top of page


Learning ObjectivesBy the end of this section, you will be able to do the following:

  • Identify the shared characteristics of the natural sciences

  • Summarize the steps of the scientific method

  • Compare inductive reasoning with deductive reasoning

  • Describe the goals of basic science and applied science

Figure 1.2 Formerly called blue-green algae, these (a) cyanobacteria, magnified 300x under a light microscope, are some of Earth’s oldest life forms. These (b) stromatolites along the shores of Lake Thetis in Western Australia are ancient structures formed by layering cyanobacteria in shallow waters. (credit a: modification of work by NASA; credit b: modification of work by Ruth Ellison; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

What is biology? In simple terms, biology is the study of life. This is a very broad definition because the scope of biology is vast. Biologists may study anything from the microscopic or submicroscopic view of a cell to ecosystems and the whole living planet (Figure 1.2). Listening to the daily news, you will quickly realize how many aspects of biology we discuss every day. For example, recent news topics include Escherichia coli (Figure 1.3) outbreaks in spinach and Salmonella contamination in peanut butter. Other subjects include efforts toward finding a cure for AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer. On a global scale, many researchers are committed to finding ways to protect the planet, solve environmental issues, and reduce the effects of climate change. All of these diverse endeavors are related to different facets of the discipline of biology.

Figure 1.3 Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria, in this scanning electron micrograph, are normal residents of our digestive tracts that aid in absorbing vitamin K and other nutrients. However, virulent strains are sometimes responsible for disease outbreaks. (credit: Eric Erbe, digital colorization by Christopher Pooley, both of USDA, ARS, EMU)

The Process of Science

Biology is a science, but what exactly is science? What does the study of biology share with other scientific disciplines? We can define science (from the Latin scientia, meaning “knowledge”) as knowledge that covers general truths or the operation of general laws, especially when acquired and tested by the scientific method. It becomes clear from this definition that applying scientific method plays a major role in science. The scientific method is a method of research with defined steps that include experiments and careful observation.

We will examine scientific method steps in detail later, but one of the most important aspects of this method is the testing of hypotheses by means of repeatable experiments. A hypothesis is a suggested explanation for an event, which one can test. Although using the scientific method is inherent to science, it is inadequate in determining what science is. This is because it is relatively easy to apply the scientific method to disciplines such as physics and chemistry, but when it comes to disciplines like archaeology, psychology, and geology, the scientific method becomes less applicable as repeating experiments becomes more difficult.

These areas of study are still sciences, however. Consider archaeology—even though one cannot perform repeatable experiments, hypotheses may still be supported. For instance, archaeologists can hypothesize that an ancient culture existed based on finding a piece of pottery. They could make further hypotheses about various characteristics of this culture, which could be correct or false through continued support or contradictions from other findings. A hypothesis may become a verified theory. A theory is a tested and confirmed explanation for observations or phenomena. Therefore, we may be better off to define science as fields of study that attempt to comprehend the nature of the universe.

Natural Sciences

What would you expect to see in a museum of natural sciences? Frogs? Plants? Dinosaur skeletons? Exhibits about how the brain functions? A planetarium? Gems and minerals? Maybe all of the above? Science includes such diverse fields as astronomy, biology, computer sciences, geology, logic, physics, chemistry, and mathematics (Figure 1.4). However, scientists consider those fields of science related to the physical world and its phenomena and processes natural sciences. Thus, a museum of natural sciences might contain any of the items listed above.

Figure 1.4 The diversity of scientific fields includes astronomy, biology, computer science, geology, logic, physics, chemistry, mathematics, and many other fields. (credit: “Image Editor”/Flickr)

There is no complete agreement when it comes to defining what the natural sciences include, however. For some experts, the natural sciences are astronomy, biology, chemistry, earth science, and physics. Other scholars choose to divide natural sciences into life sciences, which study living things and include biology, and physical sciences, which study nonliving matter and include astronomy, geology, physics, and chemistry. Some disciplines such as biophysics and biochemistry build on both life and physical sciences and are interdisciplinary. Some refer to natural sciences as “hard science” because they rely on the use of quantitative data. Social sciences that study society and human behavior are more likely to use qualitative assessments to drive investigations and findings.

Not surprisingly, the natural science of biology has many branches or subdisciplines. Cell biologists study cell structure and function, while biologists who study anatomy investigate the structure of an entire organism. Those biologists studying physiology, however, focus on the internal functioning of an organism. Some areas of biology focus on only particular types of living things. For example, botanists explore plants, while zoologists specialize in animals.

Scientific Reasoning

One thing is common to all forms of science: an ultimate goal “to know.” Curiosity and inquiry are the driving forces for the development of science. Scientists seek to understand the world and the way it operates. To do this, they use two methods of logical thinking: inductive reasoning and deductive reasoning.

Inductive reasoning is a form of logical thinking that uses related observations to arrive at a general conclusion. This type of reasoning is common in descriptive science. A life scientist such as a biologist makes observations and records them. These data can be qualitative or quantitative, and one can supplement the raw data with drawings, pictures, photos, or videos. From many observations, the scientist can infer conclusions (inductions) based on evidence. Inductive reasoning involves formulating generalizations inferred from careful observation and analyzing a large amount of data. Brain studies provide an example. In this type of research, scientists observe many live brains while people are engaged in a specific activity, such as viewing images of food. The scientist then predicts the part of the brain that “lights up” during this activity to be the part controlling the response to the selected stimulus, in this case, images of food. Excess absorption of radioactive sugar derivatives by active areas of the brain causes the various areas to "light up". Scientists use a scanner to observe the resultant increase in radioactivity. Then, researchers can stimulate that part of the brain to see if similar responses result.

Deductive reasoning or deduction is the type of logic used in hypothesis-based science. In deductive reasoning, the pattern of thinking moves in the opposite direction as compared to inductive reasoning. Deductive reasoning is a form of logical thinking that uses a general principle or law to predict specific results. From those general principles, a scientist can deduce and predict the specific results that would be valid as long as the general principles are valid. Studies in climate change can illustrate this type of reasoning. For example, scientists may predict that if the climate becomes warmer in a particular region, then the distribution of plants and animals should change.

Both types of logical thinking are related to the two main pathways of scientific study: descriptive science and hypothesis-based science. Descriptive (or discovery) science, which is usually inductive, aims to observe, explore, and discover, while hypothesis-based science, which is usually deductive, begins with a specific question or problem and a potential answer or solution that one can test. The boundary between these two forms of study is often blurred, and most scientific endeavors combine both approaches. The fuzzy boundary becomes apparent when thinking about how easily observation can lead to specific questions. For example, a gentleman in the 1940s observed that the burr seeds that stuck to his clothes and his dog’s fur had a tiny hook structure. On closer inspection, he discovered that the burrs’ gripping device was more reliable than a zipper. He eventually experimented to find the best material that acted similarly, and produced the hook-and-loop fastener popularly known today as Velcro. Descriptive science and hypothesis-based science are in continuous dialogue.

The Scientific Method

Biologists study the living world by posing questions about it and seeking science-based responses. Known as scientific method, this approach is common to other sciences as well. The scientific method was used even in ancient times, but England’s Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626) first documented it (Figure 1.5). He set up inductive methods for scientific inquiry. The scientific method is not used only by biologists; researchers from almost all fields of study can apply it as a logical, rational problem-solving method.

Figure 1.5 Historians credit Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626) as the first to define the scientific method. (credit: Paul van Somer)

The scientific process typically starts with an observation (often a problem to solve) that leads to a question. Let’s think about a simple problem that starts with an observation and apply the scientific method to solve the problem. One Monday morning, a student arrives at class and quickly discovers that the classroom is too warm. That is an observation that also describes a problem: the classroom is too warm. The student then asks a question: “Why is the classroom so warm?”

Proposing a Hypothesis

Recall that a hypothesis is a suggested explanation that one can test. To solve a problem, one can propose several hypotheses. For example, one hypothesis might be, “The classroom is warm because no one turned on the air conditioning.” However, there could be other responses to the question, and therefore one may propose other hypotheses. A second hypothesis might be, “The classroom is warm because there is a power failure, and so the air conditioning doesn’t work.”

Once one has selected a hypothesis, the student can make a prediction. A prediction is similar to a hypothesis but it typically has the format “If . . . then . . . .” For example, the prediction for the first hypothesis might be, “If the student turns on the air conditioning, then the classroom will no longer be too warm.”

Testing a Hypothesis

A valid hypothesis must be testable. It should also be falsifiable, meaning that experimental results can disprove it. Importantly, science does not claim to “prove” anything because scientific understandings are always subject to modification with further information. This step—openness to disproving ideas—is what distinguishes sciences from non-sciences. The presence of the supernatural, for instance, is neither testable nor falsifiable. To test a hypothesis, a researcher will conduct one or more experiments designed to eliminate one or more of the hypotheses. Each experiment will have one or more variables and one or more controls. A variable is any part of the experiment that can vary or change during the experiment. The control group contains every feature of the experimental group except it is not given the manipulation that the researcher hypothesizes. Therefore, if the experimental group's results differ from the control group, the difference must be due to the hypothesized manipulation, rather than some outside factor. Look for the variables and controls in the examples that follow. To test the first hypothesis, the student would find out if the air conditioning is on. If the air conditioning is turned on but does not work, there should be another reason, and the student should reject this hypothesis. To test the second hypothesis, the student could check if the lights in the classroom are functional. If so, there is no power failure and the student should reject this hypothesis. The students should test each hypothesis by carrying out appropriate experiments. Be aware that rejecting one hypothesis does not determine whether or not one can accept the other hypotheses. It simply eliminates one hypothesis that is not valid (Figure 1.6). Using the scientific method, the student rejects the hypotheses that are inconsistent with experimental data.

While this “warm classroom” example is based on observational results, other hypotheses and experiments might have clearer controls. For instance, a student might attend class on Monday and realize she had difficulty concentrating on the lecture. One observation to explain this occurrence might be, “When I eat breakfast before class, I am better able to pay attention.” The student could then design an experiment with a control to test this hypothesis.

In hypothesis-based science, researchers predict specific results from a general premise. We call this type of reasoning deductive reasoning: deduction proceeds from the general to the particular. However, the reverse of the process is also possible: sometimes, scientists reach a general conclusion from a number of specific observations. We call this type of reasoning inductive reasoning, and it proceeds from the particular to the general. Researchers often use inductive and deductive reasoning in tandem to advance scientific knowledge (Figure 1.7). In recent years a new approach of testing hypotheses has developed as a result of an exponential growth of data deposited in various databases. Using computer algorithms and statistical analyses of data in databases, a new field of so-called "data research" (also referred to as "in silico" research) provides new methods of data analyses and their interpretation. This will increase the demand for specialists in both biology and computer science, a promising career opportunity.

VISUAL CONNECTIONVisual Connection Figure 1.6 The scientific method consists of a series of well-defined steps. If a hypothesis is not supported by experimental data, one can propose a new hypothesis. In the example below, the scientific method is used to solve an everyday problem. Match the scientific method steps (numbered items) with the process of solving the everyday problem (lettered items). Based on the results of the experiment, is the hypothesis correct? If it is incorrect, propose some alternative hypotheses. 1. Observationa. There is something wrong with the electrical outlet.2. Questionb. If something is wrong with the outlet, my coffeemaker also won’t work when plugged into it.3. Hypothesis (answer)c. My toaster doesn’t toast my bread.4. Predictiond. I plug my coffee maker into the outlet.5. Experimente. My coffeemaker works.6. Resultf. Why doesn’t my toaster work?

2 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Life is beautiful, Full of wonder and awe. From the smallest flower to the grandest mountain, There is beauty all around us. We can find beauty in nature, In the company of friends and family, And in

bottom of page