What is the scientific method?

My previous post about working like a startup mentioned the scientific method around which my favoured way of working revolves. In fact, with our small feedback loops and Bayesian planning (that is, taking new information and adjusting our plans), many agile teams are using this method without knowing it. So what is it?

The best way to explain the scientific method is … by using a kid’s book!

It was Douglas Hubbard who first told me about How to Think Like a Scientist by Stephen P. Kramer. He’d accidentally purchased the book in the 1990s, thinking it was a serious business book … only to find that it was a children’s book. But I have to agree that it is, as he called it, a “gem” of a book.

In it’s 39 pages, Kramer explains why you might care and how your current approach to answering questions might be wrong (wrong information, other people’s influences, your own desire for a specific answer) before moving on to a brilliant explanation of what the scientific method is:

  1. Ask a question
  2. Gather information about the question
  3. Form a hypothesis
  4. Test the hypothesis
  5. Tell others what you found

So how does it work in practice?

Kramer takes us through the five-step process using an example of chickens laying eggs. The question posed (step 1) is why, when someone else looked after your chickens for a month whilst you were on vacation, did your birds lay more eggs? The next step, gathering information (step 2), established that many factors remained the same (e.g. time of day the chickens were fed, pen was cleaned daily) but other factors were different from your usual routine (e.g. chickens had larger water dishes, different food supplier).

Based on the information gathered, you can now form a hypothesis (step 3) as to what caused the chickens to lay more eggs than normal during your vacation (e.g. giving the hens more water causes them to lay more eggs). Next you have to test your hypothesis (step 4): Kramer explains control groups and how you could test this hypothesis (e.g. keeping all other factors consistent in both groups, but increasing water supply in the experimental group). He also discusses repeating experiments.

Finally, Kramer talks about how scientists share their findings with others (step 5), although he acknowledges that businesses might not want to (e.g. in order to have a competitive advantage).

Perfect ending

After other examples of possible experiments, Kramer finishes the book with a three-page chapter asking “what do you think?” A perfect ending!

The book might be aimed at primary school children but it is fit for any age: it’s clear, concise and convincing. Anyway, isn’t there a saying that suggests “if you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself”?

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