The scientific method could be improved

Gaining knowledge in science

Scientific knowledge gain

What are natural sciences?

  • The natural sciences deal with the systematic investigation of nature and the discovery of laws that can be used to explain (natural) phenomena. Another goal is - in addition to the attempt to better understand nature - to use the theoretical knowledge gained in order to solve practical problems and to improve our lives in this world through technical innovation.
  • The following figure first shows the methodological steps that a scientist takes when he wants to come to a theoretical understanding of a natural phenomenon: Steps (1) and (2).
  • In addition, it clarifies what needs to be done if the theoretical knowledge is to be applied in practice (i.e. outside the laboratory): Steps (3) and (4).

Scientific methodology

In the beginning there is the phenomenon

Explanations for the illustration:

  1. Observe, describe and guess how this phenomenon could be explained
  2. As soon as a plausible, promising explanatory approach is found, an experiment is designed to test the explanatory approach.
  3. If the experiment has finally shown (perhaps only after many unsuccessful attempts and errors) that the explanatory approach is correct, the scientist comes to a conclusion that H. he formulates a law, a formula or the like.
  4. This regularity makes it possible to predict phenomena correctly and then, in the application of science, serves to utilize the insight gained in the form of product design and innovation.

An example from everyday life:

Step 1 Let's say you've slept badly for the past couple of nights. You're usually a good sleeper, so that's something unusual. What could be the reasons for the insomnia? The exams next week? No, it was there before and you always slept well there. The last few weeks have been very hot and humid, you have drunk large amounts of iced tea, your favorite drink. So it could very well be that the caffeine it contained was disturbing your sleep. Is that the correct explanation?
step 2 A relatively quick and easy test - an experiment - will give an answer. On the next evenings you drink ice instead of the iced tea water .
step 3 If you get back to normal sleep, you can assume that your explanation was correct.

You come to the conclusion that caffeine interferes with your sleep.
Step 4 If not already done, someone could come up with the idea of ​​using this insight / lawfulness by producing and selling caffeine-based “pick-me-up drinks” or tablets and thus becoming extremely rich.

An example from physics:

Step 1 The beginnings of electricity go back to the phenomenon of influenza and experiments by Guericke in 1672. At the beginning of the knowledge gain there is the hypothesis of the existence of a electrical fluid .
step 2 This hypothesis was sufficient along with the charge s term in order to experimentally find Coulomb's law as the first regularity.
step 3 In the decades that followed, further experiments were planned and carried out, each of which had its own hypothesis on new phenomena. The voltaic column and Ampere's law were determined. Both laws, together with the concept of magnetic field, were the prerequisites for Faraday's law of induction. Maxwell's hypothesis, according to which light and electromagnetism can be represented in one theory, astonished contemporaries. Maxwell's equations are still valid today and describe the entire electrodynamics.

Only after 1864 was the existence of electrons considered Particle proven. With the special theory of relativity and the Atomic models Classical physics reached its peak at the beginning of the last century. However, the idea of ​​particles led to contradictions in experiments. In modern physical theories the dualism went from Particle and wave for electrons one.
Step 4

User-oriented products such as lasers, fuel cells, cell phones or scanning tunnel microscopes can only be purchased after decades of technical development. Some of these devices go back to the utilization of centuries-old insights.

The example from physics was provided by Heller, Karl, Philipp-Matthäus-Hahn-Schule, Nürtingen.

To deepen:


Here are a few examples of exercises for teachers, which should help to deepen at least the theoretical part of the class. Perhaps you will go one step further and consider with the class how the theoretical insights could be applied in practice - you may make an ingenious invention in the process, become a millionaire and never have to teach again ...!

Task: Apply the steps from the figure above to the following phenomena:

  • One of the little annoyances in life is twisted phone cords. No matter how careful you are, after a few weeks the cable is always hopelessly twisted.
  • Studies show that cardiovascular diseases are far less common in France and other Mediterranean countries than in America.
  • A striking number of patients in a dental clinic complain of headaches and insomnia in the months after the treatment of their carious teeth.
  • If you tear out an article or a picture from a newspaper, you will notice that the vertical crack is (more or less) straight. In the horizontal direction, on the other hand, this is - much to our annoyance - not possible.
  • All bodies fall almost equally quickly ...

The above remarks are a very abbreviated version of the first three chapters of the book "A Beginner's Guide to Scientific Method" by Carey, S. Stephen. A large number of examples are given there; however, a very good command of English is required to read and understand this guide, which was written for American undergraduate students.
We owe the translation and selection of texts to Schwerdtfeger, Axel, Carl-Engler-Schule, Karlsruhe.

Paths of knowledge in the humanities

What are the humanities?

  • In contrast to the natural sciences, which try to explain natural phenomena in order to derive laws that can be used in practice, the humanities have set themselves far more complex tasks that cannot be solved with scientific formulas and often seem useless in terms of economic usability.
  • They consider all those phenomena that result from the work of humans as spiritually (or spiritlessly!) Acting beings. Regardless of whether in history, in society or in literature - the humanities have the task of describing the manifestations of human action, evaluating their significance for the individual and society and thus serving to create human consciousness.

The following figure should - in direct comparison with the methodology of the natural sciences - show the working methods, the possibilities, but also the limits of the humanities:

Humanities methodology

In the end (only ?!) consciousness

Here is an example to explain:

Step 1 The dramas of William Shakespeare still preoccupy literary scholars today. Not because one has not yet managed to solve the puzzles for which there are certain laws or solutions. Scientists are always eager to discover new aspects in his literary work in order to grasp the importance of Shakespeare for his contemporaries and for posterity.
step 2 In order to “test” whether his interpretation of Shakespeare's dramas is correct, the scientist enters into a dialogue with other scientists. This dialogue is a “collection of subjective assessments” and a substitute for a test that could objectively prove the correctness of one's own theses, but which does not exist.
Those involved may be frustrated here, because right and wrong cannot always be clearly separated and so the humanities are often accused of being arbitrary.
step 3 At the latest at this step, the natural sciences and humanities get out of their previous lockstep. The humanities scholar stumbles and the natural scientist looks around pityingly. While he can now proceed to translate his theoretical insights into technical innovation (and possibly face value), the humanities scholar only has the sad certainty that he is reaching his diffuse and infinitely distant goal of some kind of “world spirit”, a “ ultimate law for human action “will never be able to achieve. Maybe he never had that goal ...
Step 4


His focus is not on the reproducibility of the phenomena ( a Shakespeare is enough and copies are always bad!), But rather on the fact that as a person he perceives the abundance of individual phenomena that life offers him and recognizes it as enriching, educational, and ultimately as meaningful. The goal of the natural sciences is to come to terms with existence. The aim of the humanities is to create awareness of this existence.

To deepen:


  • How can psychology and economics be classified in the schema of natural sciences and humanities?
    Is Human Action Predictable?
    If so, who would be interested in knowing the laws?
  • Couldn't historians strive for more “natural science” so that laws can be found that could help prevent wars?
  • Why must all phenomena, all manifestations in our world always be explained immediately? Isn't it enough just to marvel at them?


We owe these explanations
Schwerdtfeger, Axel, Carl Engler School, Karlsruhe.