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The Scientific Method Research Methods CPE 401 / 6002 / 6003


Professor Will Zimmerman CEng FIChemE BScEng, MScEng, PhD (all ChE), PhD minor (Applied Maths) Chair, Biochemical Dynamical Systems The Scientific Method – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: The Scientific Method Research Methods CPE 401 / 6002 / 6003

The Scientific MethodResearch Methods CPE 401 /
6002 / 6003
  • Professor Will Zimmerman CEng FIChemE
  • BScEng, MScEng, PhD (all ChE), PhD minor (Applied
  • Chair, Biochemical Dynamical Systems

  • Salesman You do research, right?
  • Professor Yes.
  • Salesman Then you dont know what you are doing!
  • Professor (indignant) WHAT?
  • Salesman If you knew what you were doing, it
    wouldnt be research, right?
  • (He lost that sale!!!!)

Scientific research is conducted in a realm of
UNCERTAINTY. We do not know the outcome of our
tests, but we do know how We should conduct them
according to the SCIENTIFIC METHOD
What is the Scientific Method?
  • Attitude open mindedness
  • Step 1 Identify the target
  • Step 2 Scholarship gather information make
    /collect observations
  • Step 3 Hypothesis formation
  • Step 4 Test predictions of hypothesis with
    proper experimental methods.
  • Step 5 Check and interpret your results
  • Step 6 Either start again at any previous step
    or report your results.

Attitude Open mindedness
  • A scientist must be receptive to new ideas, but
    then must be skeptical and conservative in the
    approach to claims made with such new ideas.
    This is the fundamental duality of the scientific
    method no progress in science is made by
    dogmatic acceptance of canonical ideas. If
    canonical ideas were capable of solving the open
    questions, they would have already. However, new
    ideas are not scientific laws. They could be
    fundamentally flawed (self-inconsistent) or
    unverifiable (taken on faith?)
  • Scientists should be critically minded, which
    means searching for self-inconsistencies in new
    ideas, agreement/disagreement with observations,
    and unbiased theories that are apparently
    ridiculous might just reflect our own bias
    apply the scientific method before dismissing
    hypotheses out of hand. It is human nature to
    be conservative and closed-minded and many
    scientists are biased.

Step 1 Identify the target
  • One of the least attractive features of modern
    research practice is that research projects are
    frequently externally defined by non-scientific
    (political or market forces) agendas. Even if
    your projects aims are externally defined, how
    you get there (objectives) is usually under the
    control of the investigators. The playing
    field is defined, but the route through that
    field is owned by the researcher. The key
    attribute of a mature researcher is ownership
    of a research agenda.
  • For doctorates, the central condition is that the
    doctoral thesis should make original
    contributions to science. Therefore the target
    for the research should be to pursue unbroken
  • The constraint for a Masters thesis or
    dissertation is the much less restrictive
    training in the methods of research.
    Nevertheless, it is a misnomer to say that a
    research project could be unoriginal (cf.
    salesmans point). With a Masters project, the
    ownership may never reside with the student.
    With a doctorate, it must.

Step 2 Scholarship gather information
  • A key observation is that research is not limited
    to scholarship. In many cultures, the definition
    of a learned person is that they are a scholar.
    The Anglo-American (perhaps European
    Enlightenment legacy) is that research is just as
    much about creativity as knowledge. Identifying
    the target (creative step 1) is as important as
    placing its context in the hierarchy of science
    (what is known).
  • Nevertheless, step 2, which really should be done
    simultaneously with step 1, is to gather
    information about the target. In my opinion, the
    thing that separates Professors from ordinary
    researchers is the vision thing the ability
    to select targets in light of what is know
    simultaneously and with relative ease. These two
    steps are having a nose for where one might
    find new science.
  • For new researchers, the gathering information
    step is finding out about the field surrounding
    the target, and placing it in context.
    Trivially, the gathering information step could
    determine that the target is not original at all.

Step 3 Hypothesis formation
  • This is the philosophical step and the biggest
    creative element. It is a concise statement of
    something that the researcher has found is
    unproven in the body of scientific knowledge
    about the target, if it is proven, will have
    profound consequences.
  • In general, science is distinguished from all
    other forms of scholarly activity by being
    hypothesis driven.
  • (Computational) Modelling is an activity that is
    automatically a hypothesis the model is the
  • Sensor and technology development is itself a
    hypothesis that such a sensor leads to a
    measurement inference or such a technology will
    be effective.

Some hypothesis examples from my own research
  • Helical turbulence. There is a pairwise mechanism
    for the build up large scale structures in
    helical turbulence that leads to better mixing
    and control over molecular contacting patterns.
    Technological implication low NOx, high
    efficiency of combustors.
  • Colloidal electricity generation. Variation of
    magnetic permeability due to inhomogeneous fluid
    mixtures oscillating in a magnetic field create
    AC electricity in a pick up coil. Oscillatory
    motion of partially charged colloidal particles
    in an electric field create a streaming potential
    that is an AC electric field.
  • Oscillation of the air-liquid interface in a
    forming bubble can pinch of much smaller bubbles
    and therefore enhance mass transfer (wastewater
  • Capacitance or acoustic spectroscopy applied to
    wavy air-liquid interfaces can inform about the
    surface tension and viscosity of the liquid by
    variation of the interface oscillation and/or the
    frequency of the applied field.
  • Microfluidic plasma generation creates more
    efficient formation of hydroxyl radicals that can
    be used, instead of ozone, to sterilize aqueous

Step 4 Testing hypothesis through experiment /
  • When the hypothesis is originally formed, part of
    the scholarship (step 2) is to test the
    hypothesis against known observations /
    experiments. If this is easy, we usually lump it
    together with hypothesis formation (step 3). If
    it is difficult, we call this test against known
    observations analysis and consider it
    separately, on pair with new experiments.
  • If the hypothesis cannot be shown to disagree
    with known observations by analysis, then the
    researcher must create an experimental plan to
    test it. Running experiments that no one else
    has ever run is a trivial addition to knowledge.
    The originality of the contribution to science is
    why the experiments should be run what are the
    predictions of the hypothesis that they test and
    how do they test it. The experimental planning
    and testing of the hypothesis are skill sets that
    are fundamentally philosophical and applications
    of logic. The tools, perhaps surprisingly, are
    primarily statistical. Biologists are
    particularly good at understanding that
    statistics underly the formation of hypotheses,
    the experimental plan (central role of
    replication, error, variability and
    reproducibility), and the determination of the
    consistency of the hypothesis predictions with
    the experimental results.

Step 5 Check and interpret results
  • This is the most frustrating part of training
    many researchers. It combines
  • Critical and logical thinking
  • Statistical inference and parameter estimation
  • Knowledge of the subject matter interpretation
    is based on putting the results in the context of
    what is known about the field already. What did
    you expect to find based on the hypothesis to be

Step 6 Iterate or report
  • If the research programme was well crafted, the
    hypothesis will be tested. If the hypothesis was
    an aim or objective of the research programme,
    the results should be reported.
  • Are scientists guilty of cherry-picking? Are
    only positive results reported?
  • Reports should be as honest and complete as
    possible. They should be accurate. It is not
    the job of referees / examiners to correct
    researchers mistakes.
  • Scientific review should be open-minded and
    unbiased. Reviewers, however, should put the
    onus of proof on the investigators are the
    hurdles reported sufficient to justify the
    claims. Are the activities reported fully and
    accurately so that others are clear about the
    hypothesis, predictions based upon it, and the
    tests conducted for consistency.
  • Food for thought no theory is ever proven. In
    fact theories are only ever disproven or shown to
    be consistent with experimental observations.

Is this really the way science is done? Or is it
just how it is presented?
  • An alternative approach to science is what I call
    a fishing expedition.
  • 1. You think you smell where there might be fish.
  • 2. You collect as many fish as you can.
  • 3. After considering all the fish, you notice an
    interesting feature.
  • 4. You report that fish have this interesting
  • I call this descriptive science or pattern
  • If the research is conducted this way, it should
    still be reported according to the scientific
    method. When this is done, a logical and orderly
    mind may find holes in the analysis which
    suggest a variations of the hypotheses and new
    tests which are used to validate the hypotheses.
    In this light, the fishing expedition is really
    part of hypothesis formation.

Essay Assignment
  • Write a two page essay on the application of the
    scientific method to any of the following hot
    topics in current scientific discourse
  • Evolution vs. intelligent design.
  • Electricity generation by zero point energy.
  • Perpetual motion machine developed in Dublin,
  • Cherry picking results in scientific trials
  • The Bible Code.
  • So what the BLEEP do we know?
  • Quantum mechanics Does God play dice?
  • What is consciousness? Are our brains just
    computing machines? (Roger Penrose)
  • Autism and MMR (Andrew Wakefield)
  • Stand rules on plagiarism (collusion and
    borrowing apply) put it in your own words and
    grammar, cite your sources, and argue a case
    based on your opinion about how the scientific
    methods has been or should be applied.

  • There is only one scientific method. You might
    argue that you are engineers or technologists,
    and therefore hold yourself to a lower standard
    of conduct. But estimates and guesswork are
    still covered in the scientific method.
  • Fishing expeditions / pattern recognition /
    descriptive science is just information
    gathering, not the scientific method. It can be
    an integral part of hypothesis formation, but it
    is open to the criticism that the results are
    biased by cherry-picking.