Say What? "Scientific Method"

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Scientific method word cloud on chalk board

"Say What?" is a periodic series in which we define scientific terms and explain their importance.

Everything we write about on the Drugs & Health Blog is based on scientific research. When scientists conduct their research, they follow a process called the “scientific method.” Before science and medical journals publish a scientific study, they also make sure the researchers followed the scientific method. This method is a major reason why scientific knowledge is increasing every day.

Science’s careful steps

The scientific method is like the process detectives use to solve a case. The steps are:

  1. Ask a question—such as, “What increases a person’s risk of having a drug problem?”
  2. Gather information that might help answer the question. Study the research that’s already been done.
  3. Develop a hypothesis—a possible explanation or answer—based on the information collected in step 2. A hypothesis for our question in step 1 could be: “Getting a bad brain injury as a kid might increase the urge to take drugs later in life.” (Scientists will actually be studying this and many other risks in NIDA’s new ABCD study.)
  4. Conduct experiments to test the hypothesis. A hypothesis must be something that you could prove is not true by gathering facts (“data”). If there’s no way to use data to support or reject the hypothesis, it isn’t scientific—so scientists are always thinking of clever experiments to attack their own hypotheses!
  5. Review the experiment’s results (or “findings”) and decide if your data support your hypothesis (a “conclusion”). 

Question, answer, repeat

These steps may sound basic, but the process of working through them can take months or even years. Then, before a result can be considered a science-based fact, another scientist must be able to conduct the same experiments and get similar results—what we call “replication.”

The scientific method is the best way to learn how our bodies and minds work, and how to treat them when problems develop. A lot of lives have been improved—and even saved—because of it.

Learn more: Why is “data” an important part of the scientific method?

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