicability: Others should be able to independently replicate or repeat a scientific study and obtain similar, if not identical, results.
- Precision: Theoretical concepts, which are often hard to measure, must be defined with such precision that others can use those definitions to measure those concepts and test that theory.
- Falsifiability: A theory must be stated in a way that it can be disproven. Theories that cannot be tested or falsified are not scientific theories and any such knowledge is not scientific knowledge. A theory that is specified in imprecise terms or whose concepts are not accurately measurable cannot be tested, and is therefore not scientific. Sigmund Freud’s ideas on psychoanalysis fall into this category and is therefore not considered a “theory”, even though psychoanalysis may have practical utility in treating certain types of ailments.
- Parsimony: When there are multiple explanations of a phenomenon, scientists must always accept the simplest or logically most economical explanation. This concept is called parsimony or “Occam’s razor.” Parsimony prevents scientists from pursuing overly complex or outlandish theories with endless number of concepts and relationships that may explain a little bit of everything but nothing in particular.
Any branch of inquiry that does not allow the scientific method to test its basic laws or theories cannot be called “science.” For instance, theology (the study of religion) is not science because theological ideas (such as the presence of God) cannot be tested by independent observers using a replicable, precise, falsifiable, and parsimonious method. Similarly, arts, music, literature, humanities, and law are also not considered science, even though they are creative and worthwhile endeavors in their own right.
The scientific method, as applied to social sciences, includes a variety of research approaches, tools, and techniques, such as qualitative and quantitative data, statistical analysis, experiments, field surveys, case research, and so forth. Most of this book is devoted to learning about these different methods. However, recognize that the scientific method operates primarily at the empirical level of research, i.e., how to make observations and analyze and interpret these observations. Very little of this method is directly pertinent to the theoretical level, which is really the more challenging part of scientific research.
- Bhattacherjee, A. (2012). Social Science Research: Principles, Methods and practice. New York: University of South Florida.
- Kothare, C. (2009). Research Methodology: Methods & Techniques. Delhi, India: New Age International (P) Ltd.
- Louis Cohen, L. M. (2007). Research methods In Education. Taylor & Francis e-Library.