Is the Scientific Method as Crucial as We Believe? Maybe Not

A new study reveals that many groundbreaking discoveries did not adhere strictly to the textbook definition of the "scientific method."

For centuries, the “scientific method” has been touted as the cornerstone of scientific discovery.

Its three pillars — observation, experimentation, and hypothesis testing — are considered essential requirements for rigorously investigating natural phenomena, ensuring replicability, and systematically building reliable and objective knowledge.

But now a recent study casts some doubt on the necessity of that method.

It found that a significant portion of scientific breakthroughs have not followed the traditional scientific method.

The study, authored by Alexander Krauss of the London School of Economics, was published in the journal PNAS Nexus on March 12, 2024.

A systematic look at the major scientific breakthroughs

Krauss analyzed 761 major scientific discoveries, including all Nobel Prize-winning works from 1901 to 2022.

The data set included 533 Nobel Prize-winning discoveries and 228 other major discoveries recognized in scientific literature.

Krauss found that 25% of these discoveries did not employ the full scientific method.

Specifically, 6% of these discoveries did not involve observation, 23% did not include experimentation, and 17% did not test a hypothesis.

The paper highlights several examples.

Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity in 1905, for instance, revolutionized our understanding of space and time through mathematical reasoning rather than direct experimentation.

Similarly, the 1953 discovery of the double helix structure of DNA by James Watson, Francis Crick, and Rosalind Franklin relied on X-ray crystallography images, without traditional hypothesis testing or experimentation.

And Roger Penrose’s 1965 mathematical proof for black holes advanced astrophysics through theoretical calculations, rather than experimental data or direct observation.

These cases show that many significant scientific advancements have transcended the boundaries of the traditional scientific method.

More sophisticated methods as the new standard

These findings suggest that adhering strictly to the conventional scientific method may actually constrain scientific innovation.

“Empirical evidence thus challenges the common view of the scientific method,” Krauss writes, and “adhering to it as a guiding principle would constrain us in developing many new scientific ideas and breakthroughs.”

“Instead,” he continues, “we identify here a general, common feature that the method of science can be reduced to: making all major discoveries has required using sophisticated methods and instruments of science”

Krauss argues that these tools, such as statistical methods, particle accelerators, and X-ray diffraction, extend our cognitive and sensory abilities, enabling groundbreaking discoveries that traditional methods alone could not achieve.

“Without such scientific tools,” he writes, “discovery and scientific progress are not possible.”

His research shows that all of the discoveries analyzed required the use of sophisticated methods or instruments.

This new perspective suggests that the scientific method should be redefined to include these advanced tools as a fundamental component.

A new understanding of scientific practice

Krauss’s study also highlights the diversity of methodologies used across different scientific fields.

For instance, about half of all Nobel Prize discoveries in astronomy, economics, and social sciences did not apply the traditional scientific method.

This variability underscores the necessity of flexible and sophisticated approaches in different research contexts.

The study also found that while 94% of discoveries involved observation, and 81% involved hypothesis testing, the integration of sophisticated methods and instruments was a universal factor in all discoveries.

This indicates that the true essence of scientific progress lies in the innovative use of tools that enhance our ability to observe, experiment, and test hypotheses in novel ways.

Implications for future research

These findings have implications for how we teach and practice science.

The traditional view of the scientific method, often presented in textbooks as a rigid sequence of steps, may no longer suffice in explaining how real-world scientific breakthroughs are achieved.

Instead, embracing a more flexible and inclusive definition that incorporates sophisticated tools and methods could better prepare future scientists for the complexities of modern research.

Krauss’s study calls for a shift in how scientific institutions and educational programs approach the scientific method.

By recognizing and integrating the use of advanced instruments and methodologies, we can foster a more accurate and dynamic understanding of scientific practice.

“Ultimately,” he writes, “the best path to discovery is not the classic scientific method but the sophisticated scientific method.”

Study Details

  • Title: “Redefining the Scientific Method: The Use of Sophisticated Scientific Methods That Extend Our Mind”
  • Authors: Alexander Krauss
  • Publication Date: March 12, 2024
  • Journal: PNAS Nexus
  • DOI: