Encyclopedia Britannica

  • Games & Quizzes
  • History & Society
  • Science & Tech
  • Biographies
  • Animals & Nature
  • Geography & Travel
  • Arts & Culture
  • On This Day
  • One Good Fact
  • New Articles
  • Lifestyles & Social Issues
  • Philosophy & Religion
  • Politics, Law & Government
  • World History
  • Health & Medicine
  • Browse Biographies
  • Birds, Reptiles & Other Vertebrates
  • Bugs, Mollusks & Other Invertebrates
  • Environment
  • Fossils & Geologic Time
  • Entertainment & Pop Culture
  • Sports & Recreation
  • Visual Arts
  • Demystified
  • Image Galleries
  • Infographics
  • Top Questions
  • Britannica Kids
  • Saving Earth
  • Space Next 50
  • Student Center

experiments disproving spontaneous generation

scientific hypothesis

Our editors will review what you’ve submitted and determine whether to revise the article.

  • National Center for Biotechnology Information - PubMed Central - On the scope of scientific hypotheses
  • LiveScience - What is a scientific hypothesis?
  • The Royal Society - On the scope of scientific hypotheses

scientific hypothesis , an idea that proposes a tentative explanation about a phenomenon or a narrow set of phenomena observed in the natural world. The two primary features of a scientific hypothesis are falsifiability and testability, which are reflected in an “If…then” statement summarizing the idea and in the ability to be supported or refuted through observation and experimentation. The notion of the scientific hypothesis as both falsifiable and testable was advanced in the mid-20th century by Austrian-born British philosopher Karl Popper .

The formulation and testing of a hypothesis is part of the scientific method , the approach scientists use when attempting to understand and test ideas about natural phenomena. The generation of a hypothesis frequently is described as a creative process and is based on existing scientific knowledge, intuition , or experience. Therefore, although scientific hypotheses commonly are described as educated guesses, they actually are more informed than a guess. In addition, scientists generally strive to develop simple hypotheses, since these are easier to test relative to hypotheses that involve many different variables and potential outcomes. Such complex hypotheses may be developed as scientific models ( see scientific modeling ).

Depending on the results of scientific evaluation, a hypothesis typically is either rejected as false or accepted as true. However, because a hypothesis inherently is falsifiable, even hypotheses supported by scientific evidence and accepted as true are susceptible to rejection later, when new evidence has become available. In some instances, rather than rejecting a hypothesis because it has been falsified by new evidence, scientists simply adapt the existing idea to accommodate the new information. In this sense a hypothesis is never incorrect but only incomplete.

The investigation of scientific hypotheses is an important component in the development of scientific theory . Hence, hypotheses differ fundamentally from theories; whereas the former is a specific tentative explanation and serves as the main tool by which scientists gather data, the latter is a broad general explanation that incorporates data from many different scientific investigations undertaken to explore hypotheses.

hypothesis explanation for observation

Countless hypotheses have been developed and tested throughout the history of science . Several examples include the idea that living organisms develop from nonliving matter, which formed the basis of spontaneous generation , a hypothesis that ultimately was disproved (first in 1668, with the experiments of Italian physician Francesco Redi , and later in 1859, with the experiments of French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur ); the concept proposed in the late 19th century that microorganisms cause certain diseases (now known as germ theory ); and the notion that oceanic crust forms along submarine mountain zones and spreads laterally away from them ( seafloor spreading hypothesis ).

Have a language expert improve your writing

Run a free plagiarism check in 10 minutes, generate accurate citations for free.

  • Knowledge Base


  • How to Write a Strong Hypothesis | Steps & Examples

How to Write a Strong Hypothesis | Steps & Examples

Published on May 6, 2022 by Shona McCombes . Revised on November 20, 2023.

A hypothesis is a statement that can be tested by scientific research. If you want to test a relationship between two or more variables, you need to write hypotheses before you start your experiment or data collection .

Example: Hypothesis

Daily apple consumption leads to fewer doctor’s visits.

Table of contents

What is a hypothesis, developing a hypothesis (with example), hypothesis examples, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about writing hypotheses.

A hypothesis states your predictions about what your research will find. It is a tentative answer to your research question that has not yet been tested. For some research projects, you might have to write several hypotheses that address different aspects of your research question.

A hypothesis is not just a guess – it should be based on existing theories and knowledge. It also has to be testable, which means you can support or refute it through scientific research methods (such as experiments, observations and statistical analysis of data).

Variables in hypotheses

Hypotheses propose a relationship between two or more types of variables .

  • An independent variable is something the researcher changes or controls.
  • A dependent variable is something the researcher observes and measures.

If there are any control variables , extraneous variables , or confounding variables , be sure to jot those down as you go to minimize the chances that research bias  will affect your results.

In this example, the independent variable is exposure to the sun – the assumed cause . The dependent variable is the level of happiness – the assumed effect .

Receive feedback on language, structure, and formatting

Professional editors proofread and edit your paper by focusing on:

  • Academic style
  • Vague sentences
  • Style consistency

See an example

hypothesis explanation for observation

Step 1. Ask a question

Writing a hypothesis begins with a research question that you want to answer. The question should be focused, specific, and researchable within the constraints of your project.

Step 2. Do some preliminary research

Your initial answer to the question should be based on what is already known about the topic. Look for theories and previous studies to help you form educated assumptions about what your research will find.

At this stage, you might construct a conceptual framework to ensure that you’re embarking on a relevant topic . This can also help you identify which variables you will study and what you think the relationships are between them. Sometimes, you’ll have to operationalize more complex constructs.

Step 3. Formulate your hypothesis

Now you should have some idea of what you expect to find. Write your initial answer to the question in a clear, concise sentence.

4. Refine your hypothesis

You need to make sure your hypothesis is specific and testable. There are various ways of phrasing a hypothesis, but all the terms you use should have clear definitions, and the hypothesis should contain:

  • The relevant variables
  • The specific group being studied
  • The predicted outcome of the experiment or analysis

5. Phrase your hypothesis in three ways

To identify the variables, you can write a simple prediction in  if…then form. The first part of the sentence states the independent variable and the second part states the dependent variable.

In academic research, hypotheses are more commonly phrased in terms of correlations or effects, where you directly state the predicted relationship between variables.

If you are comparing two groups, the hypothesis can state what difference you expect to find between them.

6. Write a null hypothesis

If your research involves statistical hypothesis testing , you will also have to write a null hypothesis . The null hypothesis is the default position that there is no association between the variables. The null hypothesis is written as H 0 , while the alternative hypothesis is H 1 or H a .

  • H 0 : The number of lectures attended by first-year students has no effect on their final exam scores.
  • H 1 : The number of lectures attended by first-year students has a positive effect on their final exam scores.
Research question Hypothesis Null hypothesis
What are the health benefits of eating an apple a day? Increasing apple consumption in over-60s will result in decreasing frequency of doctor’s visits. Increasing apple consumption in over-60s will have no effect on frequency of doctor’s visits.
Which airlines have the most delays? Low-cost airlines are more likely to have delays than premium airlines. Low-cost and premium airlines are equally likely to have delays.
Can flexible work arrangements improve job satisfaction? Employees who have flexible working hours will report greater job satisfaction than employees who work fixed hours. There is no relationship between working hour flexibility and job satisfaction.
How effective is high school sex education at reducing teen pregnancies? Teenagers who received sex education lessons throughout high school will have lower rates of unplanned pregnancy teenagers who did not receive any sex education. High school sex education has no effect on teen pregnancy rates.
What effect does daily use of social media have on the attention span of under-16s? There is a negative between time spent on social media and attention span in under-16s. There is no relationship between social media use and attention span in under-16s.

If you want to know more about the research process , methodology , research bias , or statistics , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

  • Sampling methods
  • Simple random sampling
  • Stratified sampling
  • Cluster sampling
  • Likert scales
  • Reproducibility


  • Null hypothesis
  • Statistical power
  • Probability distribution
  • Effect size
  • Poisson distribution

Research bias

  • Optimism bias
  • Cognitive bias
  • Implicit bias
  • Hawthorne effect
  • Anchoring bias
  • Explicit bias

A hypothesis is not just a guess — it should be based on existing theories and knowledge. It also has to be testable, which means you can support or refute it through scientific research methods (such as experiments, observations and statistical analysis of data).

Null and alternative hypotheses are used in statistical hypothesis testing . The null hypothesis of a test always predicts no effect or no relationship between variables, while the alternative hypothesis states your research prediction of an effect or relationship.

Hypothesis testing is a formal procedure for investigating our ideas about the world using statistics. It is used by scientists to test specific predictions, called hypotheses , by calculating how likely it is that a pattern or relationship between variables could have arisen by chance.

Cite this Scribbr article

If you want to cite this source, you can copy and paste the citation or click the “Cite this Scribbr article” button to automatically add the citation to our free Citation Generator.

McCombes, S. (2023, November 20). How to Write a Strong Hypothesis | Steps & Examples. Scribbr. Retrieved June 20, 2024, from https://www.scribbr.com/methodology/hypothesis/

Is this article helpful?

Shona McCombes

Shona McCombes

Other students also liked, construct validity | definition, types, & examples, what is a conceptual framework | tips & examples, operationalization | a guide with examples, pros & cons, "i thought ai proofreading was useless but..".

I've been using Scribbr for years now and I know it's a service that won't disappoint. It does a good job spotting mistakes”

  • Privacy Policy

Research Method

Home » What is a Hypothesis – Types, Examples and Writing Guide

What is a Hypothesis – Types, Examples and Writing Guide

Table of Contents

What is a Hypothesis


Hypothesis is an educated guess or proposed explanation for a phenomenon, based on some initial observations or data. It is a tentative statement that can be tested and potentially proven or disproven through further investigation and experimentation.

Hypothesis is often used in scientific research to guide the design of experiments and the collection and analysis of data. It is an essential element of the scientific method, as it allows researchers to make predictions about the outcome of their experiments and to test those predictions to determine their accuracy.

Types of Hypothesis

Types of Hypothesis are as follows:

Research Hypothesis

A research hypothesis is a statement that predicts a relationship between variables. It is usually formulated as a specific statement that can be tested through research, and it is often used in scientific research to guide the design of experiments.

Null Hypothesis

The null hypothesis is a statement that assumes there is no significant difference or relationship between variables. It is often used as a starting point for testing the research hypothesis, and if the results of the study reject the null hypothesis, it suggests that there is a significant difference or relationship between variables.

Alternative Hypothesis

An alternative hypothesis is a statement that assumes there is a significant difference or relationship between variables. It is often used as an alternative to the null hypothesis and is tested against the null hypothesis to determine which statement is more accurate.

Directional Hypothesis

A directional hypothesis is a statement that predicts the direction of the relationship between variables. For example, a researcher might predict that increasing the amount of exercise will result in a decrease in body weight.

Non-directional Hypothesis

A non-directional hypothesis is a statement that predicts the relationship between variables but does not specify the direction. For example, a researcher might predict that there is a relationship between the amount of exercise and body weight, but they do not specify whether increasing or decreasing exercise will affect body weight.

Statistical Hypothesis

A statistical hypothesis is a statement that assumes a particular statistical model or distribution for the data. It is often used in statistical analysis to test the significance of a particular result.

Composite Hypothesis

A composite hypothesis is a statement that assumes more than one condition or outcome. It can be divided into several sub-hypotheses, each of which represents a different possible outcome.

Empirical Hypothesis

An empirical hypothesis is a statement that is based on observed phenomena or data. It is often used in scientific research to develop theories or models that explain the observed phenomena.

Simple Hypothesis

A simple hypothesis is a statement that assumes only one outcome or condition. It is often used in scientific research to test a single variable or factor.

Complex Hypothesis

A complex hypothesis is a statement that assumes multiple outcomes or conditions. It is often used in scientific research to test the effects of multiple variables or factors on a particular outcome.

Applications of Hypothesis

Hypotheses are used in various fields to guide research and make predictions about the outcomes of experiments or observations. Here are some examples of how hypotheses are applied in different fields:

  • Science : In scientific research, hypotheses are used to test the validity of theories and models that explain natural phenomena. For example, a hypothesis might be formulated to test the effects of a particular variable on a natural system, such as the effects of climate change on an ecosystem.
  • Medicine : In medical research, hypotheses are used to test the effectiveness of treatments and therapies for specific conditions. For example, a hypothesis might be formulated to test the effects of a new drug on a particular disease.
  • Psychology : In psychology, hypotheses are used to test theories and models of human behavior and cognition. For example, a hypothesis might be formulated to test the effects of a particular stimulus on the brain or behavior.
  • Sociology : In sociology, hypotheses are used to test theories and models of social phenomena, such as the effects of social structures or institutions on human behavior. For example, a hypothesis might be formulated to test the effects of income inequality on crime rates.
  • Business : In business research, hypotheses are used to test the validity of theories and models that explain business phenomena, such as consumer behavior or market trends. For example, a hypothesis might be formulated to test the effects of a new marketing campaign on consumer buying behavior.
  • Engineering : In engineering, hypotheses are used to test the effectiveness of new technologies or designs. For example, a hypothesis might be formulated to test the efficiency of a new solar panel design.

How to write a Hypothesis

Here are the steps to follow when writing a hypothesis:

Identify the Research Question

The first step is to identify the research question that you want to answer through your study. This question should be clear, specific, and focused. It should be something that can be investigated empirically and that has some relevance or significance in the field.

Conduct a Literature Review

Before writing your hypothesis, it’s essential to conduct a thorough literature review to understand what is already known about the topic. This will help you to identify the research gap and formulate a hypothesis that builds on existing knowledge.

Determine the Variables

The next step is to identify the variables involved in the research question. A variable is any characteristic or factor that can vary or change. There are two types of variables: independent and dependent. The independent variable is the one that is manipulated or changed by the researcher, while the dependent variable is the one that is measured or observed as a result of the independent variable.

Formulate the Hypothesis

Based on the research question and the variables involved, you can now formulate your hypothesis. A hypothesis should be a clear and concise statement that predicts the relationship between the variables. It should be testable through empirical research and based on existing theory or evidence.

Write the Null Hypothesis

The null hypothesis is the opposite of the alternative hypothesis, which is the hypothesis that you are testing. The null hypothesis states that there is no significant difference or relationship between the variables. It is important to write the null hypothesis because it allows you to compare your results with what would be expected by chance.

Refine the Hypothesis

After formulating the hypothesis, it’s important to refine it and make it more precise. This may involve clarifying the variables, specifying the direction of the relationship, or making the hypothesis more testable.

Examples of Hypothesis

Here are a few examples of hypotheses in different fields:

  • Psychology : “Increased exposure to violent video games leads to increased aggressive behavior in adolescents.”
  • Biology : “Higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will lead to increased plant growth.”
  • Sociology : “Individuals who grow up in households with higher socioeconomic status will have higher levels of education and income as adults.”
  • Education : “Implementing a new teaching method will result in higher student achievement scores.”
  • Marketing : “Customers who receive a personalized email will be more likely to make a purchase than those who receive a generic email.”
  • Physics : “An increase in temperature will cause an increase in the volume of a gas, assuming all other variables remain constant.”
  • Medicine : “Consuming a diet high in saturated fats will increase the risk of developing heart disease.”

Purpose of Hypothesis

The purpose of a hypothesis is to provide a testable explanation for an observed phenomenon or a prediction of a future outcome based on existing knowledge or theories. A hypothesis is an essential part of the scientific method and helps to guide the research process by providing a clear focus for investigation. It enables scientists to design experiments or studies to gather evidence and data that can support or refute the proposed explanation or prediction.

The formulation of a hypothesis is based on existing knowledge, observations, and theories, and it should be specific, testable, and falsifiable. A specific hypothesis helps to define the research question, which is important in the research process as it guides the selection of an appropriate research design and methodology. Testability of the hypothesis means that it can be proven or disproven through empirical data collection and analysis. Falsifiability means that the hypothesis should be formulated in such a way that it can be proven wrong if it is incorrect.

In addition to guiding the research process, the testing of hypotheses can lead to new discoveries and advancements in scientific knowledge. When a hypothesis is supported by the data, it can be used to develop new theories or models to explain the observed phenomenon. When a hypothesis is not supported by the data, it can help to refine existing theories or prompt the development of new hypotheses to explain the phenomenon.

When to use Hypothesis

Here are some common situations in which hypotheses are used:

  • In scientific research , hypotheses are used to guide the design of experiments and to help researchers make predictions about the outcomes of those experiments.
  • In social science research , hypotheses are used to test theories about human behavior, social relationships, and other phenomena.
  • I n business , hypotheses can be used to guide decisions about marketing, product development, and other areas. For example, a hypothesis might be that a new product will sell well in a particular market, and this hypothesis can be tested through market research.

Characteristics of Hypothesis

Here are some common characteristics of a hypothesis:

  • Testable : A hypothesis must be able to be tested through observation or experimentation. This means that it must be possible to collect data that will either support or refute the hypothesis.
  • Falsifiable : A hypothesis must be able to be proven false if it is not supported by the data. If a hypothesis cannot be falsified, then it is not a scientific hypothesis.
  • Clear and concise : A hypothesis should be stated in a clear and concise manner so that it can be easily understood and tested.
  • Based on existing knowledge : A hypothesis should be based on existing knowledge and research in the field. It should not be based on personal beliefs or opinions.
  • Specific : A hypothesis should be specific in terms of the variables being tested and the predicted outcome. This will help to ensure that the research is focused and well-designed.
  • Tentative: A hypothesis is a tentative statement or assumption that requires further testing and evidence to be confirmed or refuted. It is not a final conclusion or assertion.
  • Relevant : A hypothesis should be relevant to the research question or problem being studied. It should address a gap in knowledge or provide a new perspective on the issue.

Advantages of Hypothesis

Hypotheses have several advantages in scientific research and experimentation:

  • Guides research: A hypothesis provides a clear and specific direction for research. It helps to focus the research question, select appropriate methods and variables, and interpret the results.
  • Predictive powe r: A hypothesis makes predictions about the outcome of research, which can be tested through experimentation. This allows researchers to evaluate the validity of the hypothesis and make new discoveries.
  • Facilitates communication: A hypothesis provides a common language and framework for scientists to communicate with one another about their research. This helps to facilitate the exchange of ideas and promotes collaboration.
  • Efficient use of resources: A hypothesis helps researchers to use their time, resources, and funding efficiently by directing them towards specific research questions and methods that are most likely to yield results.
  • Provides a basis for further research: A hypothesis that is supported by data provides a basis for further research and exploration. It can lead to new hypotheses, theories, and discoveries.
  • Increases objectivity: A hypothesis can help to increase objectivity in research by providing a clear and specific framework for testing and interpreting results. This can reduce bias and increase the reliability of research findings.

Limitations of Hypothesis

Some Limitations of the Hypothesis are as follows:

  • Limited to observable phenomena: Hypotheses are limited to observable phenomena and cannot account for unobservable or intangible factors. This means that some research questions may not be amenable to hypothesis testing.
  • May be inaccurate or incomplete: Hypotheses are based on existing knowledge and research, which may be incomplete or inaccurate. This can lead to flawed hypotheses and erroneous conclusions.
  • May be biased: Hypotheses may be biased by the researcher’s own beliefs, values, or assumptions. This can lead to selective interpretation of data and a lack of objectivity in research.
  • Cannot prove causation: A hypothesis can only show a correlation between variables, but it cannot prove causation. This requires further experimentation and analysis.
  • Limited to specific contexts: Hypotheses are limited to specific contexts and may not be generalizable to other situations or populations. This means that results may not be applicable in other contexts or may require further testing.
  • May be affected by chance : Hypotheses may be affected by chance or random variation, which can obscure or distort the true relationship between variables.

About the author

' src=

Muhammad Hassan

Researcher, Academic Writer, Web developer

You may also like

Research Objectives

Research Objectives – Types, Examples and...

Research Paper

Research Paper – Structure, Examples and Writing...

Research Recommendations

Research Recommendations – Examples and Writing...

Informed Consent in Research

Informed Consent in Research – Types, Templates...

References in Research

References in Research – Types, Examples and...

Significance of the Study

Significance of the Study – Examples and Writing...

What is a scientific hypothesis?

It's the initial building block in the scientific method.

A girl looks at plants in a test tube for a science experiment. What's her scientific hypothesis?

Hypothesis basics

What makes a hypothesis testable.

  • Types of hypotheses
  • Hypothesis versus theory

Additional resources


A scientific hypothesis is a tentative, testable explanation for a phenomenon in the natural world. It's the initial building block in the scientific method . Many describe it as an "educated guess" based on prior knowledge and observation. While this is true, a hypothesis is more informed than a guess. While an "educated guess" suggests a random prediction based on a person's expertise, developing a hypothesis requires active observation and background research. 

The basic idea of a hypothesis is that there is no predetermined outcome. For a solution to be termed a scientific hypothesis, it has to be an idea that can be supported or refuted through carefully crafted experimentation or observation. This concept, called falsifiability and testability, was advanced in the mid-20th century by Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper in his famous book "The Logic of Scientific Discovery" (Routledge, 1959).

A key function of a hypothesis is to derive predictions about the results of future experiments and then perform those experiments to see whether they support the predictions.

A hypothesis is usually written in the form of an if-then statement, which gives a possibility (if) and explains what may happen because of the possibility (then). The statement could also include "may," according to California State University, Bakersfield .

Here are some examples of hypothesis statements:

  • If garlic repels fleas, then a dog that is given garlic every day will not get fleas.
  • If sugar causes cavities, then people who eat a lot of candy may be more prone to cavities.
  • If ultraviolet light can damage the eyes, then maybe this light can cause blindness.

A useful hypothesis should be testable and falsifiable. That means that it should be possible to prove it wrong. A theory that can't be proved wrong is nonscientific, according to Karl Popper's 1963 book " Conjectures and Refutations ."

An example of an untestable statement is, "Dogs are better than cats." That's because the definition of "better" is vague and subjective. However, an untestable statement can be reworded to make it testable. For example, the previous statement could be changed to this: "Owning a dog is associated with higher levels of physical fitness than owning a cat." With this statement, the researcher can take measures of physical fitness from dog and cat owners and compare the two.

Types of scientific hypotheses

Elementary-age students study alternative energy using homemade windmills during public school science class.

In an experiment, researchers generally state their hypotheses in two ways. The null hypothesis predicts that there will be no relationship between the variables tested, or no difference between the experimental groups. The alternative hypothesis predicts the opposite: that there will be a difference between the experimental groups. This is usually the hypothesis scientists are most interested in, according to the University of Miami .

For example, a null hypothesis might state, "There will be no difference in the rate of muscle growth between people who take a protein supplement and people who don't." The alternative hypothesis would state, "There will be a difference in the rate of muscle growth between people who take a protein supplement and people who don't."

If the results of the experiment show a relationship between the variables, then the null hypothesis has been rejected in favor of the alternative hypothesis, according to the book " Research Methods in Psychology " (​​BCcampus, 2015). 

There are other ways to describe an alternative hypothesis. The alternative hypothesis above does not specify a direction of the effect, only that there will be a difference between the two groups. That type of prediction is called a two-tailed hypothesis. If a hypothesis specifies a certain direction — for example, that people who take a protein supplement will gain more muscle than people who don't — it is called a one-tailed hypothesis, according to William M. K. Trochim , a professor of Policy Analysis and Management at Cornell University.

Sometimes, errors take place during an experiment. These errors can happen in one of two ways. A type I error is when the null hypothesis is rejected when it is true. This is also known as a false positive. A type II error occurs when the null hypothesis is not rejected when it is false. This is also known as a false negative, according to the University of California, Berkeley . 

A hypothesis can be rejected or modified, but it can never be proved correct 100% of the time. For example, a scientist can form a hypothesis stating that if a certain type of tomato has a gene for red pigment, that type of tomato will be red. During research, the scientist then finds that each tomato of this type is red. Though the findings confirm the hypothesis, there may be a tomato of that type somewhere in the world that isn't red. Thus, the hypothesis is true, but it may not be true 100% of the time.

Scientific theory vs. scientific hypothesis

The best hypotheses are simple. They deal with a relatively narrow set of phenomena. But theories are broader; they generally combine multiple hypotheses into a general explanation for a wide range of phenomena, according to the University of California, Berkeley . For example, a hypothesis might state, "If animals adapt to suit their environments, then birds that live on islands with lots of seeds to eat will have differently shaped beaks than birds that live on islands with lots of insects to eat." After testing many hypotheses like these, Charles Darwin formulated an overarching theory: the theory of evolution by natural selection.

"Theories are the ways that we make sense of what we observe in the natural world," Tanner said. "Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts." 

  • Read more about writing a hypothesis, from the American Medical Writers Association.
  • Find out why a hypothesis isn't always necessary in science, from The American Biology Teacher.
  • Learn about null and alternative hypotheses, from Prof. Essa on YouTube .

Encyclopedia Britannica. Scientific Hypothesis. Jan. 13, 2022. https://www.britannica.com/science/scientific-hypothesis

Karl Popper, "The Logic of Scientific Discovery," Routledge, 1959.

California State University, Bakersfield, "Formatting a testable hypothesis." https://www.csub.edu/~ddodenhoff/Bio100/Bio100sp04/formattingahypothesis.htm  

Karl Popper, "Conjectures and Refutations," Routledge, 1963.

Price, P., Jhangiani, R., & Chiang, I., "Research Methods of Psychology — 2nd Canadian Edition," BCcampus, 2015.‌

University of Miami, "The Scientific Method" http://www.bio.miami.edu/dana/161/evolution/161app1_scimethod.pdf  

William M.K. Trochim, "Research Methods Knowledge Base," https://conjointly.com/kb/hypotheses-explained/  

University of California, Berkeley, "Multiple Hypothesis Testing and False Discovery Rate" https://www.stat.berkeley.edu/~hhuang/STAT141/Lecture-FDR.pdf  

University of California, Berkeley, "Science at multiple levels" https://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/0_0_0/howscienceworks_19

Sign up for the Live Science daily newsletter now

Get the world’s most fascinating discoveries delivered straight to your inbox.

Gulf Stream's fate to be decided by climate 'tug-of-war'

Earth's rotating inner core is starting to slow down — and it could alter the length of our days

Giant river system that existed 40 million years ago discovered deep below Antarctic ice

Most Popular

  • 2 Y chromosome is evolving faster than the X, primate study reveals
  • 3 Ming dynasty shipwrecks hide a treasure trove of artifacts in the South China Sea, excavation reveals
  • 4 Gulf Stream's fate to be decided by climate 'tug-of-war'
  • 5 Long-lost Assyrian military camp devastated by 'the angel of the Lord' finally found, scientist claims
  • 2 '1st of its kind': NASA spots unusually light-colored boulder on Mars that may reveal clues of the planet's past
  • 3 Long-lost Assyrian military camp devastated by 'the angel of the Lord' finally found, scientist claims

hypothesis explanation for observation

The Scientific Method Tutorial


The Scientific Method

Steps in the scientific method.

There is a great deal of variation in the specific techniques scientists use explore the natural world. However, the following steps characterize the majority of scientific investigations:

Step 1: Make observations Step 2: Propose a hypothesis to explain observations Step 3: Test the hypothesis with further observations or experiments Step 4: Analyze data Step 5: State conclusions about hypothesis based on data analysis

Each of these steps is explained briefly below, and in more detail later in this section.

Step 1: Make observations

A scientific inquiry typically starts with observations. Often, simple observations will trigger a question in the researcher's mind.

Example: A biologist frequently sees monarch caterpillars feeding on milkweed plants, but rarely sees them feeding on other types of plants. She wonders if it is because the caterpillars prefer milkweed over other food choices.

Step 2: Propose a hypothesis

The researcher develops a hypothesis (singular) or hypotheses (plural) to explain these observations. A hypothesis is a tentative explanation of a phenomenon or observation(s) that can be supported or falsified by further observations or experimentation.

Example: The researcher hypothesizes that monarch caterpillars prefer to feed on milkweed compared to other common plants. (Notice how the hypothesis is a statement, not a question as in step 1.)

Step 3: Test the hypothesis

The researcher makes further observations and/or may design an experiment to test the hypothesis. An experiment is a controlled situation created by a researcher to test the validity of a hypothesis. Whether further observations or an experiment is used to test the hypothesis will depend on the nature of the question and the practicality of manipulating the factors involved.

Example: The researcher sets up an experiment in the lab in which a number of monarch caterpillars are given a choice between milkweed and a number of other common plants to feed on.

Step 4: Analyze data

The researcher summarizes and analyzes the information, or data, generated by these further observations or experiments.

Example: In her experiment, milkweed was chosen by caterpillars 9 times out of 10 over all other plant selections.

Step 5: State conclusions

The researcher interprets the results of experiments or observations and forms conclusions about the meaning of these results. These conclusions are generally expressed as probability statements about their hypothesis.

Example: She concludes that when given a choice, 90 percent of monarch caterpillars prefer to feed on milkweed over other common plants.

Often, the results of one scientific study will raise questions that may be addressed in subsequent research. For example, the above study might lead the researcher to wonder why monarchs seem to prefer to feed on milkweed, and she may plan additional experiments to explore this question. For example, perhaps the milkweed has higher nutritional value than other available plants.

Return to top of page

The Scientific Method Flowchart

The steps in the scientific method are presented visually in the following flow chart. The question raised or the results obtained at each step directly determine how the next step will proceed. Following the flow of the arrows, pass the cursor over each blue box. An explanation and example of each step will appear. As you read the example given at each step, see if you can predict what the next step will be.

Activity: Apply the Scientific Method to Everyday Life Use the steps of the scientific method described above to solve a problem in real life. Suppose you come home one evening and flick the light switch only to find that the light doesn’t turn on. What is your hypothesis? How will you test that hypothesis? Based on the result of this test, what are your conclusions? Follow your instructor's directions for submitting your response.

The above flowchart illustrates the logical sequence of conclusions and decisions in a typical scientific study. There are some important points to note about this process:

1. The steps are clearly linked.

The steps in this process are clearly linked. The hypothesis, formed as a potential explanation for the initial observations, becomes the focus of the study. The hypothesis will determine what further observations are needed or what type of experiment should be done to test its validity. The conclusions of the experiment or further observations will either be in agreement with or will contradict the hypothesis. If the results are in agreement with the hypothesis, this does not prove that the hypothesis is true! In scientific terms, it "lends support" to the hypothesis, which will be tested again and again under a variety of circumstances before researchers accept it as a fairly reliable description of reality.

2. The same steps are not followed in all types of research.

The steps described above present a generalized method followed in a many scientific investigations. These steps are not carved in stone. The question the researcher wishes to answer will influence the steps in the method and how they will be carried out. For example, astronomers do not perform many experiments as defined here. They tend to rely on observations to test theories. Biologists and chemists have the ability to change conditions in a test tube and then observe whether the outcome supports or invalidates their starting hypothesis, while astronomers are not able to change the path of Jupiter around the Sun and observe the outcome!

3. Collected observations may lead to the development of theories.

When a large number of observations and/or experimental results have been compiled, and all are consistent with a generalized description of how some element of nature operates, this description is called a theory. Theories are much broader than hypotheses and are supported by a wide range of evidence. Theories are important scientific tools. They provide a context for interpretation of new observations and also suggest experiments to test their own validity. Theories are discussed in more detail in another section.

. .

The Scientific Method in Detail

In the sections that follow, each step in the scientific method is described in more detail.

Step 1: Observations

Observations in science.

An observation is some thing, event, or phenomenon that is noticed or observed. Observations are listed as the first step in the scientific method because they often provide a starting point, a source of questions a researcher may ask. For example, the observation that leaves change color in the fall may lead a researcher to ask why this is so, and to propose a hypothesis to explain this phenomena. In fact, observations also will provide the key to answering the research question.

In science, observations form the foundation of all hypotheses, experiments, and theories. In an experiment, the researcher carefully plans what observations will be made and how they will be recorded. To be accepted, scientific conclusions and theories must be supported by all available observations. If new observations are made which seem to contradict an established theory, that theory will be re-examined and may be revised to explain the new facts. Observations are the nuts and bolts of science that researchers use to piece together a better understanding of nature.

Observations in science are made in a way that can be precisely communicated to (and verified by) other researchers. In many types of studies (especially in chemistry, physics, and biology), quantitative observations are used. A quantitative observation is one that is expressed and recorded as a quantity, using some standard system of measurement. Quantities such as size, volume, weight, time, distance, or a host of others may be measured in scientific studies.

Some observations that researchers need to make may be difficult or impossible to quantify. Take the example of color. Not all individuals perceive color in exactly the same way. Even apart from limiting conditions such as colorblindness, the way two people see and describe the color of a particular flower, for example, will not be the same. Color, as perceived by the human eye, is an example of a qualitative observation.

Qualitative observations note qualities associated with subjects or samples that are not readily measured. Other examples of qualitative observations might be descriptions of mating behaviors, human facial expressions, or "yes/no" type of data, where some factor is present or absent. Though the qualities of an object may be more difficult to describe or measure than any quantities associated with it, every attempt is made to minimize the effects of the subjective perceptions of the researcher in the process. Some types of studies, such as those in the social and behavioral sciences (which deal with highly variable human subjects), may rely heavily on qualitative observations.

Question: Why are observations important to science?

Limits of Observations

Because all observations rely to some degree on the senses (eyes, ears, or steady hand) of the researcher, complete objectivity is impossible. Our human perceptions are limited by the physical abilities of our sense organs and are interpreted according to our understanding of how the world works, which can be influenced by culture, experience, or education. According to science education specialist, George F. Kneller, "Surprising as it may seem, there is no fact that is not colored by our preconceptions" ("A Method of Enquiry," from Science and Its Ways of Knowing [Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1997], 15).

Observations made by a scientist are also limited by the sensitivity of whatever equipment he is using. Research findings will be limited at times by the available technology. For example, Italian physicist and philosopher Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) was reportedly the first person to observe the heavens with a telescope. Imagine how it must have felt to him to see the heavens through this amazing new instrument! It opened a window to the stars and planets and allowed new observations undreamed of before.

In the centuries since Galileo, increasingly more powerful telescopes have been devised that dwarf the power of that first device. In the past decade, we have marveled at images from deep space , courtesy of the Hubble Space Telescope, a large telescope that orbits Earth. Because of its view from outside the distorting effects of the atmosphere, the Hubble can look 50 times farther into space than the best earth-bound telescopes, and resolve details a tenth of the size (Seeds, Michael A., Horizons: Exploring the Universe , 5 th ed. [Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1998], 86-87).

Construction is underway on a new radio telescope that scientists say will be able to detect electromagnetic waves from the very edges of the universe! This joint U.S.-Mexican project may allow us to ask questions about the origins of the universe and the beginnings of time that we could never have hoped to answer before. Completion of the new telescope is expected by the end of 2001.

Although the amount of detail observed by Galileo and today's astronomers is vastly different, the stars and their relationships have not changed very much. Yet with each technological advance, the level of detail of observation has been increased, and with it, the power to answer more and more challenging questions with greater precision.

Question: What are some of the differences between a casual observation and a 'scientific observation'?

Step 2: The Hypothesis

A hypothesis is a statement created by the researcher as a potential explanation for an observation or phenomena. The hypothesis converts the researcher's original question into a statement that can be used to make predictions about what should be observed if the hypothesis is true. For example, given the hypothesis, "exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation increases the risk of skin cancer," one would predict higher rates of skin cancer among people with greater UV exposure. These predictions could be tested by comparing skin cancer rates among individuals with varying amounts of UV exposure. Note how the hypothesis itself determines what experiments or further observations should be made to test its validity. Results of tests are then compared to predictions from the hypothesis, and conclusions are stated in terms of whether or not the data supports the hypothesis. So the hypothesis serves a guide to the full process of scientific inquiry.

The Qualities of a Good Hypothesis

  • A hypothesis must be testable or provide predictions that are testable. It can potentially be shown to be false by further observations or experimentation.
  • A hypothesis should be specific. If it is too general it cannot be tested, or tests will have so many variables that the results will be complicated and difficult to interpret. A well-written hypothesis is so specific it actually determines how the experiment should be set up.
  • A hypothesis should not include any untested assumptions if they can be avoided. The hypothesis itself may be an assumption that is being tested, but it should be phrased in a way that does not include assumptions that are not tested in the experiment.
  • It is okay (and sometimes a good idea) to develop more than one hypothesis to explain a set of observations. Competing hypotheses can often be tested side-by-side in the same experiment.

Question: Why is the hypothesis important to the scientific method?

grow well in a lighted incubator maintained at 90 F. A culture of was accidentally left uncovered overnight on a laboratory bench where it was dark and temperatures fluctuated between 65 F and 68 F. When the technician returned in the morning, all the cells were dead. Which of the following statements is the hypothesis to explain why the cells died, based on this observation?

cells to die.

Step 3: Testing the Hypothesis

A hypothesis may be tested in one of two ways: by making additional observations of a natural situation, or by setting up an experiment. In either case, the hypothesis is used to make predictions, and the observations or experimental data collected are examined to determine if they are consistent or inconsistent with those predictions. Hypothesis testing, especially through experimentation, is at the core of the scientific process. It is how scientists gain a better understanding of how things work.

Testing a Hypothesis by Observation

Some hypotheses may be tested through simple observation. For example, a researcher may formulate the hypothesis that the sun always rises in the east. What might an alternative hypothesis be? If his hypothesis is correct, he would predict that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow. He can easily test such a prediction by rising before dawn and going out to observe the sunrise. If the sun rises in the west, he will have disproved the hypothesis. He will have shown that it does not hold true in every situation. However, if he observes on that morning that the sun does in fact rise in the east, he has not proven the hypothesis. He has made a single observation that is consistent with, or supports, the hypothesis. As a scientist, to confidently state that the sun will always rise in the east, he will want to make many observations, under a variety of circumstances. Note that in this instance no manipulation of circumstance is required to test the hypothesis (i.e., you aren't altering the sun in any way).

Testing a Hypothesis by Experimentation

An experiment is a controlled series of observations designed to test a specific hypothesis. In an experiment, the researcher manipulates factors related to the hypothesis in such a way that the effect of these factors on the observations (data) can be readily measured and compared. Most experiments are an attempt to define a cause-and-effect relationship between two factors or events—to explain why something happens. For example, with the hypothesis "roses planted in sunny areas bloom earlier than those grown in shady areas," the experiment would be testing a cause-and-effect relationship between sunlight and time of blooming.

A major advantage of setting up an experiment versus making observations of what is already available is that it allows the researcher to control all the factors or events related to the hypothesis, so that the true cause of an event can be more easily isolated. In all cases, the hypothesis itself will determine the way the experiment will be set up. For example, suppose my hypothesis is "the weight of an object is proportional to the amount of time it takes to fall a certain distance." How would you test this hypothesis?

The Qualities of a Good Experiment

  • The experiment must be conducted on a group of subjects that are narrowly defined and have certain aspects in common. This is the group to which any conclusions must later be confined. (Examples of possible subjects: female cancer patients over age 40, E. coli bacteria, red giant stars, the nicotine molecule and its derivatives.)
  • All subjects of the experiment should be (ideally) completely alike in all ways except for the factor or factors that are being tested. Factors that are compared in scientific experiments are called variables. A variable is some aspect of a subject or event that may differ over time or from one group of subjects to another. For example, if a biologist wanted to test the effect of nitrogen on grass growth, he would apply different amounts of nitrogen fertilizer to several plots of grass. The grass in each of the plots should be as alike as possible so that any difference in growth could be attributed to the effect of the nitrogen. For example, all the grass should be of the same species, planted at the same time and at the same density, receive the same amount of water and sunlight, and so on. The variable in this case would be the amount of nitrogen applied to the plants. The researcher would not compare differing amounts of nitrogen across different grass species to determine the effect of nitrogen on grass growth. What is the problem with using different species of plants to compare the effect of nitrogen on plant growth? There are different kinds of variables in an experiment. A factor that the experimenter controls, and changes intentionally to determine if it has an effect, is called an independent variable . A factor that is recorded as data in the experiment, and which is compared across different groups of subjects, is called a dependent variable . In many cases, the value of the dependent variable will be influenced by the value of an independent variable. The goal of the experiment is to determine a cause-and-effect relationship between independent and dependent variables—in this case, an effect of nitrogen on plant growth. In the nitrogen/grass experiment, (1) which factor was the independent variable? (2) Which factor was the dependent variable?
  • Nearly all types of experiments require a control group and an experimental group. The control group generally is not changed in any way, but remains in a "natural state," while the experimental group is modified in some way to examine the effect of the variable which of interest to the researcher. The control group provides a standard of comparison for the experimental groups. For example, in new drug trials, some patients are given a placebo while others are given doses of the drug being tested. The placebo serves as a control by showing the effect of no drug treatment on the patients. In research terminology, the experimental groups are often referred to as treatments , since each group is treated differently. In the experimental test of the effect of nitrogen on grass growth, what is the control group? In the example of the nitrogen experiment, what is the purpose of a control group?
  • In research studies a great deal of emphasis is placed on repetition. It is essential that an experiment or study include enough subjects or enough observations for the researcher to make valid conclusions. The two main reasons why repetition is important in scientific studies are (1) variation among subjects or samples and (2) measurement error.

Variation among Subjects

There is a great deal of variation in nature. In a group of experimental subjects, much of this variation may have little to do with the variables being studied, but could still affect the outcome of the experiment in unpredicted ways. For example, in an experiment designed to test the effects of alcohol dose levels on reflex time in 18- to 22-year-old males, there would be significant variation among individual responses to various doses of alcohol. Some of this variation might be due to differences in genetic make-up, to varying levels of previous alcohol use, or any number of factors unknown to the researcher.

Because what the researcher wants to discover is average dose level effects for this group, he must run the test on a number of different subjects. Suppose he performed the test on only 10 individuals. Do you think the average response calculated would be the same as the average response of all 18- to 22-year-old males? What if he tests 100 individuals, or 1,000? Do you think the average he comes up with would be the same in each case? Chances are it would not be. So which average would you predict would be most representative of all 18- to 22-year-old males?

A basic rule of statistics is, the more observations you make, the closer the average of those observations will be to the average for the whole population you are interested in. This is because factors that vary among a population tend to occur most commonly in the middle range, and least commonly at the two extremes. Take human height for example. Although you may find a man who is 7 feet tall, or one who is 4 feet tall, most men will fall somewhere between 5 and 6 feet in height. The more men we measure to determine average male height, the less effect those uncommon extreme (tall or short) individuals will tend to impact the average. Thus, one reason why repetition is so important in experiments is that it helps to assure that the conclusions made will be valid not only for the individuals tested, but also for the greater population those individuals represent.

"The use of a sample (or subset) of a population, an event, or some other aspect of nature for an experimental group that is not large enough to be representative of the whole" is called sampling error (Starr, Cecie, Biology: Concepts and Applications , 4 th ed. [Pacific Cove: Brooks/Cole, 2000], glossary). If too few samples or subjects are used in an experiment, the researcher may draw incorrect conclusions about the population those samples or subjects represent.

Use the jellybean activity below to see a simple demonstration of samping error.

Directions: There are 400 jellybeans in the jar. If you could not see the jar and you initially chose 1 green jellybean from the jar, you might assume the jar only contains green jelly beans. The jar actually contains both green and black jellybeans. Use the "pick 1, 5, or 10" buttons to create your samples. For example, use the "pick" buttons now to create samples of 2, 13, and 27 jellybeans. After you take each sample, try to predict the ratio of green to black jellybeans in the jar. How does your prediction of the ratio of green to black jellybeans change as your sample changes?

Measurement Error

The second reason why repetition is necessary in research studies has to do with measurement error. Measurement error may be the fault of the researcher, a slight difference in measuring techniques among one or more technicians, or the result of limitations or glitches in measuring equipment. Even the most careful researcher or the best state-of-the-art equipment will make some mistakes in measuring or recording data. Another way of looking at this is to say that, in any study, some measurements will be more accurate than others will. If the researcher is conscientious and the equipment is good, the majority of measurements will be highly accurate, some will be somewhat inaccurate, and a few may be considerably inaccurate. In this case, the same reasoning used above also applies here: the more measurements taken, the less effect a few inaccurate measurements will have on the overall average.

Step 4: Data Analysis

In any experiment, observations are made, and often, measurements are taken. Measurements and observations recorded in an experiment are referred to as data . The data collected must relate to the hypothesis being tested. Any differences between experimental and control groups must be expressed in some way (often quantitatively) so that the groups may be compared. Graphs and charts are often used to visualize the data and to identify patterns and relationships among the variables.

Statistics is the branch of mathematics that deals with interpretation of data. Data analysis refers to statistical methods of determining whether any differences between the control group and experimental groups are too great to be attributed to chance alone. Although a discussion of statistical methods is beyond the scope of this tutorial, the data analysis step is crucial because it provides a somewhat standardized means for interpreting data. The statistical methods of data analysis used, and the results of those analyses, are always included in the publication of scientific research. This convention limits the subjective aspects of data interpretation and allows scientists to scrutinize the working methods of their peers.

Why is data analysis an important step in the scientific method?

Step 5: Stating Conclusions

The conclusions made in a scientific experiment are particularly important. Often, the conclusion is the only part of a study that gets communicated to the general public. As such, it must be a statement of reality, based upon the results of the experiment. To assure that this is the case, the conclusions made in an experiment must (1) relate back to the hypothesis being tested, (2) be limited to the population under study, and (3) be stated as probabilities.

The hypothesis that is being tested will be compared to the data collected in the experiment. If the experimental results contradict the hypothesis, it is rejected and further testing of that hypothesis under those conditions is not necessary. However, if the hypothesis is not shown to be wrong, that does not conclusively prove that it is right! In scientific terms, the hypothesis is said to be "supported by the data." Further testing will be done to see if the hypothesis is supported under a number of trials and under different conditions.

If the hypothesis holds up to extensive testing then the temptation is to claim that it is correct. However, keep in mind that the number of experiments and observations made will only represent a subset of all the situations in which the hypothesis may potentially be tested. In other words, experimental data will only show part of the picture. There is always the possibility that a further experiment may show the hypothesis to be wrong in some situations. Also, note that the limits of current knowledge and available technologies may prevent a researcher from devising an experiment that would disprove a particular hypothesis.

The researcher must be sure to limit his or her conclusions to apply only to the subjects tested in the study. If a particular species of fish is shown to consume their young 90 percent of the time when raised in captivity, that doesn't necessarily mean that all fish will do so, or that this fish's behavior would be the same in its native habitat.

Finally, the conclusions of the experiment are generally stated as probabilities. A careful scientist would never say, "drug x kills cancer cells;" she would more likely say, "drug x was shown to destroy 85 percent of cancerous skin cells in rats in lab trials." Notice how very different these two statements are. There is a tendency in the media and in the general public to gravitate toward the first statement. This makes a terrific headline and is also easy to interpret; it is absolute. Remember though, in science conclusions must be confined to the population under study; broad generalizations should be avoided. The second statement is sound science. There is data to back it up. Later studies may reveal a more universal effect of the drug on cancerous cells, or they may not. Most researchers would be unwilling to stake their reputations on the first statement.

As a student, you should read and interpret popular press articles about research studies very carefully. From the text, can you determine how the experiment was set up and what variables were measured? Are the observations and data collected appropriate to the hypothesis being tested? Are the conclusions supported by the data? Are the conclusions worded in a scientific context (as probability statements) or are they generalized for dramatic effect? In any researched-based assignment, it is a good idea to refer to the original publication of a study (usually found in professional journals) and to interpret the facts for yourself.

Qualities of a Good Experiment

  • narrowly defined subjects
  • all subjects treated alike except for the factor or variable being studied
  • a control group is used for comparison
  • measurements related to the factors being studied are carefully recorded
  • enough samples or subjects are used so that conclusions are valid for the population of interest
  • conclusions made relate back to the hypothesis, are limited to the population being studied, and are stated in terms of probabilities
by Stephen S. Carey.

If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

To log in and use all the features of Khan Academy, please enable JavaScript in your browser.

High school biology

Course: high school biology   >   unit 1.

  • Biology overview
  • Preparing to study biology
  • What is life?
  • The scientific method
  • Data to justify experimental claims examples
  • Scientific method and data analysis
  • Introduction to experimental design
  • Controlled experiments

Biology and the scientific method review

  • Experimental design and bias

hypothesis explanation for observation

BiologyThe study of living things
ObservationNoticing and describing events in an orderly way
HypothesisA scientific explanation that can be tested through experimentation or observation
Controlled experimentAn experiment in which only one variable is changed
Independent variableThe variable that is deliberately changed in an experiment
Dependent variableThe variable this is observed and changes in response to the independent variable
Control groupBaseline group that does not have changes in the independent variable
Scientific theoryA well-tested and widely accepted explanation for a phenomenon
Research biasProcess during which the researcher influences the results, either knowingly or unknowingly
PlaceboA substance that has no therapeutic effect, often used as a control in experiments
Double-blind studyStudy in which neither the participants nor the researchers know who is receiving a particular treatment

The nature of biology

Properties of life.

  • Organization: Living things are highly organized (meaning they contain specialized, coordinated parts) and are made up of one or more cells .
  • Metabolism: Living things must use energy and consume nutrients to carry out the chemical reactions that sustain life. The sum total of the biochemical reactions occurring in an organism is called its metabolism .
  • Homeostasis : Living organisms regulate their internal environment to maintain the relatively narrow range of conditions needed for cell function.
  • Growth : Living organisms undergo regulated growth. Individual cells become larger in size, and multicellular organisms accumulate many cells through cell division.
  • Reproduction : Living organisms can reproduce themselves to create new organisms.
  • Response : Living organisms respond to stimuli or changes in their environment.
  • Evolution : Populations of living organisms can undergo evolution , meaning that the genetic makeup of a population may change over time.

Scientific methodology

Scientific method example: failure to toast, experimental design, reducing errors and bias.

  • Having a large sample size in the experiment: This helps to account for any small differences among the test subjects that may provide unexpected results.
  • Repeating experimental trials multiple times: Errors may result from slight differences in test subjects, or mistakes in methodology or data collection. Repeating trials helps reduce those effects.
  • Including all data points: Sometimes it is tempting to throw away data points that are inconsistent with the proposed hypothesis. However, this makes for an inaccurate study! All data points need to be included, whether they support the hypothesis or not.
  • Using placebos , when appropriate: Placebos prevent the test subjects from knowing whether they received a real therapeutic substance. This helps researchers determine whether a substance has a true effect.
  • Implementing double-blind studies , when appropriate: Double-blind studies prevent researchers from knowing the status of a particular participant. This helps eliminate observer bias.

Communicating findings

Things to remember.

  • A hypothesis is not necessarily the right explanation. Instead, it is a possible explanation that can be tested to see if it is likely correct, or if a new hypothesis needs to be made.
  • Not all explanations can be considered a hypothesis. A hypothesis must be testable and falsifiable in order to be valid. For example, “The universe is beautiful" is not a good hypothesis, because there is no experiment that could test this statement and show it to be false.
  • In most cases, the scientific method is an iterative process. In other words, it's a cycle rather than a straight line. The result of one experiment often becomes feedback that raises questions for more experimentation.
  • Scientists use the word "theory" in a very different way than non-scientists. When many people say "I have a theory," they really mean "I have a guess." Scientific theories, on the other hand, are well-tested and highly reliable scientific explanations of natural phenomena. They unify many repeated observations and data collected from lots of experiments.

Want to join the conversation?

  • Upvote Button navigates to signup page
  • Downvote Button navigates to signup page
  • Flag Button navigates to signup page

Great Answer

Hypothesis definition and example

Hypothesis n., plural: hypotheses [/haɪˈpɑːθəsɪs/] Definition: Testable scientific prediction

Table of Contents

What Is Hypothesis?

A scientific hypothesis is a foundational element of the scientific method . It’s a testable statement proposing a potential explanation for natural phenomena. The term hypothesis means “little theory” . A hypothesis is a short statement that can be tested and gives a possible reason for a phenomenon or a possible link between two variables . In the setting of scientific research, a hypothesis is a tentative explanation or statement that can be proven wrong and is used to guide experiments and empirical research.

What is Hypothesis

It is an important part of the scientific method because it gives a basis for planning tests, gathering data, and judging evidence to see if it is true and could help us understand how natural things work. Several hypotheses can be tested in the real world, and the results of careful and systematic observation and analysis can be used to support, reject, or improve them.

Researchers and scientists often use the word hypothesis to refer to this educated guess . These hypotheses are firmly established based on scientific principles and the rigorous testing of new technology and experiments .

For example, in astrophysics, the Big Bang Theory is a working hypothesis that explains the origins of the universe and considers it as a natural phenomenon. It is among the most prominent scientific hypotheses in the field.

“The scientific method: steps, terms, and examples” by Scishow:

Biology definition: A hypothesis  is a supposition or tentative explanation for (a group of) phenomena, (a set of) facts, or a scientific inquiry that may be tested, verified or answered by further investigation or methodological experiment. It is like a scientific guess . It’s an idea or prediction that scientists make before they do experiments. They use it to guess what might happen and then test it to see if they were right. It’s like a smart guess that helps them learn new things. A scientific hypothesis that has been verified through scientific experiment and research may well be considered a scientific theory .

Etymology: The word “hypothesis” comes from the Greek word “hupothesis,” which means “a basis” or “a supposition.” It combines “hupo” (under) and “thesis” (placing). Synonym:   proposition; assumption; conjecture; postulate Compare:   theory See also: null hypothesis

Characteristics Of Hypothesis

A useful hypothesis must have the following qualities:

  • It should never be written as a question.
  • You should be able to test it in the real world to see if it’s right or wrong.
  • It needs to be clear and exact.
  • It should list the factors that will be used to figure out the relationship.
  • It should only talk about one thing. You can make a theory in either a descriptive or form of relationship.
  • It shouldn’t go against any natural rule that everyone knows is true. Verification will be done well with the tools and methods that are available.
  • It should be written in as simple a way as possible so that everyone can understand it.
  • It must explain what happened to make an answer necessary.
  • It should be testable in a fair amount of time.
  • It shouldn’t say different things.

Sources Of Hypothesis

Sources of hypothesis are:

  • Patterns of similarity between the phenomenon under investigation and existing hypotheses.
  • Insights derived from prior research, concurrent observations, and insights from opposing perspectives.
  • The formulations are derived from accepted scientific theories and proposed by researchers.
  • In research, it’s essential to consider hypothesis as different subject areas may require various hypotheses (plural form of hypothesis). Researchers also establish a significance level to determine the strength of evidence supporting a hypothesis.
  • Individual cognitive processes also contribute to the formation of hypotheses.

One hypothesis is a tentative explanation for an observation or phenomenon. It is based on prior knowledge and understanding of the world, and it can be tested by gathering and analyzing data. Observed facts are the data that are collected to test a hypothesis. They can support or refute the hypothesis.

For example, the hypothesis that “eating more fruits and vegetables will improve your health” can be tested by gathering data on the health of people who eat different amounts of fruits and vegetables. If the people who eat more fruits and vegetables are healthier than those who eat less fruits and vegetables, then the hypothesis is supported.

Hypotheses are essential for scientific inquiry. They help scientists to focus their research, to design experiments, and to interpret their results. They are also essential for the development of scientific theories.

Types Of Hypothesis

In research, you typically encounter two types of hypothesis: the alternative hypothesis (which proposes a relationship between variables) and the null hypothesis (which suggests no relationship).

Hypothesis testing

Simple Hypothesis

It illustrates the association between one dependent variable and one independent variable. For instance, if you consume more vegetables, you will lose weight more quickly. Here, increasing vegetable consumption is the independent variable, while weight loss is the dependent variable.

Complex Hypothesis

It exhibits the relationship between at least two dependent variables and at least two independent variables. Eating more vegetables and fruits results in weight loss, radiant skin, and a decreased risk of numerous diseases, including heart disease.

Directional Hypothesis

It shows that a researcher wants to reach a certain goal. The way the factors are related can also tell us about their nature. For example, four-year-old children who eat well over a time of five years have a higher IQ than children who don’t eat well. This shows what happened and how it happened.

Non-directional Hypothesis

When there is no theory involved, it is used. It is a statement that there is a connection between two variables, but it doesn’t say what that relationship is or which way it goes.

Null Hypothesis

It says something that goes against the theory. It’s a statement that says something is not true, and there is no link between the independent and dependent factors. “H 0 ” represents the null hypothesis.

Associative and Causal Hypothesis

When a change in one variable causes a change in the other variable, this is called the associative hypothesis . The causal hypothesis, on the other hand, says that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between two or more factors.

Examples Of Hypothesis

Examples of simple hypotheses:

  • Students who consume breakfast before taking a math test will have a better overall performance than students who do not consume breakfast.
  • Students who experience test anxiety before an English examination will get lower scores than students who do not experience test anxiety.
  • Motorists who talk on the phone while driving will be more likely to make errors on a driving course than those who do not talk on the phone, is a statement that suggests that drivers who talk on the phone while driving are more likely to make mistakes.

Examples of a complex hypothesis:

  • Individuals who consume a lot of sugar and don’t get much exercise are at an increased risk of developing depression.
  • Younger people who are routinely exposed to green, outdoor areas have better subjective well-being than older adults who have limited exposure to green spaces, according to a new study.
  • Increased levels of air pollution led to higher rates of respiratory illnesses, which in turn resulted in increased costs for healthcare for the affected communities.

Examples of Directional Hypothesis:

  • The crop yield will go up a lot if the amount of fertilizer is increased.
  • Patients who have surgery and are exposed to more stress will need more time to get better.
  • Increasing the frequency of brand advertising on social media will lead to a significant increase in brand awareness among the target audience.

Examples of Non-Directional Hypothesis (or Two-Tailed Hypothesis):

  • The test scores of two groups of students are very different from each other.
  • There is a link between gender and being happy at work.
  • There is a correlation between the amount of caffeine an individual consumes and the speed with which they react.

Examples of a null hypothesis:

  • Children who receive a new reading intervention will have scores that are different than students who do not receive the intervention.
  • The results of a memory recall test will not reveal any significant gap in performance between children and adults.
  • There is not a significant relationship between the number of hours spent playing video games and academic performance.

Examples of Associative Hypothesis:

  • There is a link between how many hours you spend studying and how well you do in school.
  • Drinking sugary drinks is bad for your health as a whole.
  • There is an association between socioeconomic status and access to quality healthcare services in urban neighborhoods.

Functions Of Hypothesis

The research issue can be understood better with the help of a hypothesis, which is why developing one is crucial. The following are some of the specific roles that a hypothesis plays: (Rashid, Apr 20, 2022)

  • A hypothesis gives a study a point of concentration. It enlightens us as to the specific characteristics of a study subject we need to look into.
  • It instructs us on what data to acquire as well as what data we should not collect, giving the study a focal point .
  • The development of a hypothesis improves objectivity since it enables the establishment of a focal point.
  • A hypothesis makes it possible for us to contribute to the development of the theory. Because of this, we are in a position to definitively determine what is true and what is untrue .

How will Hypothesis help in the Scientific Method?

  • The scientific method begins with observation and inquiry about the natural world when formulating research questions. Researchers can refine their observations and queries into specific, testable research questions with the aid of hypothesis. They provide an investigation with a focused starting point.
  • Hypothesis generate specific predictions regarding the expected outcomes of experiments or observations. These forecasts are founded on the researcher’s current knowledge of the subject. They elucidate what researchers anticipate observing if the hypothesis is true.
  • Hypothesis direct the design of experiments and data collection techniques. Researchers can use them to determine which variables to measure or manipulate, which data to obtain, and how to conduct systematic and controlled research.
  • Following the formulation of a hypothesis and the design of an experiment, researchers collect data through observation, measurement, or experimentation. The collected data is used to verify the hypothesis’s predictions.
  • Hypothesis establish the criteria for evaluating experiment results. The observed data are compared to the predictions generated by the hypothesis. This analysis helps determine whether empirical evidence supports or refutes the hypothesis.
  • The results of experiments or observations are used to derive conclusions regarding the hypothesis. If the data support the predictions, then the hypothesis is supported. If this is not the case, the hypothesis may be revised or rejected, leading to the formulation of new queries and hypothesis.
  • The scientific approach is iterative, resulting in new hypothesis and research issues from previous trials. This cycle of hypothesis generation, testing, and refining drives scientific progress.


Importance Of Hypothesis

  • Hypothesis are testable statements that enable scientists to determine if their predictions are accurate. This assessment is essential to the scientific method, which is based on empirical evidence.
  • Hypothesis serve as the foundation for designing experiments or data collection techniques. They can be used by researchers to develop protocols and procedures that will produce meaningful results.
  • Hypothesis hold scientists accountable for their assertions. They establish expectations for what the research should reveal and enable others to assess the validity of the findings.
  • Hypothesis aid in identifying the most important variables of a study. The variables can then be measured, manipulated, or analyzed to determine their relationships.
  • Hypothesis assist researchers in allocating their resources efficiently. They ensure that time, money, and effort are spent investigating specific concerns, as opposed to exploring random concepts.
  • Testing hypothesis contribute to the scientific body of knowledge. Whether or not a hypothesis is supported, the results contribute to our understanding of a phenomenon.
  • Hypothesis can result in the creation of theories. When supported by substantive evidence, hypothesis can serve as the foundation for larger theoretical frameworks that explain complex phenomena.
  • Beyond scientific research, hypothesis play a role in the solution of problems in a variety of domains. They enable professionals to make educated assumptions about the causes of problems and to devise solutions.

Research Hypotheses: Did you know that a hypothesis refers to an educated guess or prediction about the outcome of a research study?

It’s like a roadmap guiding researchers towards their destination of knowledge. Just like a compass points north, a well-crafted hypothesis points the way to valuable discoveries in the world of science and inquiry.

Choose the best answer. 

Send Your Results (Optional)


Further Reading

  • RNA-DNA World Hypothesis
  • BYJU’S. (2023). Hypothesis. Retrieved 01 Septermber 2023, from https://byjus.com/physics/hypothesis/#sources-of-hypothesis
  • Collegedunia. (2023). Hypothesis. Retrieved 1 September 2023, from https://collegedunia.com/exams/hypothesis-science-articleid-7026#d
  • Hussain, D. J. (2022). Hypothesis. Retrieved 01 September 2023, from https://mmhapu.ac.in/doc/eContent/Management/JamesHusain/Research%20Hypothesis%20-Meaning,%20Nature%20&%20Importance-Characteristics%20of%20Good%20%20Hypothesis%20Sem2.pdf
  • Media, D. (2023). Hypothesis in the Scientific Method. Retrieved 01 September 2023, from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-a-hypothesis-2795239#toc-hypotheses-examples
  • Rashid, M. H. A. (Apr 20, 2022). Research Methodology. Retrieved 01 September 2023, from https://limbd.org/hypothesis-definitions-functions-characteristics-types-errors-the-process-of-testing-a-hypothesis-hypotheses-in-qualitative-research/#:~:text=Functions%20of%20a%20Hypothesis%3A&text=Specifically%2C%20a%20hypothesis%20serves%20the,providing%20focus%20to%20the%20study.

©BiologyOnline.com. Content provided and moderated by Biology Online Editors.

Last updated on September 8th, 2023

You will also like...

hypothesis explanation for observation

Gene Action – Operon Hypothesis

hypothesis explanation for observation

Water in Plants

hypothesis explanation for observation

Growth and Plant Hormones

hypothesis explanation for observation

Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung

hypothesis explanation for observation

Population Growth and Survivorship

Related articles....

hypothesis explanation for observation

RNA-DNA World Hypothesis?

hypothesis explanation for observation

On Mate Selection Evolution: Are intelligent males more attractive?

Actions of Caffeine in the Brain with Special Reference to Factors That Contribute to Its Widespread Use

Actions of Caffeine in the Brain with Special Reference to Factors That Contribute to Its Widespread Use

The Fungi

Dead Man Walking

hypothesis explanation for observation

1.1: Scientific Laws and Theories

Chapter 1: introduction: matter and measurement, chapter 2: atoms and elements, chapter 3: molecules, compounds, and chemical equations, chapter 4: chemical quantities and aqueous reactions, chapter 5: gases, chapter 6: thermochemistry, chapter 7: electronic structure of atoms, chapter 8: periodic properties of the elements, chapter 9: chemical bonding: basic concepts, chapter 10: chemical bonding: molecular geometry and bonding theories, chapter 11: liquids, solids, and intermolecular forces, chapter 12: solutions and colloids, chapter 13: chemical kinetics, chapter 14: chemical equilibrium, chapter 15: acids and bases, chapter 16: acid-base and solubility equilibria, chapter 17: thermodynamics, chapter 18: electrochemistry, chapter 19: radioactivity and nuclear chemistry, chapter 20: transition metals and coordination complexes, chapter 21: biochemistry.

The JoVE video player is compatible with HTML5 and Adobe Flash. Older browsers that do not support HTML5 and the H.264 video codec will still use a Flash-based video player. We recommend downloading the newest version of Flash here, but we support all versions 10 and above.

hypothesis explanation for observation

In science, a law is a concise statement, verbal or mathematical, that summarizes an observation and states what will happen under certain conditions. It is a universally accepted statement, and must never be wrong. Otherwise, any science based upon it would be proven incorrect.

For example, in case of the phenomenon of combustion, Lavoisier validated his hypothesis through a series of experiments and then stated that the mass of an object remains conserved during combustion. This statement became one of the famous laws of chemistry, the Law of Conservation of Mass, which states that ‘Mass in an isolated system can neither be created nor destroyed’.

A scientific theory, unlike a law, is a unifying model that provides an explanation as to why and how something happens. It requires rigorous experimentation and observations conducted over a long period of time to develop a theory. 

For example, the Law of Conservation of Mass did not explain why the mass remains unchanged after combustion. An explanation for this phenomenon was put forward when John Dalton proposed the Atomic Theory. Dalton’s Theory proposed that matter is composed of small, indivisible particles called atoms. Since these particles are merely rearranged, and not created or destroyed in a chemical reaction like combustion, the total amount of mass remains the same. 

Theories are constantly tested and evolve as new observations are made. For example, Dalton’s Atomic theory was improved after scientists found that atoms are in fact further divisible into neutrons, protons, and electrons. Further revisions came with the discoveries of quarks, bosons, and so on. 

Overall, the scientific method framework leads scientists from questions and observations to laws or theory, facilitated by experimental verification of hypotheses, and any necessary modification.

Ultimately, while a hypothesis provides a limited explanation of a phenomenon, the theory provides an in-depth explanation of the observed phenomenon. A law, on the other hand, simply states the observation.  

Scientific Laws

In science, a law is defined as a concise, verbal or mathematical, statement that summarizes a vast number of experimental observations. It describes or predicts some facets of the natural world that always remain the same under the same conditions. 

Scientific Theory

A scientific theory is a unifying principle that provides a well-substantiated and testable explanation of aspects of nature and provides the reason for why things happen. Well-established theories are the pinnacle of scientific knowledge that has been developed over many years of constant experimental evaluation; they are as close to the truth as we get in science. They, too, are continuously tested and modified with newer observations obtained through advancements in science and technology. 

Thus, while a hypothesis is a proposed explanation for a particular observation, a theory is a well-tested explanation for a broad set of observations that explain a particular facet of the physical world around us. Scientific laws are statements about particular observations; they do not explain the reason involved. 

This text is adapted from Openstax, Chemistry 2e, Section 1.1: The Scientific Method.  

Get cutting-edge science videos from J o VE sent straight to your inbox every month.


We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website.

By continuing to use our website or clicking “Continue”, you are agreeing to accept our cookies.

WeChat QR Code - JoVE


In order to continue enjoying our site, we ask that you confirm your identity as a human. Thank you very much for your cooperation.

Library homepage

  • school Campus Bookshelves
  • menu_book Bookshelves
  • perm_media Learning Objects
  • login Login
  • how_to_reg Request Instructor Account
  • hub Instructor Commons

Margin Size

  • Download Page (PDF)
  • Download Full Book (PDF)
  • Periodic Table
  • Physics Constants
  • Scientific Calculator
  • Reference & Cite
  • Tools expand_more
  • Readability

selected template will load here

This action is not available.

Chemistry LibreTexts

1.2.1: The Scientific Method - How Chemists Think

  • Last updated
  • Save as PDF
  • Page ID 235817

\( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

\( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

\( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

\( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

\( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

\( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

\( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

\( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\)

\( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\)

\( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

\( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\)

\( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

\( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\)

\( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

\( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

\( \newcommand{\vectorA}[1]{\vec{#1}}      % arrow\)

\( \newcommand{\vectorAt}[1]{\vec{\text{#1}}}      % arrow\)

\( \newcommand{\vectorB}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

\( \newcommand{\vectorC}[1]{\textbf{#1}} \)

\( \newcommand{\vectorD}[1]{\overrightarrow{#1}} \)

\( \newcommand{\vectorDt}[1]{\overrightarrow{\text{#1}}} \)

\( \newcommand{\vectE}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash{\mathbf {#1}}}} \)

Learning Objectives

  • Identify the components of the scientific method.

Scientists search for answers to questions and solutions to problems by using a procedure called the scientific method. This procedure consists of making observations, formulating hypotheses, and designing experiments; which leads to additional observations, hypotheses, and experiments in repeated cycles (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)).


Step 1: Make observations

Observations can be qualitative or quantitative. Qualitative observations describe properties or occurrences in ways that do not rely on numbers. Examples of qualitative observations include the following: "the outside air temperature is cooler during the winter season," "table salt is a crystalline solid," "sulfur crystals are yellow," and "dissolving a penny in dilute nitric acid forms a blue solution and a brown gas." Quantitative observations are measurements, which by definition consist of both a number and a unit. Examples of quantitative observations include the following: "the melting point of crystalline sulfur is 115.21° Celsius," and "35.9 grams of table salt—the chemical name of which is sodium chloride—dissolve in 100 grams of water at 20° Celsius." For the question of the dinosaurs’ extinction, the initial observation was quantitative: iridium concentrations in sediments dating to 66 million years ago were 20–160 times higher than normal.

Step 2: Formulate a hypothesis

After deciding to learn more about an observation or a set of observations, scientists generally begin an investigation by forming a hypothesis, a tentative explanation for the observation(s). The hypothesis may not be correct, but it puts the scientist’s understanding of the system being studied into a form that can be tested. For example, the observation that we experience alternating periods of light and darkness corresponding to observed movements of the sun, moon, clouds, and shadows is consistent with either one of two hypotheses:

  • Earth rotates on its axis every 24 hours, alternately exposing one side to the sun.
  • The sun revolves around Earth every 24 hours.

Suitable experiments can be designed to choose between these two alternatives. For the disappearance of the dinosaurs, the hypothesis was that the impact of a large extraterrestrial object caused their extinction. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), this hypothesis does not lend itself to direct testing by any obvious experiment, but scientists can collect additional data that either support or refute it.

Step 3: Design and perform experiments

After a hypothesis has been formed, scientists conduct experiments to test its validity. Experiments are systematic observations or measurements, preferably made under controlled conditions—that is—under conditions in which a single variable changes.

Step 4: Accept or modify the hypothesis

A properly designed and executed experiment enables a scientist to determine whether or not the original hypothesis is valid. If the hypothesis is valid, the scientist can proceed to step 5. In other cases, experiments often demonstrate that the hypothesis is incorrect or that it must be modified and requires further experimentation.

Step 5: Development into a law and/or theory

More experimental data are then collected and analyzed, at which point a scientist may begin to think that the results are sufficiently reproducible (i.e., dependable) to merit being summarized in a law, a verbal or mathematical description of a phenomenon that allows for general predictions. A law simply states what happens; it does not address the question of why.

One example of a law, the law of definite proportions , which was discovered by the French scientist Joseph Proust (1754–1826), states that a chemical substance always contains the same proportions of elements by mass. Thus, sodium chloride (table salt) always contains the same proportion by mass of sodium to chlorine, in this case 39.34% sodium and 60.66% chlorine by mass, and sucrose (table sugar) is always 42.11% carbon, 6.48% hydrogen, and 51.41% oxygen by mass.

Whereas a law states only what happens, a theory attempts to explain why nature behaves as it does. Laws are unlikely to change greatly over time unless a major experimental error is discovered. In contrast, a theory, by definition, is incomplete and imperfect, evolving with time to explain new facts as they are discovered.

Because scientists can enter the cycle shown in Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) at any point, the actual application of the scientific method to different topics can take many different forms. For example, a scientist may start with a hypothesis formed by reading about work done by others in the field, rather than by making direct observations.

Example \(\PageIndex{1}\)

Classify each statement as a law, a theory, an experiment, a hypothesis, an observation.

  • Ice always floats on liquid water.
  • Birds evolved from dinosaurs.
  • Hot air is less dense than cold air, probably because the components of hot air are moving more rapidly.
  • When 10 g of ice were added to 100 mL of water at 25°C, the temperature of the water decreased to 15.5°C after the ice melted.
  • The ingredients of Ivory soap were analyzed to see whether it really is 99.44% pure, as advertised.
  • This is a general statement of a relationship between the properties of liquid and solid water, so it is a law.
  • This is a possible explanation for the origin of birds, so it is a hypothesis.
  • This is a statement that tries to explain the relationship between the temperature and the density of air based on fundamental principles, so it is a theory.
  • The temperature is measured before and after a change is made in a system, so these are observations.
  • This is an analysis designed to test a hypothesis (in this case, the manufacturer’s claim of purity), so it is an experiment.

Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\) 

Classify each statement as a law, a theory, an experiment, a hypothesis, a qualitative observation, or a quantitative observation.

  • Measured amounts of acid were added to a Rolaids tablet to see whether it really “consumes 47 times its weight in excess stomach acid.”
  • Heat always flows from hot objects to cooler ones, not in the opposite direction.
  • The universe was formed by a massive explosion that propelled matter into a vacuum.
  • Michael Jordan is the greatest pure shooter to ever play professional basketball.
  • Limestone is relatively insoluble in water, but dissolves readily in dilute acid with the evolution of a gas.

The scientific method is a method of investigation involving experimentation and observation to acquire new knowledge, solve problems, and answer questions. The key steps in the scientific method include the following:

  • Step 1: Make observations.
  • Step 2: Formulate a hypothesis.
  • Step 3: Test the hypothesis through experimentation.
  • Step 4: Accept or modify the hypothesis.
  • Step 5: Develop into a law and/or a theory.

Contributions & Attributions

science made simple logo

The Scientific Method by Science Made Simple

Understanding and using the scientific method.

The Scientific Method is a process used to design and perform experiments. It's important to minimize experimental errors and bias, and increase confidence in the accuracy of your results.

science experiment

In the previous sections, we talked about how to pick a good topic and specific question to investigate. Now we will discuss how to carry out your investigation.

Steps of the Scientific Method

  • Observation/Research
  • Experimentation

Now that you have settled on the question you want to ask, it's time to use the Scientific Method to design an experiment to answer that question.

If your experiment isn't designed well, you may not get the correct answer. You may not even get any definitive answer at all!

The Scientific Method is a logical and rational order of steps by which scientists come to conclusions about the world around them. The Scientific Method helps to organize thoughts and procedures so that scientists can be confident in the answers they find.

OBSERVATION is first step, so that you know how you want to go about your research.

HYPOTHESIS is the answer you think you'll find.

PREDICTION is your specific belief about the scientific idea: If my hypothesis is true, then I predict we will discover this.

EXPERIMENT is the tool that you invent to answer the question, and

CONCLUSION is the answer that the experiment gives.

Don't worry, it isn't that complicated. Let's take a closer look at each one of these steps. Then you can understand the tools scientists use for their science experiments, and use them for your own.


observation  magnifying glass

This step could also be called "research." It is the first stage in understanding the problem.

After you decide on topic, and narrow it down to a specific question, you will need to research everything that you can find about it. You can collect information from your own experiences, books, the internet, or even smaller "unofficial" experiments.

Let's continue the example of a science fair idea about tomatoes in the garden. You like to garden, and notice that some tomatoes are bigger than others and wonder why.

Because of this personal experience and an interest in the problem, you decide to learn more about what makes plants grow.

For this stage of the Scientific Method, it's important to use as many sources as you can find. The more information you have on your science fair topic, the better the design of your experiment is going to be, and the better your science fair project is going to be overall.

Also try to get information from your teachers or librarians, or professionals who know something about your science fair project. They can help to guide you to a solid experimental setup.

research science fair topic

The next stage of the Scientific Method is known as the "hypothesis." This word basically means "a possible solution to a problem, based on knowledge and research."

The hypothesis is a simple statement that defines what you think the outcome of your experiment will be.

All of the first stage of the Scientific Method -- the observation, or research stage -- is designed to help you express a problem in a single question ("Does the amount of sunlight in a garden affect tomato size?") and propose an answer to the question based on what you know. The experiment that you will design is done to test the hypothesis.

Using the example of the tomato experiment, here is an example of a hypothesis:

TOPIC: "Does the amount of sunlight a tomato plant receives affect the size of the tomatoes?"

HYPOTHESIS: "I believe that the more sunlight a tomato plant receives, the larger the tomatoes will grow.

This hypothesis is based on:

(1) Tomato plants need sunshine to make food through photosynthesis, and logically, more sun means more food, and;

(2) Through informal, exploratory observations of plants in a garden, those with more sunlight appear to grow bigger.

science fair project ideas

The hypothesis is your general statement of how you think the scientific phenomenon in question works.

Your prediction lets you get specific -- how will you demonstrate that your hypothesis is true? The experiment that you will design is done to test the prediction.

An important thing to remember during this stage of the scientific method is that once you develop a hypothesis and a prediction, you shouldn't change it, even if the results of your experiment show that you were wrong.

An incorrect prediction does NOT mean that you "failed." It just means that the experiment brought some new facts to light that maybe you hadn't thought about before.

Continuing our tomato plant example, a good prediction would be: Increasing the amount of sunlight tomato plants in my experiment receive will cause an increase in their size compared to identical plants that received the same care but less light.

This is the part of the scientific method that tests your hypothesis. An experiment is a tool that you design to find out if your ideas about your topic are right or wrong.

It is absolutely necessary to design a science fair experiment that will accurately test your hypothesis. The experiment is the most important part of the scientific method. It's the logical process that lets scientists learn about the world.

On the next page, we'll discuss the ways that you can go about designing a science fair experiment idea.

The final step in the scientific method is the conclusion. This is a summary of the experiment's results, and how those results match up to your hypothesis.

You have two options for your conclusions: based on your results, either:

(1) YOU CAN REJECT the hypothesis, or

(2) YOU CAN NOT REJECT the hypothesis.

This is an important point!

You can not PROVE the hypothesis with a single experiment, because there is a chance that you made an error somewhere along the way.

What you can say is that your results SUPPORT the original hypothesis.

If your original hypothesis didn't match up with the final results of your experiment, don't change the hypothesis.

Instead, try to explain what might have been wrong with your original hypothesis. What information were you missing when you made your prediction? What are the possible reasons the hypothesis and experimental results didn't match up?

Remember, a science fair experiment isn't a failure simply because does not agree with your hypothesis. No one will take points off if your prediction wasn't accurate. Many important scientific discoveries were made as a result of experiments gone wrong!

A science fair experiment is only a failure if its design is flawed. A flawed experiment is one that (1) doesn't keep its variables under control, and (2) doesn't sufficiently answer the question that you asked of it.

Search This Site:

Science Fairs

  • Introduction
  • Project Ideas
  • Types of Projects
  • Pick a Topic
  • Scientific Method
  • Design Your Experiment
  • Present Your Project
  • What Judges Want
  • Parent Info

Recommended *

  • Sample Science Projects - botany, ecology, microbiology, nutrition

scientific method book

* This site contains affiliate links to carefully chosen, high quality products. We may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

  • Terms of Service

Copyright © 2006 - 2023, Science Made Simple, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The science fair projects & ideas, science articles and all other material on this website are covered by copyright laws and may not be reproduced without permission.

U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

The .gov means it’s official. Federal government websites often end in .gov or .mil. Before sharing sensitive information, make sure you’re on a federal government site.

The site is secure. The https:// ensures that you are connecting to the official website and that any information you provide is encrypted and transmitted securely.

  • Publications
  • Account settings

Preview improvements coming to the PMC website in October 2024. Learn More or Try it out now .

  • Advanced Search
  • Journal List
  • J Korean Med Sci
  • v.34(45); 2019 Nov 25

Logo of jkms

Scientific Hypotheses: Writing, Promoting, and Predicting Implications

Armen yuri gasparyan.

1 Departments of Rheumatology and Research and Development, Dudley Group NHS Foundation Trust (Teaching Trust of the University of Birmingham, UK), Russells Hall Hospital, Dudley, West Midlands, UK.

Lilit Ayvazyan

2 Department of Medical Chemistry, Yerevan State Medical University, Yerevan, Armenia.

Ulzhan Mukanova

3 Department of Surgical Disciplines, South Kazakhstan Medical Academy, Shymkent, Kazakhstan.

Marlen Yessirkepov

4 Department of Biology and Biochemistry, South Kazakhstan Medical Academy, Shymkent, Kazakhstan.

George D. Kitas

5 Arthritis Research UK Epidemiology Unit, University of Manchester, Manchester, UK.

Scientific hypotheses are essential for progress in rapidly developing academic disciplines. Proposing new ideas and hypotheses require thorough analyses of evidence-based data and predictions of the implications. One of the main concerns relates to the ethical implications of the generated hypotheses. The authors may need to outline potential benefits and limitations of their suggestions and target widely visible publication outlets to ignite discussion by experts and start testing the hypotheses. Not many publication outlets are currently welcoming hypotheses and unconventional ideas that may open gates to criticism and conservative remarks. A few scholarly journals guide the authors on how to structure hypotheses. Reflecting on general and specific issues around the subject matter is often recommended for drafting a well-structured hypothesis article. An analysis of influential hypotheses, presented in this article, particularly Strachan's hygiene hypothesis with global implications in the field of immunology and allergy, points to the need for properly interpreting and testing new suggestions. Envisaging the ethical implications of the hypotheses should be considered both by authors and journal editors during the writing and publishing process.


We live in times of digitization that radically changes scientific research, reporting, and publishing strategies. Researchers all over the world are overwhelmed with processing large volumes of information and searching through numerous online platforms, all of which make the whole process of scholarly analysis and synthesis complex and sophisticated.

Current research activities are diversifying to combine scientific observations with analysis of facts recorded by scholars from various professional backgrounds. 1 Citation analyses and networking on social media are also becoming essential for shaping research and publishing strategies globally. 2 Learning specifics of increasingly interdisciplinary research studies and acquiring information facilitation skills aid researchers in formulating innovative ideas and predicting developments in interrelated scientific fields.

Arguably, researchers are currently offered more opportunities than in the past for generating new ideas by performing their routine laboratory activities, observing individual cases and unusual developments, and critically analyzing published scientific facts. What they need at the start of their research is to formulate a scientific hypothesis that revisits conventional theories, real-world processes, and related evidence to propose new studies and test ideas in an ethical way. 3 Such a hypothesis can be of most benefit if published in an ethical journal with wide visibility and exposure to relevant online databases and promotion platforms.

Although hypotheses are crucially important for the scientific progress, only few highly skilled researchers formulate and eventually publish their innovative ideas per se . Understandably, in an increasingly competitive research environment, most authors would prefer to prioritize their ideas by discussing and conducting tests in their own laboratories or clinical departments, and publishing research reports afterwards. However, there are instances when simple observations and research studies in a single center are not capable of explaining and testing new groundbreaking ideas. Formulating hypothesis articles first and calling for multicenter and interdisciplinary research can be a solution in such instances, potentially launching influential scientific directions, if not academic disciplines.

The aim of this article is to overview the importance and implications of infrequently published scientific hypotheses that may open new avenues of thinking and research.

Despite the seemingly established views on innovative ideas and hypotheses as essential research tools, no structured definition exists to tag the term and systematically track related articles. In 1973, the Medical Subject Heading (MeSH) of the U.S. National Library of Medicine introduced “Research Design” as a structured keyword that referred to the importance of collecting data and properly testing hypotheses, and indirectly linked the term to ethics, methods and standards, among many other subheadings.

One of the experts in the field defines “hypothesis” as a well-argued analysis of available evidence to provide a realistic (scientific) explanation of existing facts, fill gaps in public understanding of sophisticated processes, and propose a new theory or a test. 4 A hypothesis can be proven wrong partially or entirely. However, even such an erroneous hypothesis may influence progress in science by initiating professional debates that help generate more realistic ideas. The main ethical requirement for hypothesis authors is to be honest about the limitations of their suggestions. 5


Daily routine in a research laboratory may lead to groundbreaking discoveries provided the daily accounts are comprehensively analyzed and reproduced by peers. The discovery of penicillin by Sir Alexander Fleming (1928) can be viewed as a prime example of such discoveries that introduced therapies to treat staphylococcal and streptococcal infections and modulate blood coagulation. 6 , 7 Penicillin got worldwide recognition due to the inventor's seminal works published by highly prestigious and widely visible British journals, effective ‘real-world’ antibiotic therapy of pneumonia and wounds during World War II, and euphoric media coverage. 8 In 1945, Fleming, Florey and Chain got a much deserved Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery that led to the mass production of the wonder drug in the U.S. and ‘real-world practice’ that tested the use of penicillin. What remained globally unnoticed is that Zinaida Yermolyeva, the outstanding Soviet microbiologist, created the Soviet penicillin, which turned out to be more effective than the Anglo-American penicillin and entered mass production in 1943; that year marked the turning of the tide of the Great Patriotic War. 9 One of the reasons of the widely unnoticed discovery of Zinaida Yermolyeva is that her works were published exclusively by local Russian (Soviet) journals.

The past decades have been marked by an unprecedented growth of multicenter and global research studies involving hundreds and thousands of human subjects. This trend is shaped by an increasing number of reports on clinical trials and large cohort studies that create a strong evidence base for practice recommendations. Mega-studies may help generate and test large-scale hypotheses aiming to solve health issues globally. Properly designed epidemiological studies, for example, may introduce clarity to the hygiene hypothesis that was originally proposed by David Strachan in 1989. 10 David Strachan studied the epidemiology of hay fever in a cohort of 17,414 British children and concluded that declining family size and improved personal hygiene had reduced the chances of cross infections in families, resulting in epidemics of atopic disease in post-industrial Britain. Over the past four decades, several related hypotheses have been proposed to expand the potential role of symbiotic microorganisms and parasites in the development of human physiological immune responses early in life and protection from allergic and autoimmune diseases later on. 11 , 12 Given the popularity and the scientific importance of the hygiene hypothesis, it was introduced as a MeSH term in 2012. 13

Hypotheses can be proposed based on an analysis of recorded historic events that resulted in mass migrations and spreading of certain genetic diseases. As a prime example, familial Mediterranean fever (FMF), the prototype periodic fever syndrome, is believed to spread from Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean region and all over Europe due to migrations and religious prosecutions millennia ago. 14 Genetic mutations spearing mild clinical forms of FMF are hypothesized to emerge and persist in the Mediterranean region as protective factors against more serious infectious diseases, particularly tuberculosis, historically common in that part of the world. 15 The speculations over the advantages of carrying the MEditerranean FeVer (MEFV) gene are further strengthened by recorded low mortality rates from tuberculosis among FMF patients of different nationalities living in Tunisia in the first half of the 20th century. 16

Diagnostic hypotheses shedding light on peculiarities of diseases throughout the history of mankind can be formulated using artefacts, particularly historic paintings. 17 Such paintings may reveal joint deformities and disfigurements due to rheumatic diseases in individual subjects. A series of paintings with similar signs of pathological conditions interpreted in a historic context may uncover mysteries of epidemics of certain diseases, which is the case with Ruben's paintings depicting signs of rheumatic hands and making some doctors to believe that rheumatoid arthritis was common in Europe in the 16th and 17th century. 18


There are author instructions of a few journals that specifically guide how to structure, format, and make submissions categorized as hypotheses attractive. One of the examples is presented by Med Hypotheses , the flagship journal in its field with more than four decades of publishing and influencing hypothesis authors globally. However, such guidance is not based on widely discussed, implemented, and approved reporting standards, which are becoming mandatory for all scholarly journals.

Generating new ideas and scientific hypotheses is a sophisticated task since not all researchers and authors are skilled to plan, conduct, and interpret various research studies. Some experience with formulating focused research questions and strong working hypotheses of original research studies is definitely helpful for advancing critical appraisal skills. However, aspiring authors of scientific hypotheses may need something different, which is more related to discerning scientific facts, pooling homogenous data from primary research works, and synthesizing new information in a systematic way by analyzing similar sets of articles. To some extent, this activity is reminiscent of writing narrative and systematic reviews. As in the case of reviews, scientific hypotheses need to be formulated on the basis of comprehensive search strategies to retrieve all available studies on the topics of interest and then synthesize new information selectively referring to the most relevant items. One of the main differences between scientific hypothesis and review articles relates to the volume of supportive literature sources ( Table 1 ). In fact, hypothesis is usually formulated by referring to a few scientific facts or compelling evidence derived from a handful of literature sources. 19 By contrast, reviews require analyses of a large number of published documents retrieved from several well-organized and evidence-based databases in accordance with predefined search strategies. 20 , 21 , 22

CharacteristicsHypothesisNarrative reviewSystematic review
Authors and contributorsAny researcher with interest in the topicUsually seasoned authors with vast experience in the subjectAny researcher with interest in the topic; information facilitators as contributors
RegistrationNot requiredNot requiredRegistration of the protocol with the PROSPERO registry ( ) is required to avoid redundancies
Reporting standardsNot availableNot availablePreferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) standard ( )
Search strategySearches through credible databases to retrieve items supporting and opposing the innovative ideasSearches through multidisciplinary and specialist databases to comprehensively cover the subjectStrict search strategy through evidence-based databases to retrieve certain type of articles (e.g., reports on trials and cohort studies) with inclusion and exclusion criteria and flowcharts of searches and selection of the required articles
StructureSections to cover general and specific knowledge on the topic, research design to test the hypothesis, and its ethical implicationsSections are chosen by the authors, depending on the topicIntroduction, Methods, Results and Discussion (IMRAD)
Search tools for analysesNot availableNot availablePopulation, Intervention, Comparison, Outcome (Study Design) (PICO, PICOS)
ReferencesLimited numberExtensive listLimited number
Target journalsHandful of hypothesis journalsNumerousNumerous
Publication ethics issuesUnethical statements and ideas in substandard journals‘Copy-and-paste’ writing in some reviewsRedundancy of some nonregistered systematic reviews
Citation impactLow (with some exceptions)HighModerate

The format of hypotheses, especially the implications part, may vary widely across disciplines. Clinicians may limit their suggestions to the clinical manifestations of diseases, outcomes, and management strategies. Basic and laboratory scientists analysing genetic, molecular, and biochemical mechanisms may need to view beyond the frames of their narrow fields and predict social and population-based implications of the proposed ideas. 23

Advanced writing skills are essential for presenting an interesting theoretical article which appeals to the global readership. Merely listing opposing facts and ideas, without proper interpretation and analysis, may distract the experienced readers. The essence of a great hypothesis is a story behind the scientific facts and evidence-based data.


The authors of hypotheses substantiate their arguments by referring to and discerning rational points from published articles that might be overlooked by others. Their arguments may contradict the established theories and practices, and pose global ethical issues, particularly when more or less efficient medical technologies and public health interventions are devalued. The ethical issues may arise primarily because of the careless references to articles with low priorities, inadequate and apparently unethical methodologies, and concealed reporting of negative results. 24 , 25

Misinterpretation and misunderstanding of the published ideas and scientific hypotheses may complicate the issue further. For example, Alexander Fleming, whose innovative ideas of penicillin use to kill susceptible bacteria saved millions of lives, warned of the consequences of uncontrolled prescription of the drug. The issue of antibiotic resistance had emerged within the first ten years of penicillin use on a global scale due to the overprescription that affected the efficacy of antibiotic therapies, with undesirable consequences for millions. 26

The misunderstanding of the hygiene hypothesis that primarily aimed to shed light on the role of the microbiome in allergic and autoimmune diseases resulted in decline of public confidence in hygiene with dire societal implications, forcing some experts to abandon the original idea. 27 , 28 Although that hypothesis is unrelated to the issue of vaccinations, the public misunderstanding has resulted in decline of vaccinations at a time of upsurge of old and new infections.

A number of ethical issues are posed by the denial of the viral (human immunodeficiency viruses; HIV) hypothesis of acquired Immune deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) by Peter Duesberg, who overviewed the links between illicit recreational drugs and antiretroviral therapies with AIDS and refuted the etiological role of HIV. 29 That controversial hypothesis was rejected by several journals, but was eventually published without external peer review at Med Hypotheses in 2010. The publication itself raised concerns of the unconventional editorial policy of the journal, causing major perturbations and more scrutinized publishing policies by journals processing hypotheses.


Although scientific authors are currently well informed and equipped with search tools to draft evidence-based hypotheses, there are still limited quality publication outlets calling for related articles. The journal editors may be hesitant to publish articles that do not adhere to any research reporting guidelines and open gates for harsh criticism of unconventional and untested ideas. Occasionally, the editors opting for open-access publishing and upgrading their ethics regulations launch a section to selectively publish scientific hypotheses attractive to the experienced readers. 30 However, the absence of approved standards for this article type, particularly no mandate for outlining potential ethical implications, may lead to publication of potentially harmful ideas in an attractive format.

A suggestion of simultaneously publishing multiple or alternative hypotheses to balance the reader views and feedback is a potential solution for the mainstream scholarly journals. 31 However, that option alone is hardly applicable to emerging journals with unconventional quality checks and peer review, accumulating papers with multiple rejections by established journals.

A large group of experts view hypotheses with improbable and controversial ideas publishable after formal editorial (in-house) checks to preserve the authors' genuine ideas and avoid conservative amendments imposed by external peer reviewers. 32 That approach may be acceptable for established publishers with large teams of experienced editors. However, the same approach can lead to dire consequences if employed by nonselective start-up, open-access journals processing all types of articles and primarily accepting those with charged publication fees. 33 In fact, pseudoscientific ideas arguing Newton's and Einstein's seminal works or those denying climate change that are hardly testable have already found their niche in substandard electronic journals with soft or nonexistent peer review. 34


The available preliminary evidence points to the attractiveness of hypothesis articles for readers, particularly those from research-intensive countries who actively download related documents. 35 However, citations of such articles are disproportionately low. Only a small proportion of top-downloaded hypotheses (13%) in the highly prestigious Med Hypotheses receive on average 5 citations per article within a two-year window. 36

With the exception of a few historic papers, the vast majority of hypotheses attract relatively small number of citations in a long term. 36 Plausible explanations are that these articles often contain a single or only a few citable points and that suggested research studies to test hypotheses are rarely conducted and reported, limiting chances of citing and crediting authors of genuine research ideas.

A snapshot analysis of citation activity of hypothesis articles may reveal interest of the global scientific community towards their implications across various disciplines and countries. As a prime example, Strachan's hygiene hypothesis, published in 1989, 10 is still attracting numerous citations on Scopus, the largest bibliographic database. As of August 28, 2019, the number of the linked citations in the database is 3,201. Of the citing articles, 160 are cited at least 160 times ( h -index of this research topic = 160). The first three citations are recorded in 1992 and followed by a rapid annual increase in citation activity and a peak of 212 in 2015 ( Fig. 1 ). The top 5 sources of the citations are Clin Exp Allergy (n = 136), J Allergy Clin Immunol (n = 119), Allergy (n = 81), Pediatr Allergy Immunol (n = 69), and PLOS One (n = 44). The top 5 citing authors are leading experts in pediatrics and allergology Erika von Mutius (Munich, Germany, number of publications with the index citation = 30), Erika Isolauri (Turku, Finland, n = 27), Patrick G Holt (Subiaco, Australia, n = 25), David P. Strachan (London, UK, n = 23), and Bengt Björksten (Stockholm, Sweden, n = 22). The U.S. is the leading country in terms of citation activity with 809 related documents, followed by the UK (n = 494), Germany (n = 314), Australia (n = 211), and the Netherlands (n = 177). The largest proportion of citing documents are articles (n = 1,726, 54%), followed by reviews (n = 950, 29.7%), and book chapters (n = 213, 6.7%). The main subject areas of the citing items are medicine (n = 2,581, 51.7%), immunology and microbiology (n = 1,179, 23.6%), and biochemistry, genetics and molecular biology (n = 415, 8.3%).

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is jkms-34-e300-g001.jpg

Interestingly, a recent analysis of 111 publications related to Strachan's hygiene hypothesis, stating that the lack of exposure to infections in early life increases the risk of rhinitis, revealed a selection bias of 5,551 citations on Web of Science. 37 The articles supportive of the hypothesis were cited more than nonsupportive ones (odds ratio adjusted for study design, 2.2; 95% confidence interval, 1.6–3.1). A similar conclusion pointing to a citation bias distorting bibliometrics of hypotheses was reached by an earlier analysis of a citation network linked to the idea that β-amyloid, which is involved in the pathogenesis of Alzheimer disease, is produced by skeletal muscle of patients with inclusion body myositis. 38 The results of both studies are in line with the notion that ‘positive’ citations are more frequent in the field of biomedicine than ‘negative’ ones, and that citations to articles with proven hypotheses are too common. 39

Social media channels are playing an increasingly active role in the generation and evaluation of scientific hypotheses. In fact, publicly discussing research questions on platforms of news outlets, such as Reddit, may shape hypotheses on health-related issues of global importance, such as obesity. 40 Analyzing Twitter comments, researchers may reveal both potentially valuable ideas and unfounded claims that surround groundbreaking research ideas. 41 Social media activities, however, are unevenly distributed across different research topics, journals and countries, and these are not always objective professional reflections of the breakthroughs in science. 2 , 42

Scientific hypotheses are essential for progress in science and advances in healthcare. Innovative ideas should be based on a critical overview of related scientific facts and evidence-based data, often overlooked by others. To generate realistic hypothetical theories, the authors should comprehensively analyze the literature and suggest relevant and ethically sound design for future studies. They should also consider their hypotheses in the context of research and publication ethics norms acceptable for their target journals. The journal editors aiming to diversify their portfolio by maintaining and introducing hypotheses section are in a position to upgrade guidelines for related articles by pointing to general and specific analyses of the subject, preferred study designs to test hypotheses, and ethical implications. The latter is closely related to specifics of hypotheses. For example, editorial recommendations to outline benefits and risks of a new laboratory test or therapy may result in a more balanced article and minimize associated risks afterwards.

Not all scientific hypotheses have immediate positive effects. Some, if not most, are never tested in properly designed research studies and never cited in credible and indexed publication outlets. Hypotheses in specialized scientific fields, particularly those hardly understandable for nonexperts, lose their attractiveness for increasingly interdisciplinary audience. The authors' honest analysis of the benefits and limitations of their hypotheses and concerted efforts of all stakeholders in science communication to initiate public discussion on widely visible platforms and social media may reveal rational points and caveats of the new ideas.

Disclosure: The authors have no potential conflicts of interest to disclose.

Author Contributions:

  • Conceptualization: Gasparyan AY, Yessirkepov M, Kitas GD.
  • Methodology: Gasparyan AY, Mukanova U, Ayvazyan L.
  • Writing - original draft: Gasparyan AY, Ayvazyan L, Yessirkepov M.
  • Writing - review & editing: Gasparyan AY, Yessirkepov M, Mukanova U, Kitas GD.
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Therapy Center
  • When To See a Therapist
  • Types of Therapy
  • Best Online Therapy
  • Best Couples Therapy
  • Best Family Therapy
  • Managing Stress
  • Sleep and Dreaming
  • Understanding Emotions
  • Self-Improvement
  • Healthy Relationships
  • Student Resources
  • Personality Types
  • Guided Meditations
  • Verywell Mind Insights
  • 2024 Verywell Mind 25
  • Mental Health in the Classroom
  • Editorial Process
  • Meet Our Review Board
  • Crisis Support

How to Write a Great Hypothesis

Hypothesis Definition, Format, Examples, and Tips

Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

hypothesis explanation for observation

Amy Morin, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and international bestselling author. Her books, including "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do," have been translated into more than 40 languages. Her TEDx talk,  "The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong," is one of the most viewed talks of all time.

hypothesis explanation for observation

Verywell / Alex Dos Diaz

  • The Scientific Method

Hypothesis Format

Falsifiability of a hypothesis.

  • Operationalization

Hypothesis Types

Hypotheses examples.

  • Collecting Data

A hypothesis is a tentative statement about the relationship between two or more variables. It is a specific, testable prediction about what you expect to happen in a study. It is a preliminary answer to your question that helps guide the research process.

Consider a study designed to examine the relationship between sleep deprivation and test performance. The hypothesis might be: "This study is designed to assess the hypothesis that sleep-deprived people will perform worse on a test than individuals who are not sleep-deprived."

At a Glance

A hypothesis is crucial to scientific research because it offers a clear direction for what the researchers are looking to find. This allows them to design experiments to test their predictions and add to our scientific knowledge about the world. This article explores how a hypothesis is used in psychology research, how to write a good hypothesis, and the different types of hypotheses you might use.

The Hypothesis in the Scientific Method

In the scientific method , whether it involves research in psychology, biology, or some other area, a hypothesis represents what the researchers think will happen in an experiment. The scientific method involves the following steps:

  • Forming a question
  • Performing background research
  • Creating a hypothesis
  • Designing an experiment
  • Collecting data
  • Analyzing the results
  • Drawing conclusions
  • Communicating the results

The hypothesis is a prediction, but it involves more than a guess. Most of the time, the hypothesis begins with a question which is then explored through background research. At this point, researchers then begin to develop a testable hypothesis.

Unless you are creating an exploratory study, your hypothesis should always explain what you  expect  to happen.

In a study exploring the effects of a particular drug, the hypothesis might be that researchers expect the drug to have some type of effect on the symptoms of a specific illness. In psychology, the hypothesis might focus on how a certain aspect of the environment might influence a particular behavior.

Remember, a hypothesis does not have to be correct. While the hypothesis predicts what the researchers expect to see, the goal of the research is to determine whether this guess is right or wrong. When conducting an experiment, researchers might explore numerous factors to determine which ones might contribute to the ultimate outcome.

In many cases, researchers may find that the results of an experiment  do not  support the original hypothesis. When writing up these results, the researchers might suggest other options that should be explored in future studies.

In many cases, researchers might draw a hypothesis from a specific theory or build on previous research. For example, prior research has shown that stress can impact the immune system. So a researcher might hypothesize: "People with high-stress levels will be more likely to contract a common cold after being exposed to the virus than people who have low-stress levels."

In other instances, researchers might look at commonly held beliefs or folk wisdom. "Birds of a feather flock together" is one example of folk adage that a psychologist might try to investigate. The researcher might pose a specific hypothesis that "People tend to select romantic partners who are similar to them in interests and educational level."

Elements of a Good Hypothesis

So how do you write a good hypothesis? When trying to come up with a hypothesis for your research or experiments, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is your hypothesis based on your research on a topic?
  • Can your hypothesis be tested?
  • Does your hypothesis include independent and dependent variables?

Before you come up with a specific hypothesis, spend some time doing background research. Once you have completed a literature review, start thinking about potential questions you still have. Pay attention to the discussion section in the  journal articles you read . Many authors will suggest questions that still need to be explored.

How to Formulate a Good Hypothesis

To form a hypothesis, you should take these steps:

  • Collect as many observations about a topic or problem as you can.
  • Evaluate these observations and look for possible causes of the problem.
  • Create a list of possible explanations that you might want to explore.
  • After you have developed some possible hypotheses, think of ways that you could confirm or disprove each hypothesis through experimentation. This is known as falsifiability.

In the scientific method ,  falsifiability is an important part of any valid hypothesis. In order to test a claim scientifically, it must be possible that the claim could be proven false.

Students sometimes confuse the idea of falsifiability with the idea that it means that something is false, which is not the case. What falsifiability means is that  if  something was false, then it is possible to demonstrate that it is false.

One of the hallmarks of pseudoscience is that it makes claims that cannot be refuted or proven false.

The Importance of Operational Definitions

A variable is a factor or element that can be changed and manipulated in ways that are observable and measurable. However, the researcher must also define how the variable will be manipulated and measured in the study.

Operational definitions are specific definitions for all relevant factors in a study. This process helps make vague or ambiguous concepts detailed and measurable.

For example, a researcher might operationally define the variable " test anxiety " as the results of a self-report measure of anxiety experienced during an exam. A "study habits" variable might be defined by the amount of studying that actually occurs as measured by time.

These precise descriptions are important because many things can be measured in various ways. Clearly defining these variables and how they are measured helps ensure that other researchers can replicate your results.


One of the basic principles of any type of scientific research is that the results must be replicable.

Replication means repeating an experiment in the same way to produce the same results. By clearly detailing the specifics of how the variables were measured and manipulated, other researchers can better understand the results and repeat the study if needed.

Some variables are more difficult than others to define. For example, how would you operationally define a variable such as aggression ? For obvious ethical reasons, researchers cannot create a situation in which a person behaves aggressively toward others.

To measure this variable, the researcher must devise a measurement that assesses aggressive behavior without harming others. The researcher might utilize a simulated task to measure aggressiveness in this situation.

Hypothesis Checklist

  • Does your hypothesis focus on something that you can actually test?
  • Does your hypothesis include both an independent and dependent variable?
  • Can you manipulate the variables?
  • Can your hypothesis be tested without violating ethical standards?

The hypothesis you use will depend on what you are investigating and hoping to find. Some of the main types of hypotheses that you might use include:

  • Simple hypothesis : This type of hypothesis suggests there is a relationship between one independent variable and one dependent variable.
  • Complex hypothesis : This type suggests a relationship between three or more variables, such as two independent and dependent variables.
  • Null hypothesis : This hypothesis suggests no relationship exists between two or more variables.
  • Alternative hypothesis : This hypothesis states the opposite of the null hypothesis.
  • Statistical hypothesis : This hypothesis uses statistical analysis to evaluate a representative population sample and then generalizes the findings to the larger group.
  • Logical hypothesis : This hypothesis assumes a relationship between variables without collecting data or evidence.

A hypothesis often follows a basic format of "If {this happens} then {this will happen}." One way to structure your hypothesis is to describe what will happen to the  dependent variable  if you change the  independent variable .

The basic format might be: "If {these changes are made to a certain independent variable}, then we will observe {a change in a specific dependent variable}."

A few examples of simple hypotheses:

  • "Students who eat breakfast will perform better on a math exam than students who do not eat breakfast."
  • "Students who experience test anxiety before an English exam will get lower scores than students who do not experience test anxiety."​
  • "Motorists who talk on the phone while driving will be more likely to make errors on a driving course than those who do not talk on the phone."
  • "Children who receive a new reading intervention will have higher reading scores than students who do not receive the intervention."

Examples of a complex hypothesis include:

  • "People with high-sugar diets and sedentary activity levels are more likely to develop depression."
  • "Younger people who are regularly exposed to green, outdoor areas have better subjective well-being than older adults who have limited exposure to green spaces."

Examples of a null hypothesis include:

  • "There is no difference in anxiety levels between people who take St. John's wort supplements and those who do not."
  • "There is no difference in scores on a memory recall task between children and adults."
  • "There is no difference in aggression levels between children who play first-person shooter games and those who do not."

Examples of an alternative hypothesis:

  • "People who take St. John's wort supplements will have less anxiety than those who do not."
  • "Adults will perform better on a memory task than children."
  • "Children who play first-person shooter games will show higher levels of aggression than children who do not." 

Collecting Data on Your Hypothesis

Once a researcher has formed a testable hypothesis, the next step is to select a research design and start collecting data. The research method depends largely on exactly what they are studying. There are two basic types of research methods: descriptive research and experimental research.

Descriptive Research Methods

Descriptive research such as  case studies ,  naturalistic observations , and surveys are often used when  conducting an experiment is difficult or impossible. These methods are best used to describe different aspects of a behavior or psychological phenomenon.

Once a researcher has collected data using descriptive methods, a  correlational study  can examine how the variables are related. This research method might be used to investigate a hypothesis that is difficult to test experimentally.

Experimental Research Methods

Experimental methods  are used to demonstrate causal relationships between variables. In an experiment, the researcher systematically manipulates a variable of interest (known as the independent variable) and measures the effect on another variable (known as the dependent variable).

Unlike correlational studies, which can only be used to determine if there is a relationship between two variables, experimental methods can be used to determine the actual nature of the relationship—whether changes in one variable actually  cause  another to change.

The hypothesis is a critical part of any scientific exploration. It represents what researchers expect to find in a study or experiment. In situations where the hypothesis is unsupported by the research, the research still has value. Such research helps us better understand how different aspects of the natural world relate to one another. It also helps us develop new hypotheses that can then be tested in the future.

Thompson WH, Skau S. On the scope of scientific hypotheses .  R Soc Open Sci . 2023;10(8):230607. doi:10.1098/rsos.230607

Taran S, Adhikari NKJ, Fan E. Falsifiability in medicine: what clinicians can learn from Karl Popper [published correction appears in Intensive Care Med. 2021 Jun 17;:].  Intensive Care Med . 2021;47(9):1054-1056. doi:10.1007/s00134-021-06432-z

Eyler AA. Research Methods for Public Health . 1st ed. Springer Publishing Company; 2020. doi:10.1891/9780826182067.0004

Nosek BA, Errington TM. What is replication ?  PLoS Biol . 2020;18(3):e3000691. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.3000691

Aggarwal R, Ranganathan P. Study designs: Part 2 - Descriptive studies .  Perspect Clin Res . 2019;10(1):34-36. doi:10.4103/picr.PICR_154_18

Nevid J. Psychology: Concepts and Applications. Wadworth, 2013.

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

SEP home page

  • Table of Contents
  • Random Entry
  • Chronological
  • Editorial Information
  • About the SEP
  • Editorial Board
  • How to Cite the SEP
  • Special Characters
  • Advanced Tools
  • Support the SEP
  • PDFs for SEP Friends
  • Make a Donation
  • SEPIA for Libraries
  • Entry Contents


Academic tools.

  • Friends PDF Preview
  • Author and Citation Info
  • Back to Top

Theory and Observation in Science

Scientists obtain a great deal of the evidence they use by collecting and producing empirical results. Much of the standard philosophical literature on this subject comes from 20 th century logical empiricists, their followers, and critics who embraced their issues while objecting to some of their aims and assumptions. Discussions about empirical evidence have tended to focus on epistemological questions regarding its role in theory testing. This entry follows that precedent, even though empirical evidence also plays important and philosophically interesting roles in other areas including scientific discovery, the development of experimental tools and techniques, and the application of scientific theories to practical problems.

The logical empiricists and their followers devoted much of their attention to the distinction between observables and unobservables, the form and content of observation reports, and the epistemic bearing of observational evidence on theories it is used to evaluate. Philosophical work in this tradition was characterized by the aim of conceptually separating theory and observation, so that observation could serve as the pure basis of theory appraisal. More recently, the focus of the philosophical literature has shifted away from these issues, and their close association to the languages and logics of science, to investigations of how empirical data are generated, analyzed, and used in practice. With this shift, we also see philosophers largely setting aside the aspiration of a pure observational basis for scientific knowledge and instead embracing a view of science in which the theoretical and empirical are usefully intertwined. This entry discusses these topics under the following headings:

1. Introduction

2.1 traditional empiricism, 2.2 the irrelevance of observation per se, 2.3 data and phenomena, 3.1 perception, 3.2 assuming the theory to be tested, 3.3 semantics, 4.1 confirmation, 4.2 saving the phenomena, 4.3 empirical adequacy, 5. conclusion, other internet resources, related entries.

Philosophers of science have traditionally recognized a special role for observations in the epistemology of science. Observations are the conduit through which the ‘tribunal of experience’ delivers its verdicts on scientific hypotheses and theories. The evidential value of an observation has been assumed to depend on how sensitive it is to whatever it is used to study. But this in turn depends on the adequacy of any theoretical claims its sensitivity may depend on. For example, we can challenge the use of a particular thermometer reading to support a prediction of a patient’s temperature by challenging theoretical claims having to do with whether a reading from a thermometer like this one, applied in the same way under similar conditions, should indicate the patient’s temperature well enough to count in favor of or against the prediction. At least some of those theoretical claims will be such that regardless of whether an investigator explicitly endorses, or is even aware of them, her use of the thermometer reading would be undermined by their falsity. All observations and uses of observational evidence are theory laden in this sense (cf. Chang 2005, Azzouni 2004). As the example of the thermometer illustrates, analogues of Norwood Hanson’s claim that seeing is a theory laden undertaking apply just as well to equipment generated observations (Hanson 1958, 19). But if all observations and empirical data are theory laden, how can they provide reality-based, objective epistemic constraints on scientific reasoning?

Recent scholarship has turned this question on its head. Why think that theory ladenness of empirical results would be problematic in the first place? If the theoretical assumptions with which the results are imbued are correct, what is the harm of it? After all, it is in virtue of those assumptions that the fruits of empirical investigation can be ‘put in touch’ with theorizing at all. A number scribbled in a lab notebook can do a scientist little epistemic good unless she can recruit the relevant background assumptions to even recognize it as a reading of the patient’s temperature. But philosophers have embraced an entangled picture of the theoretical and empirical that goes much deeper than this. Lloyd (2012) advocates for what she calls “complex empiricism” in which there is “no pristine separation of model and data” (397). Bogen (2016) points out that “impure empirical evidence” (i.e. evidence that incorporates the judgements of scientists) “often tells us more about the world that it could have if it were pure” (784). Indeed, Longino (2020) has urged that “[t]he naïve fantasy that data have an immediate relation to phenomena of the world, that they are ‘objective’ in some strong, ontological sense of that term, that they are the facts of the world directly speaking to us, should be finally laid to rest” and that “even the primary, original, state of data is not free from researchers’ value- and theory-laden selection and organization” (391).

There is not widespread agreement among philosophers of science about how to characterize the nature of scientific theories. What is a theory? According to the traditional syntactic view, theories are considered to be collections of sentences couched in logical language, which must then be supplemented with correspondence rules in order to be interpreted. Construed in this way, theories include maximally general explanatory and predictive laws (Coulomb’s law of electrical attraction and repulsion, and Maxwellian electromagnetism equations for example), along with lesser generalizations that describe more limited natural and experimental phenomena (e.g., the ideal gas equations describing relations between temperatures and pressures of enclosed gasses, and general descriptions of positional astronomical regularities). In contrast, the semantic view casts theories as the space of states possible according to the theory, or the set of mathematical models permissible according to the theory (see Suppe 1977). However, there are also significantly more ecumenical interpretations of what it means to be a scientific theory, which include elements of diverse kinds. To take just one illustrative example, Borrelli (2012) characterizes the Standard Model of particle physics as a theoretical framework involving what she calls “theoretical cores” that are composed of mathematical structures, verbal stories, and analogies with empirical references mixed together (196). This entry aims to accommodate all of these views about the nature of scientific theories.

In this entry, we trace the contours of traditional philosophical engagement with questions surrounding theory and observation in science that attempted to segregate the theoretical from the observational, and to cleanly delineate between the observable and the unobservable. We also discuss the more recent scholarship that supplants the primacy of observation by human sensory perception with an instrument-inclusive conception of data production and that embraces the intertwining of theoretical and empirical in the production of useful scientific results. Although theory testing dominates much of the standard philosophical literature on observation, much of what this entry says about the role of observation in theory testing applies also to its role in inventing, and modifying theories, and applying them to tasks in engineering, medicine, and other practical enterprises.

2. Observation and data

Reasoning from observations has been important to scientific practice at least since the time of Aristotle, who mentions a number of sources of observational evidence including animal dissection (Aristotle(a), 763a/30–b/15; Aristotle(b), 511b/20–25). Francis Bacon argued long ago that the best way to discover things about nature is to use experiences (his term for observations as well as experimental results) to develop and improve scientific theories (Bacon 1620, 49ff). The role of observational evidence in scientific discovery was an important topic for Whewell (1858) and Mill (1872) among others in the 19th century. But philosophers didn’t talk about observation as extensively, in as much detail, or in the way we have become accustomed to, until the 20 th century when logical empiricists transformed philosophical thinking about it.

One important transformation, characteristic of the linguistic turn in philosophy, was to concentrate on the logic of observation reports rather than on objects or phenomena observed. This focus made sense on the assumption that a scientific theory is a system of sentences or sentence-like structures (propositions, statements, claims, and so on) to be tested by comparison to observational evidence. It was assumed that the comparisons must be understood in terms of inferential relations. If inferential relations hold only between sentence-like structures, it follows that theories must be tested, not against observations or things observed, but against sentences, propositions, etc. used to report observations (Hempel 1935, 50–51; Schlick 1935). Theory testing was treated as a matter of comparing observation sentences describing observations made in natural or laboratory settings to observation sentences that should be true according to the theory to be tested. This was to be accomplished by using laws or lawlike generalizations along with descriptions of initial conditions, correspondence rules, and auxiliary hypotheses to derive observation sentences describing the sensory deliverances of interest. This makes it imperative to ask what observation sentences report.

According to what Hempel called the phenomenalist account , observation reports describe the observer’s subjective perceptual experiences.

… Such experiential data might be conceived of as being sensations, perceptions, and similar phenomena of immediate experience. (Hempel 1952, 674)

This view is motivated by the assumption that the epistemic value of an observation report depends upon its truth or accuracy, and that with regard to perception, the only thing observers can know with certainty to be true or accurate is how things appear to them. This means that we cannot be confident that observation reports are true or accurate if they describe anything beyond the observer’s own perceptual experience. Presumably one’s confidence in a conclusion should not exceed one’s confidence in one’s best reasons to believe it. For the phenomenalist, it follows that reports of subjective experience can provide better reasons to believe claims they support than reports of other kinds of evidence.

However, given the expressive limitations of the language available for reporting subjective experiences, we cannot expect phenomenalistic reports to be precise and unambiguous enough to test theoretical claims whose evaluation requires accurate, fine-grained perceptual discriminations. Worse yet, if experiences are directly available only to those who have them, there is room to doubt whether different people can understand the same observation sentence in the same way. Suppose you had to evaluate a claim on the basis of someone else’s subjective report of how a litmus solution looked to her when she dripped a liquid of unknown acidity into it. How could you decide whether her visual experience was the same as the one you would use her words to report?

Such considerations led Hempel to propose, contrary to the phenomenalists, that observation sentences report ‘directly observable’, ‘intersubjectively ascertainable’ facts about physical objects

… such as the coincidence of the pointer of an instrument with a numbered mark on a dial; a change of color in a test substance or in the skin of a patient; the clicking of an amplifier connected with a Geiger counter; etc. (ibid.)

That the facts expressed in observation reports be intersubjectively ascertainable was critical for the aims of the logical empiricists. They hoped to articulate and explain the authoritativeness widely conceded to the best natural, social, and behavioral scientific theories in contrast to propaganda and pseudoscience. Some pronouncements from astrologers and medical quacks gain wide acceptance, as do those of religious leaders who rest their cases on faith or personal revelation, and leaders who use their political power to secure assent. But such claims do not enjoy the kind of credibility that scientific theories can attain. The logical empiricists tried to account for the genuine credibility of scientific theories by appeal to the objectivity and accessibility of observation reports, and the logic of theory testing. Part of what they meant by calling observational evidence objective was that cultural and ethnic factors have no bearing on what can validly be inferred about the merits of a theory from observation reports. So conceived, objectivity was important to the logical empiricists’ criticism of the Nazi idea that Jews and Aryans have fundamentally different thought processes such that physical theories suitable for Einstein and his kind should not be inflicted on German students. In response to this rationale for ethnic and cultural purging of the German educational system, the logical empiricists argued that because of its objectivity, observational evidence (rather than ethnic and cultural factors) should be used to evaluate scientific theories (Galison 1990). In this way of thinking, observational evidence and its subsequent bearing on scientific theories are objective also in virtue of being free of non-epistemic values.

Ensuing generations of philosophers of science have found the logical empiricist focus on expressing the content of observations in a rarefied and basic observation language too narrow. Search for a suitably universal language as required by the logical empiricist program has come up empty-handed and most philosophers of science have given up its pursuit. Moreover, as we will discuss in the following section, the centrality of observation itself (and pointer readings) to the aims of empiricism in philosophy of science has also come under scrutiny. However, leaving the search for a universal pure observation language behind does not automatically undercut the norm of objectivity as it relates to the social, political, and cultural contexts of scientific research. Pristine logical foundations aside, the objectivity of ‘neutral’ observations in the face of noxious political propaganda was appealing because it could serve as shared ground available for intersubjective appraisal. This appeal remains alive and well today, particularly as pernicious misinformation campaigns are again formidable in public discourse (see O’Connor and Weatherall 2019). If individuals can genuinely appraise the significance of empirical evidence and come to well-justified agreement about how the evidence bears on theorizing, then they can protect their epistemic deliberations from the undue influence of fascists and other nefarious manipulators. However, this aspiration must face subtleties arising from the social epistemology of science and from the nature of empirical results themselves. In practice, the appraisal of scientific results can often require expertise that is not readily accessible to members of the public without the relevant specialized training. Additionally, precisely because empirical results are not pure observation reports, their appraisal across communities of inquirers operating with different background assumptions can require significant epistemic work.

The logical empiricists paid little attention to the distinction between observing and experimenting and its epistemic implications. For some philosophers, to experiment is to isolate, prepare, and manipulate things in hopes of producing epistemically useful evidence. It had been customary to think of observing as noticing and attending to interesting details of things perceived under more or less natural conditions, or by extension, things perceived during the course of an experiment. To look at a berry on a vine and attend to its color and shape would be to observe it. To extract its juice and apply reagents to test for the presence of copper compounds would be to perform an experiment. By now, many philosophers have argued that contrivance and manipulation influence epistemically significant features of observable experimental results to such an extent that epistemologists ignore them at their peril. Robert Boyle (1661), John Herschell (1830), Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar (1979), Ian Hacking (1983), Harry Collins (1985) Allan Franklin (1986), Peter Galison (1987), Jim Bogen and Jim Woodward (1988), and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger (1997), are some of the philosophers and philosophically-minded scientists, historians, and sociologists of science who gave serious consideration to the distinction between observing and experimenting. The logical empiricists tended to ignore it. Interestingly, the contemporary vantage point that attends to modeling, data processing, and empirical results may suggest a re-unification of observation and intervention under the same epistemological framework. When one no longer thinks of scientific observation as pure or direct, and recognizes the power of good modeling to account for confounds without physically intervening on the target system, the purported epistemic distinction between observation and intervention loses its bite.

Observers use magnifying glasses, microscopes, or telescopes to see things that are too small or far away to be seen, or seen clearly enough, without them. Similarly, amplification devices are used to hear faint sounds. But if to observe something is to perceive it, not every use of instruments to augment the senses qualifies as observational.

Philosophers generally agree that you can observe the moons of Jupiter with a telescope, or a heartbeat with a stethoscope. The van Fraassen of The Scientific Image is a notable exception, for whom to be ‘observable’ meant to be something that, were it present to a creature like us, would be observed. Thus, for van Fraassen, the moons of Jupiter are observable “since astronauts will no doubt be able to see them as well from close up” (1980, 16). In contrast, microscopic entities are not observable on van Fraassen’s account because creatures like us cannot strategically maneuver ourselves to see them, present before us, with our unaided senses.

Many philosophers have criticized van Fraassen’s view as overly restrictive. Nevertheless, philosophers differ in their willingness to draw the line between what counts as observable and what does not along the spectrum of increasingly complicated instrumentation. Many philosophers who don’t mind telescopes and microscopes still find it unnatural to say that high energy physicists ‘observe’ particles or particle interactions when they look at bubble chamber photographs—let alone digital visualizations of energy depositions left in calorimeters that are not themselves inspected. Their intuitions come from the plausible assumption that one can observe only what one can see by looking, hear by listening, feel by touching, and so on. Investigators can neither look at (direct their gazes toward and attend to) nor visually experience charged particles moving through a detector. Instead they can look at and see tracks in the chamber, in bubble chamber photographs, calorimeter data visualizations, etc.

In more contentious examples, some philosophers have moved to speaking of instrument-augmented empirical research as more like tool use than sensing. Hacking (1981) argues that we do not see through a microscope, but rather with it. Daston and Galison (2007) highlight the inherent interactivity of a scanning tunneling microscope, in which scientists image and manipulate atoms by exchanging electrons between the sharp tip of the microscope and the surface to be imaged (397). Others have opted to stretch the meaning of observation to accommodate what we might otherwise be tempted to call instrument-aided detections. For instance, Shapere (1982) argues that while it may initially strike philosophers as counter-intuitive, it makes perfect sense to call the detection of neutrinos from the interior of the sun “direct observation.”

The variety of views on the observable/unobservable distinction hint that empiricists may have been barking up the wrong philosophical tree. Many of the things scientists investigate do not interact with human perceptual systems as required to produce perceptual experiences of them. The methods investigators use to study such things argue against the idea—however plausible it may once have seemed—that scientists do or should rely exclusively on their perceptual systems to obtain the evidence they need. Thus Feyerabend proposed as a thought experiment that if measuring equipment was rigged up to register the magnitude of a quantity of interest, a theory could be tested just as well against its outputs as against records of human perceptions (Feyerabend 1969, 132–137). Feyerabend could have made his point with historical examples instead of thought experiments. A century earlier Helmholtz estimated the speed of excitatory impulses traveling through a motor nerve. To initiate impulses whose speed could be estimated, he implanted an electrode into one end of a nerve fiber and ran a current into it from a coil. The other end was attached to a bit of muscle whose contraction signaled the arrival of the impulse. To find out how long it took the impulse to reach the muscle he had to know when the stimulating current reached the nerve. But

[o]ur senses are not capable of directly perceiving an individual moment of time with such small duration …

and so Helmholtz had to resort to what he called ‘artificial methods of observation’ (Olesko and Holmes 1994, 84). This meant arranging things so that current from the coil could deflect a galvanometer needle. Assuming that the magnitude of the deflection is proportional to the duration of current passing from the coil, Helmholtz could use the deflection to estimate the duration he could not see (ibid). This sense of ‘artificial observation’ is not to be confused e.g., with using magnifying glasses or telescopes to see tiny or distant objects. Such devices enable the observer to scrutinize visible objects. The minuscule duration of the current flow is not a visible object. Helmholtz studied it by cleverly concocting circumstances so that the deflection of the needle would meaningfully convey the information he needed. Hooke (1705, 16–17) argued for and designed instruments to execute the same kind of strategy in the 17 th century.

It is of interest that records of perceptual observation are not always epistemically superior to data collected via experimental equipment. Indeed, it is not unusual for investigators to use non-perceptual evidence to evaluate perceptual data and correct for its errors. For example, Rutherford and Pettersson conducted similar experiments to find out if certain elements disintegrated to emit charged particles under radioactive bombardment. To detect emissions, observers watched a scintillation screen for faint flashes produced by particle strikes. Pettersson’s assistants reported seeing flashes from silicon and certain other elements. Rutherford’s did not. Rutherford’s colleague, James Chadwick, visited Pettersson’s laboratory to evaluate his data. Instead of watching the screen and checking Pettersson’s data against what he saw, Chadwick arranged to have Pettersson’s assistants watch the screen while unbeknownst to them he manipulated the equipment, alternating normal operating conditions with a condition in which particles, if any, could not hit the screen. Pettersson’s data were discredited by the fact that his assistants reported flashes at close to the same rate in both conditions (Stuewer 1985, 284–288).

When the process of producing data is relatively convoluted, it is even easier to see that human sense perception is not the ultimate epistemic engine. Consider functional magnetic resonance images (fMRI) of the brain decorated with colors to indicate magnitudes of electrical activity in different regions during the performance of a cognitive task. To produce these images, brief magnetic pulses are applied to the subject’s brain. The magnetic force coordinates the precessions of protons in hemoglobin and other bodily stuffs to make them emit radio signals strong enough for the equipment to respond to. When the magnetic force is relaxed, the signals from protons in highly oxygenated hemoglobin deteriorate at a detectably different rate than signals from blood that carries less oxygen. Elaborate algorithms are applied to radio signal records to estimate blood oxygen levels at the places from which the signals are calculated to have originated. There is good reason to believe that blood flowing just downstream from spiking neurons carries appreciably more oxygen than blood in the vicinity of resting neurons. Assumptions about the relevant spatial and temporal relations are used to estimate levels of electrical activity in small regions of the brain corresponding to pixels in the finished image. The results of all of these computations are used to assign the appropriate colors to pixels in a computer generated image of the brain. In view of all of this, functional brain imaging differs, e.g., from looking and seeing, photographing, and measuring with a thermometer or a galvanometer in ways that make it uninformative to call it observation. And similarly for many other methods scientists use to produce non-perceptual evidence.

The role of the senses in fMRI data production is limited to such things as monitoring the equipment and keeping an eye on the subject. Their epistemic role is limited to discriminating the colors in the finished image, reading tables of numbers the computer used to assign them, and so on. While it is true that researchers typically use their sense of sight to take in visualizations of processed fMRI data—or numbers on a page or screen for that matter—this is not the primary locus of epistemic action. Researchers learn about brain processes through fMRI data, to the extent that they do, primarily in virtue of the suitability of the causal connection between the target processes and the data records, and of the transformations those data undergo when they are processed into the maps or other results that scientists want to use. The interesting questions are not about observability, i.e. whether neuronal activity, blood oxygen levels, proton precessions, radio signals, and so on, are properly understood as observable by creatures like us. The epistemic significance of the fMRI data depends on their delivering us the right sort of access to the target, but observation is neither necessary nor sufficient for that access.

Following Shapere (1982), one could respond by adopting an extremely permissive view of what counts as an ‘observation’ so as to allow even highly processed data to count as observations. However, it is hard to reconcile the idea that highly processed data like fMRI images record observations with the traditional empiricist notion that calculations involving theoretical assumptions and background beliefs must not be allowed (on pain of loss of objectivity) to intrude into the process of data production. Observation garnered its special epistemic status in the first place because it seemed more direct, more immediate, and therefore less distorted and muddled than (say) detection or inference. The production of fMRI images requires extensive statistical manipulation based on theories about the radio signals, and a variety of factors having to do with their detection along with beliefs about relations between blood oxygen levels and neuronal activity, sources of systematic error, and more. Insofar as the use of the term ‘observation’ connotes this extra baggage of traditional empiricism, it may be better to replace observation-talk with terminology that is more obviously permissive, such as that of ‘empirical data’ and ‘empirical results.’

Deposing observation from its traditional perch in empiricist epistemologies of science need not estrange philosophers from scientific practice. Terms like ‘observation’ and ‘observation reports’ do not occur nearly as much in scientific as in philosophical writings. In their place, working scientists tend to talk about data . Philosophers who adopt this usage are free to think about standard examples of observation as members of a large, diverse, and growing family of data production methods. Instead of trying to decide which methods to classify as observational and which things qualify as observables, philosophers can then concentrate on the epistemic influence of the factors that differentiate members of the family. In particular, they can focus their attention on what questions data produced by a given method can be used to answer, what must be done to use that data fruitfully, and the credibility of the answers they afford (Bogen 2016).

Satisfactorily answering such questions warrants further philosophical work. As Bogen and Woodward (1988) have argued, there is often a long road between obtaining a particular dataset replete with idiosyncrasies born of unspecified causal nuances to any claim about the phenomenon ultimately of interest to the researchers. Empirical data are typically produced in ways that make it impossible to predict them from the generalizations they are used to test, or to derive instances of those generalizations from data and non ad hoc auxiliary hypotheses. Indeed, it is unusual for many members of a set of reasonably precise quantitative data to agree with one another, let alone with a quantitative prediction. That is because precise, publicly accessible data typically cannot be produced except through processes whose results reflect the influence of causal factors that are too numerous, too different in kind, and too irregular in behavior for any single theory to account for them. When Bernard Katz recorded electrical activity in nerve fiber preparations, the numerical values of his data were influenced by factors peculiar to the operation of his galvanometers and other pieces of equipment, variations among the positions of the stimulating and recording electrodes that had to be inserted into the nerve, the physiological effects of their insertion, and changes in the condition of the nerve as it deteriorated during the course of the experiment. There were variations in the investigators’ handling of the equipment. Vibrations shook the equipment in response to a variety of irregularly occurring causes ranging from random error sources to the heavy tread of Katz’s teacher, A.V. Hill, walking up and down the stairs outside of the laboratory. That’s a short list. To make matters worse, many of these factors influenced the data as parts of irregularly occurring, transient, and shifting assemblies of causal influences.

The effects of systematic and random sources of error are typically such that considerable analysis and interpretation are required to take investigators from data sets to conclusions that can be used to evaluate theoretical claims. Interestingly, this applies as much to clear cases of perceptual data as to machine produced records. When 19 th and early 20 th century astronomers looked through telescopes and pushed buttons to record the time at which they saw a star pass a crosshair, the values of their data points depended, not only upon light from that star, but also upon features of perceptual processes, reaction times, and other psychological factors that varied from observer to observer. No astronomical theory has the resources to take such things into account.

Instead of testing theoretical claims by direct comparison to the data initially collected, investigators use data to infer facts about phenomena, i.e., events, regularities, processes, etc. whose instances are uniform and uncomplicated enough to make them susceptible to systematic prediction and explanation (Bogen and Woodward 1988, 317). The fact that lead melts at temperatures at or close to 327.5 C is an example of a phenomenon, as are widespread regularities among electrical quantities involved in the action potential, the motions of astronomical bodies, etc. Theories that cannot be expected to predict or explain such things as individual temperature readings can nevertheless be evaluated on the basis of how useful they are in predicting or explaining phenomena. The same holds for the action potential as opposed to the electrical data from which its features are calculated, and the motions of astronomical bodies in contrast to the data of observational astronomy. It is reasonable to ask a genetic theory how probable it is (given similar upbringings in similar environments) that the offspring of a parent or parents diagnosed with alcohol use disorder will develop one or more symptoms the DSM classifies as indicative of alcohol use disorder. But it would be quite unreasonable to ask the genetic theory to predict or explain one patient’s numerical score on one trial of a particular diagnostic test, or why a diagnostician wrote a particular entry in her report of an interview with an offspring of one of such parents (see Bogen and Woodward, 1988, 319–326).

Leonelli has challenged Bogen and Woodward’s (1988) claim that data are, as she puts it, “unavoidably embedded in one experimental context” (2009, 738). She argues that when data are suitably packaged, they can travel to new epistemic contexts and retain epistemic utility—it is not just claims about the phenomena that can travel, data travel too. Preparing data for safe travel involves work, and by tracing data ‘journeys,’ philosophers can learn about how the careful labor of researchers, data archivists, and database curators can facilitate useful data mobility. While Leonelli’s own work has often focused on data in biology, Leonelli and Tempini (2020) contains many diverse case studies of data journeys from a variety of scientific disciplines that will be of value to philosophers interested in the methodology and epistemology of science in practice.

The fact that theories typically predict and explain features of phenomena rather than idiosyncratic data should not be interpreted as a failing. For many purposes, this is the more useful and illuminating capacity. Suppose you could choose between a theory that predicted or explained the way in which neurotransmitter release relates to neuronal spiking (e.g., the fact that on average, transmitters are released roughly once for every 10 spikes) and a theory which explained or predicted the numbers displayed on the relevant experimental equipment in one, or a few single cases. For most purposes, the former theory would be preferable to the latter at the very least because it applies to so many more cases. And similarly for theories that predict or explain something about the probability of alcohol use disorder conditional on some genetic factor or a theory that predicted or explained the probability of faulty diagnoses of alcohol use disorder conditional on facts about the training that psychiatrists receive. For most purposes, these would be preferable to a theory that predicted specific descriptions in a single particular case history.

However, there are circumstances in which scientists do want to explain data. In empirical research it is often crucial to getting a useful signal that scientists deal with sources of background noise and confounding signals. This is part of the long road from newly collected data to useful empirical results. An important step on the way to eliminating unwanted noise or confounds is to determine their sources. Different sources of noise can have different characteristics that can be derived from and explained by theory. Consider the difference between ‘shot noise’ and ‘thermal noise,’ two ubiquitous sources of noise in precision electronics (Schottky 1918; Nyquist 1928; Horowitz and Hill 2015). ‘Shot noise’ arises in virtue of the discrete nature of a signal. For instance, light collected by a detector does not arrive all at once or in perfectly continuous fashion. Photons rain onto a detector shot by shot on account of being quanta. Imagine building up an image one photon at a time—at first the structure of the image is barely recognizable, but after the arrival of many photons, the image eventually fills in. In fact, the contribution of noise of this type goes as the square root of the signal. By contrast, thermal noise is due to non-zero temperature—thermal fluctuations cause a small current to flow in any circuit. If you cool your instrument (which very many precision experiments in physics do) then you can decrease thermal noise. Cooling the detector is not going to change the quantum nature of photons though. Simply collecting more photons will improve the signal to noise ratio with respect to shot noise. Thus, determining what kind of noise is affecting one’s data, i.e. explaining features of the data themselves that are idiosyncratic to the particular instruments and conditions prevailing during a specific instance of data collection, can be critical to eventually generating a dataset that can be used to answer questions about phenomena of interest. In using data that require statistical analysis, it is particularly clear that “empirical assumptions about the factors influencing the measurement results may be used to motivate the assumption of a particular error distribution”, which can be crucial for justifying the application of methods of analysis (Woodward 2011, 173).

There are also circumstances in which scientists want to provide a substantive, detailed explanation for a particular idiosyncratic datum, and even circumstances in which procuring such explanations is epistemically imperative. Ignoring outliers without good epistemic reasons is just cherry-picking data, one of the canonical ‘questionable research practices.’ Allan Franklin has described Robert Millikan’s convenient exclusion of data he collected from observing the second oil drop in his experiments of April 16, 1912 (1986, 231). When Millikan initially recorded the data for this drop, his notebooks indicate that he was satisfied his apparatus was working properly and that the experiment was running well—he wrote “Publish” next to the data in his lab notebook. However, after he had later calculated the value for the fundamental electric charge that these data yielded, and found it aberrant with respect to the values he calculated using data collected from other good observing sessions, he changed his mind, writing “Won’t work” next to the calculation (ibid., see also Woodward 2010, 794). Millikan not only never published this result, he never published why he failed to publish it. When data are excluded from analysis, there ought to be some explanation justifying their omission over and above lack of agreement with the experimenters’ expectations. Precisely because they are outliers, some data require specific, detailed, idiosyncratic causal explanations. Indeed, it is often in virtue of those very explanations that outliers can be responsibly rejected. Some explanation of data rejected as ‘spurious’ is required. Otherwise, scientists risk biasing their own work.

Thus, while in transforming data as collected into something useful for learning about phenomena, scientists often account for features of the data such as different types of noise contributions, and sometimes even explain the odd outlying data point or artifact, they simply do not explain every individual teensy tiny causal contribution to the exact character of a data set or datum in full detail. This is because scientists can neither discover such causal minutia nor would their invocation be necessary for typical research questions. The fact that it may sometimes be important for scientists to provide detailed explanations of data, and not just claims about phenomena inferred from data, should not be confused with the dubious claim that scientists could ‘in principle’ detail every causal quirk that contributed to some data (Woodward 2010; 2011).

In view of all of this, together with the fact that a great many theoretical claims can only be tested directly against facts about phenomena, it behooves epistemologists to think about how data are used to answer questions about phenomena. Lacking space for a detailed discussion, the most this entry can do is to mention two main kinds of things investigators do in order to draw conclusions from data. The first is causal analysis carried out with or without the use of statistical techniques. The second is non-causal statistical analysis.

First, investigators must distinguish features of the data that are indicative of facts about the phenomenon of interest from those which can safely be ignored, and those which must be corrected for. Sometimes background knowledge makes this easy. Under normal circumstances investigators know that their thermometers are sensitive to temperature, and their pressure gauges, to pressure. An astronomer or a chemist who knows what spectrographic equipment does, and what she has applied it to will know what her data indicate. Sometimes it is less obvious. When Santiago Ramón y Cajal looked through his microscope at a thin slice of stained nerve tissue, he had to figure out which, if any, of the fibers he could see at one focal length connected to or extended from things he could see only at another focal length, or in another slice. Analogous considerations apply to quantitative data. It was easy for Katz to tell when his equipment was responding more to Hill’s footfalls on the stairs than to the electrical quantities it was set up to measure. It can be harder to tell whether an abrupt jump in the amplitude of a high frequency EEG oscillation was due to a feature of the subjects brain activity or an artifact of extraneous electrical activity in the laboratory or operating room where the measurements were made. The answers to questions about which features of numerical and non-numerical data are indicative of a phenomenon of interest typically depend at least in part on what is known about the causes that conspire to produce the data.

Statistical arguments are often used to deal with questions about the influence of epistemically relevant causal factors. For example, when it is known that similar data can be produced by factors that have nothing to do with the phenomenon of interest, Monte Carlo simulations, regression analyses of sample data, and a variety of other statistical techniques sometimes provide investigators with their best chance of deciding how seriously to take a putatively illuminating feature of their data.

But statistical techniques are also required for purposes other than causal analysis. To calculate the magnitude of a quantity like the melting point of lead from a scatter of numerical data, investigators throw out outliers, calculate the mean and the standard deviation, etc., and establish confidence and significance levels. Regression and other techniques are applied to the results to estimate how far from the mean the magnitude of interest can be expected to fall in the population of interest (e.g., the range of temperatures at which pure samples of lead can be expected to melt).

The fact that little can be learned from data without causal, statistical, and related argumentation has interesting consequences for received ideas about how the use of observational evidence distinguishes science from pseudoscience, religion, and other non-scientific cognitive endeavors. First, scientists are not the only ones who use observational evidence to support their claims; astrologers and medical quacks use them too. To find epistemically significant differences, one must carefully consider what sorts of data they use, where it comes from, and how it is employed. The virtues of scientific as opposed to non-scientific theory evaluations depend not only on its reliance on empirical data, but also on how the data are produced, analyzed and interpreted to draw conclusions against which theories can be evaluated. Secondly, it does not take many examples to refute the notion that adherence to a single, universally applicable ‘scientific method’ differentiates the sciences from the non-sciences. Data are produced, and used in far too many different ways to treat informatively as instances of any single method. Thirdly, it is usually, if not always, impossible for investigators to draw conclusions to test theories against observational data without explicit or implicit reliance on theoretical resources.

Bokulich (2020) has helpfully outlined a taxonomy of various ways in which data can be model-laden to increase their epistemic utility. She focuses on seven categories: data conversion, data correction, data interpolation, data scaling, data fusion, data assimilation, and synthetic data. Of these categories, conversion and correction are perhaps the most familiar. Bokulich reminds us that even in the case of reading a temperature from an ordinary mercury thermometer, we are ‘converting’ the data as measured, which in this case is the height of the column of mercury, to a temperature (ibid., 795). In more complicated cases, such as processing the arrival times of acoustic signals in seismic reflection measurements to yield values for subsurface depth, data conversion may involve models (ibid.). In this example, models of the composition and geometry of the subsurface are needed in order to account for differences in the speed of sound in different materials. Data ‘correction’ involves common practices we have already discussed like modeling and mathematically subtracting background noise contributions from one’s dataset (ibid., 796). Bokulich rightly points out that involving models in these ways routinely improves the epistemic uses to which data can be put. Data interpolation, scaling, and ‘fusion’ are also relatively widespread practices that deserve further philosophical analysis. Interpolation involves filling in missing data in a patchy data set, under the guidance of models. Data are scaled when they have been generated in a particular scale (temporal, spatial, energy) and modeling assumptions are recruited to transform them to apply at another scale. Data are ‘fused,’ in Bokulich’s terminology, when data collected in diverse contexts, using diverse methods are combined, or integrated together. For instance, when data from ice cores, tree rings, and the historical logbooks of sea captains are merged into a joint climate dataset. Scientists must take care in combining data of diverse provenance, and model new uncertainties arising from the very amalgamation of datasets (ibid., 800).

Bokulich contrasts ‘synthetic data’ with what she calls ‘real data’ (ibid., 801–802). Synthetic data are virtual, or simulated data, and are not produced by physical interaction with worldly research targets. Bokulich emphasizes the role that simulated data can usefully play in testing and troubleshooting aspects of data processing that are to eventually be deployed on empirical data (ibid., 802). It can be incredibly useful for developing and stress-testing a data processing pipeline to have fake datasets whose characteristics are already known in virtue of having been produced by the researchers, and being available for their inspection at will. When the characteristics of a dataset are known, or indeed can be tailored according to need, the effects of new processing methods can be more readily traced than without. In this way, researchers can familiarize themselves with the effects of a data processing pipeline, and make adjustments to that pipeline in light of what they learn by feeding fake data through it, before attempting to use that pipeline on actual science data. Such investigations can be critical to eventually arguing for the credibility of the final empirical results and their appropriate interpretation and use.

Data assimilation is perhaps a less widely appreciated aspect of model-based data processing among philosophers of science, excepting Parker (2016; 2017). Bokulich characterizes this method as “the optimal integration of data with dynamical model estimates to provide a more accurate ‘assimilation estimate’ of the quantity” (2020, 800). Thus, data assimilation involves balancing the contributions of empirical data and the output of models in an integrated estimate, according to the uncertainties associated with these contributions.

Bokulich argues that the involvement of models in these various aspects of data processing does not necessarily lead to better epistemic outcomes. Done wrong, integrating models and data can introduce artifacts and make the processed data unreliable for the purpose at hand (ibid., 804). Indeed, she notes that “[t]here is much work for methodologically reflective scientists and philosophers of science to do in string out cases in which model-data symbiosis may be problematic or circular” (ibid.)

3. Theory and value ladenness

Empirical results are laden with values and theoretical commitments. Philosophers have raised and appraised several possible kinds of epistemic problems that could be associated with theory and/or value-laden empirical results. They have worried about the extent to which human perception itself is distorted by our commitments. They have worried that drawing upon theoretical resources from the very theory to be appraised (or its competitors) in the generation of empirical results yields vicious circularity (or inconsistency). They have also worried that contingent conceptual and/or linguistic frameworks trap bits of evidence like bees in amber so that they cannot carry on their epistemic lives outside of the contexts of their origination, and that normative values necessarily corrupt the integrity of science. Do the theory and value-ladenness of empirical results render them hopelessly parochial? That is, when scientists leave theoretical commitments behind and adopt new ones, must they also relinquish the fruits of the empirical research imbued with their prior commitments too? In this section, we discuss these worries and responses that philosophers have offered to assuage them.

If you believe that observation by human sense perception is the objective basis of all scientific knowledge, then you ought to be particularly worried about the potential for human perception to be corrupted by theoretical assumptions, wishful thinking, framing effects, and so on. Daston and Galison recount the striking example of Arthur Worthington’s symmetrical milk drops (2007, 11–16). Working in 1875, Worthington investigated the hydrodynamics of falling fluid droplets and their evolution upon impacting a hard surface. At first, he had tried to carefully track the drop dynamics with a strobe light to burn a sequence of images into his own retinas. The images he drew to record what he saw were radially symmetric, with rays of the drop splashes emanating evenly from the center of the impact. However, when Worthington transitioned from using his eyes and capacity to draw from memory to using photography in 1894, he was shocked to find that the kind of splashes he had been observing were irregular splats (ibid., 13). Even curiouser, when Worthington returned to his drawings, he found that he had indeed recorded some unsymmetrical splashes. He had evidently dismissed them as uninformative accidents instead of regarding them as revelatory of the phenomenon he was intent on studying (ibid.) In attempting to document the ideal form of the splashes, a general and regular form, he had subconsciously down-played the irregularity of individual splashes. If theoretical commitments, like Worthington’s initial commitment to the perfect symmetry of the physics he was studying, pervasively and incorrigibly dictated the results of empirical inquiry, then the epistemic aims of science would be seriously undermined.

Perceptual psychologists, Bruner and Postman, found that subjects who were briefly shown anomalous playing cards, e.g., a black four of hearts, reported having seen their normal counterparts e.g., a red four of hearts. It took repeated exposures to get subjects to say the anomalous cards didn’t look right, and eventually, to describe them correctly (Kuhn 1962, 63). Kuhn took such studies to indicate that things don’t look the same to observers with different conceptual resources. (For a more up-to-date discussion of theory and conceptual perceptual loading see Lupyan 2015.) If so, black hearts didn’t look like black hearts until repeated exposures somehow allowed subjects to acquire the concept of a black heart. By analogy, Kuhn supposed, when observers working in conflicting paradigms look at the same thing, their conceptual limitations should keep them from having the same visual experiences (Kuhn 1962, 111, 113–114, 115, 120–1). This would mean, for example, that when Priestley and Lavoisier watched the same experiment, Lavoisier should have seen what accorded with his theory that combustion and respiration are oxidation processes, while Priestley’s visual experiences should have agreed with his theory that burning and respiration are processes of phlogiston release.

The example of Pettersson’s and Rutherford’s scintillation screen evidence (above) attests to the fact that observers working in different laboratories sometimes report seeing different things under similar conditions. It is plausible that their expectations influence their reports. It is plausible that their expectations are shaped by their training and by their supervisors’ and associates’ theory driven behavior. But as happens in other cases as well, all parties to the dispute agreed to reject Pettersson’s data by appealing to results that both laboratories could obtain and interpret in the same way without compromising their theoretical commitments. Indeed, it is possible for scientists to share empirical results, not just across diverse laboratory cultures, but even across serious differences in worldview. Much as they disagreed about the nature of respiration and combustion, Priestley and Lavoisier gave quantitatively similar reports of how long their mice stayed alive and their candles kept burning in closed bell jars. Priestley taught Lavoisier how to obtain what he took to be measurements of the phlogiston content of an unknown gas. A sample of the gas to be tested is run into a graduated tube filled with water and inverted over a water bath. After noting the height of the water remaining in the tube, the observer adds “nitrous air” (we call it nitric oxide) and checks the water level again. Priestley, who thought there was no such thing as oxygen, believed the change in water level indicated how much phlogiston the gas contained. Lavoisier reported observing the same water levels as Priestley even after he abandoned phlogiston theory and became convinced that changes in water level indicated free oxygen content (Conant 1957, 74–109).

A related issue is that of salience. Kuhn claimed that if Galileo and an Aristotelian physicist had watched the same pendulum experiment, they would not have looked at or attended to the same things. The Aristotelian’s paradigm would have required the experimenter to measure

… the weight of the stone, the vertical height to which it had been raised, and the time required for it to achieve rest (Kuhn 1962, 123)

and ignore radius, angular displacement, and time per swing (ibid., 124). These last were salient to Galileo because he treated pendulum swings as constrained circular motions. The Galilean quantities would be of no interest to an Aristotelian who treats the stone as falling under constraint toward the center of the earth (ibid., 123). Thus Galileo and the Aristotelian would not have collected the same data. (Absent records of Aristotelian pendulum experiments we can think of this as a thought experiment.)

Interests change, however. Scientists may eventually come to appreciate the significance of data that had not originally been salient to them in light of new presuppositions. The moral of these examples is that although paradigms or theoretical commitments sometimes have an epistemically significant influence on what observers perceive or what they attend to, it can be relatively easy to nullify or correct for their effects. When presuppositions cause epistemic damage, investigators are often able to eventually make corrections. Thus, paradigms and theoretical commitments actually do influence saliency, but their influence is neither inevitable nor irremediable.

Thomas Kuhn (1962), Norwood Hanson (1958), Paul Feyerabend (1959) and others cast suspicion on the objectivity of observational evidence in another way by arguing that one cannot use empirical evidence to test a theory without committing oneself to that very theory. This would be a problem if it leads to dogmatism but assuming the theory to be tested is often benign and even necessary.

For instance, Laymon (1988) demonstrates the manner in which the very theory that the Michelson-Morley experiments are considered to test is assumed in the experimental design, but that this does not engender deleterious epistemic effects (250). The Michelson-Morley apparatus consists of two interferometer arms at right angles to one another, which are rotated in the course of the experiment so that, on the original construal, the path length traversed by light in the apparatus would vary according to alignment with or against the Earth’s velocity (carrying the apparatus) with respect to the stationary aether. This difference in path length would show up as displacement in the interference fringes of light in the interferometer. Although Michelson’s intention had been to measure the velocity of the Earth with respect to the all-pervading aether, the experiments eventually came to be regarded as furnishing tests of the Fresnel aether theory itself. In particular, the null results of these experiments were taken as evidence against the existence of the aether. Naively, one might suppose that whatever assumptions were made in the calculation of the results of these experiments, it should not be the case that the theory under the gun was assumed nor that its negation was.

Before Michelson’s experiments, the Fresnel aether theory did not predict any sort of length contraction. Although Michelson assumed no contraction in the arms of the interferometer, Laymon argues that he could have assumed contraction, with no practical impact on the results of the experiments. The predicted fringe shift is calculated from the anticipated difference in the distance traveled by light in the two arms is the same, when higher order terms are neglected. Thus, in practice, the experimenters could assume either that the contraction thesis was true or that it was false when determining the length of the arms. Either way, the results of the experiment would be the same. After Michelson’s experiments returned no evidence of the anticipated aether effects, Lorentz-Fitzgerald contraction was postulated precisely to cancel out the expected (but not found) effects and save the aether theory. Morley and Miller then set out specifically to test the contraction thesis, and still assumed no contraction in determining the length of the arms of their interferometer (ibid., 253). Thus Laymon argues that the Michelson-Morley experiments speak against the tempting assumption that “appraisal of a theory is based on phenomena which can be detected and measured without using assumptions drawn from the theory under examination or from competitors to that theory ” (ibid., 246).

Epistemological hand-wringing about the use of the very theory to be tested in the generation of the evidence to be used for testing, seems to spring primarily from a concern about vicious circularity. How can we have a genuine trial, if the theory in question has been presumed innocent from the outset? While it is true that there would be a serious epistemic problem in a case where the use of the theory to be tested conspired to guarantee that the evidence would turn out to be confirmatory, this is not always the case when theories are invoked in their own testing. Woodward (2011) summarizes a tidy case:

For example, in Millikan’s oil drop experiment, the mere fact that theoretical assumptions (e.g., that the charge of the electron is quantized and that all electrons have the same charge) play a role in motivating his measurements or a vocabulary for describing his results does not by itself show that his design and data analysis were of such a character as to guarantee that he would obtain results supporting his theoretical assumptions. His experiment was such that he might well have obtained results showing that the charge of the electron was not quantized or that there was no single stable value for this quantity. (178)

For any given case, determining whether the theoretical assumptions being made are benign or straight-jacketing the results that it will be possible to obtain will require investigating the particular relationships between the assumptions and results in that case. When data production and analysis processes are complicated, this task can get difficult. But the point is that merely noting the involvement of the theory to be tested in the generation of empirical results does not by itself imply that those results cannot be objectively useful for deciding whether the theory to be tested should be accepted or rejected.

Kuhn argued that theoretical commitments exert a strong influence on observation descriptions, and what they are understood to mean (Kuhn 1962, 127ff; Longino 1979, 38–42). If so, proponents of a caloric account of heat won’t describe or understand descriptions of observed results of heat experiments in the same way as investigators who think of heat in terms of mean kinetic energy or radiation. They might all use the same words (e.g., ‘temperature’) to report an observation without understanding them in the same way. This poses a potential problem for communicating effectively across paradigms, and similarly, for attributing the appropriate significance to empirical results generated outside of one’s own linguistic framework.

It is important to bear in mind that observers do not always use declarative sentences to report observational and experimental results. Instead, they often draw, photograph, make audio recordings, etc. or set up their experimental devices to generate graphs, pictorial images, tables of numbers, and other non-sentential records. Obviously investigators’ conceptual resources and theoretical biases can exert epistemically significant influences on what they record (or set their equipment to record), which details they include or emphasize, and which forms of representation they choose (Daston and Galison 2007, 115–190, 309–361). But disagreements about the epistemic import of a graph, picture or other non-sentential bit of data often turn on causal rather than semantical considerations. Anatomists may have to decide whether a dark spot in a micrograph was caused by a staining artifact or by light reflected from an anatomically significant structure. Physicists may wonder whether a blip in a Geiger counter record reflects the causal influence of the radiation they wanted to monitor, or a surge in ambient radiation. Chemists may worry about the purity of samples used to obtain data. Such questions are not, and are not well represented as, semantic questions to which semantic theory loading is relevant. Late 20 th century philosophers may have ignored such cases and exaggerated the influence of semantic theory loading because they thought of theory testing in terms of inferential relations between observation and theoretical sentences.

Nevertheless, some empirical results are reported as declarative sentences. Looking at a patient with red spots and a fever, an investigator might report having seen the spots, or measles symptoms, or a patient with measles. Watching an unknown liquid dripping into a litmus solution an observer might report seeing a change in color, a liquid with a PH of less than 7, or an acid. The appropriateness of a description of a test outcome depends on how the relevant concepts are operationalized. What justifies an observer to report having observed a case of measles according to one operationalization might require her to say no more than that she had observed measles symptoms, or just red spots according to another.

In keeping with Percy Bridgman’s view that

… in general, we mean by a concept nothing more than a set of operations; the concept is synonymous with the corresponding sets of operations (Bridgman 1927, 5)

one might suppose that operationalizations are definitions or meaning rules such that it is analytically true, e.g., that every liquid that turns litmus red in a properly conducted test is acidic. But it is more faithful to actual scientific practice to think of operationalizations as defeasible rules for the application of a concept such that both the rules and their applications are subject to revision on the basis of new empirical or theoretical developments. So understood, to operationalize is to adopt verbal and related practices for the purpose of enabling scientists to do their work. Operationalizations are thus sensitive and subject to change on the basis of findings that influence their usefulness (Feest 2005).

Definitional or not, investigators in different research traditions may be trained to report their observations in conformity with conflicting operationalizations. Thus instead of training observers to describe what they see in a bubble chamber as a whitish streak or a trail, one might train them to say they see a particle track or even a particle. This may reflect what Kuhn meant by suggesting that some observers might be justified or even required to describe themselves as having seen oxygen, transparent and colorless though it is, or atoms, invisible though they are (Kuhn 1962, 127ff). To the contrary, one might object that what one sees should not be confused with what one is trained to say when one sees it, and therefore that talking about seeing a colorless gas or an invisible particle may be nothing more than a picturesque way of talking about what certain operationalizations entitle observers to say. Strictly speaking, the objection concludes, the term ‘observation report’ should be reserved for descriptions that are neutral with respect to conflicting operationalizations.

If observational data are just those utterances that meet Feyerabend’s decidability and agreeability conditions, the import of semantic theory loading depends upon how quickly, and for which sentences reasonably sophisticated language users who stand in different paradigms can non-inferentially reach the same decisions about what to assert or deny. Some would expect enough agreement to secure the objectivity of observational data. Others would not. Still others would try to supply different standards for objectivity.

With regard to sentential observation reports, the significance of semantic theory loading is less ubiquitous than one might expect. The interpretation of verbal reports often depends on ideas about causal structure rather than the meanings of signs. Rather than worrying about the meaning of words used to describe their observations, scientists are more likely to wonder whether the observers made up or withheld information, whether one or more details were artifacts of observation conditions, whether the specimens were atypical, and so on.

Note that the worry about semantic theory loading extends beyond observation reports of the sort that occupied the logical empiricists and their close intellectual descendents. Combining results of diverse methods for making proxy measurements of paleoclimate temperatures in an epistemically responsible way requires careful attention to the variety of operationalizations at play. Even if no ‘observation reports’ are involved, the sticky question about how to usefully merge results obtained in different ways in order to satisfy one’s epistemic aims remains. Happily, the remedy for the worry about semantic loading in this broader sense is likely to be the same—investigating the provenance of those results and comparing the variety of factors that have contributed to their causal production.

Kuhn placed too much emphasis on the discontinuity between evidence generated in different paradigms. Even if we accept a broadly Kuhnian picture, according to which paradigms are heterogeneous collections of experimental practices, theoretical principles, problems selected for investigation, approaches to their solution, etc., connections between components are loose enough to allow investigators who disagree profoundly over one or more theoretical claims to nevertheless agree about how to design, execute, and record the results of their experiments. That is why neuroscientists who disagreed about whether nerve impulses consisted of electrical currents could measure the same electrical quantities, and agree on the linguistic meaning and the accuracy of observation reports including such terms as ‘potential’, ‘resistance’, ‘voltage’ and ‘current’. As we discussed above, the success that scientists have in repurposing results generated by others for different purposes speaks against the confinement of evidence to its native paradigm. Even when scientists working with radically different core theoretical commitments cannot make the same measurements themselves, with enough contextual information about how each conducts research, it can be possible to construct bridges that span the theoretical divides.

One could worry that the intertwining of the theoretical and empirical would open the floodgates to bias in science. Human cognizing, both historical and present day, is replete with disturbing commitments including intolerance and narrow mindedness of many sorts. If such commitments are integral to a theoretical framework, or endemic to the reasoning of a scientist or scientific community, then they threaten to corrupt the epistemic utility of empirical results generated using their resources. The core impetus of the ‘value-free ideal’ is to maintain a safe distance between the appraisal of scientific theories according to the evidence on one hand, and the swarm of moral, political, social, and economic values on the other. While proponents of the value-free ideal might admit that the motivation to pursue a theory or the legal protection of human subjects in permissible experimental methods involve non-epistemic values, they would contend that such values ought not ought not enter into the constitution of empirical results themselves, nor the adjudication or justification of scientific theorizing in light of the evidence (see Intemann 2021, 202).

As a matter of fact, values do enter into science at a variety of stages. Above we saw that ‘theory-ladenness’ could refer to the involvement of theory in perception, in semantics, and in a kind of circularity that some have worried begets unfalsifiability and thereby dogmatism. Like theory-ladenness, values can and sometimes do affect judgments about the salience of certain evidence and the conceptual framing of data. Indeed, on a permissive construal of the nature of theories, values can simply be understood as part of a theoretical framework. Intemann (2021) highlights a striking example from medical research where key conceptual resources include notions like ‘harm,’ ‘risk,’ ‘health benefit,’ and ‘safety.’ She refers to research on the comparative safety of giving birth at home and giving birth at a hospital for low-risk parents in the United States. Studies reporting that home births are less safe typically attend to infant and birthing parent mortality rates—which are low for these subjects whether at home or in hospital—but leave out of consideration rates of c-section and episiotomy, which are both relatively high in hospital settings. Thus, a value-laden decision about whether a possible outcome counts as a harm worth considering can influence the outcome of the study—in this case tipping the balance towards the conclusion that hospital births are more safe (ibid., 206).

Note that the birth safety case differs from the sort of cases at issue in the philosophical debate about risk and thresholds for acceptance and rejection of hypotheses. In accepting an hypothesis, a person makes a judgement that the risk of being mistaken is sufficiently low (Rudner 1953). When the consequences of being wrong are deemed grave, the threshold for acceptance may be correspondingly high. Thus, in evaluating the epistemic status of an hypothesis in light of the evidence, a person may have to make a value-based judgement. However, in the birth safety case, the judgement comes into play at an earlier stage, well before the decision to accept or reject the hypothesis is to be made. The judgement occurs already in deciding what is to count as a ‘harm’ worth considering for the purposes of this research.

The fact that values do sometimes enter into scientific reasoning does not by itself settle the question of whether it would be better if they did not. In order to assess the normative proposal, philosophers of science have attempted to disambiguate the various ways in which values might be thought to enter into science, and the various referents that get crammed under the single heading of ‘values.’ Anderson (2004) articulates eight stages of scientific research where values (‘evaluative presuppositions’) might be employed in epistemically fruitful ways. In paraphrase: 1) orientation in a field, 2) framing a research question, 3) conceptualizing the target, 4) identifying relevant data, 5) data generation, 6) data analysis, 7) deciding when to cease data analysis, and 8) drawing conclusions (Anderson 2004, 11). Similarly, Intemann (2021) lays out five ways “that values play a role in scientific reasoning” with which feminist philosophers of science have engaged in particular:

(1) the framing [of] research problems, (2) observing phenomena and describing data, (3) reasoning about value-laden concepts and assessing risks, (4) adopting particular models, and (5) collecting and interpreting evidence. (208)

Ward (2021) presents a streamlined and general taxonomy of four ways in which values relate to choices: as reasons motivating or justifying choices, as causal effectors of choices, or as goods affected by choices. By investigating the role of values in these particular stages or aspects of research, philosophers of science can offer higher resolution insights than just the observation that values are involved in science at all and untangle crosstalk.

Similarly, fine points can be made about the nature of values involved in these various contexts. Such clarification is likely important for determining whether the contribution of certain values in a given context is deleterious or salutary, and in what sense. Douglas (2013) argues that the ‘value’ of internal consistency of a theory and of the empirical adequacy of a theory with respect to the available evidence are minimal criteria for any viable scientific theory (799–800). She contrasts these with the sort of values that Kuhn called ‘virtues,’ i.e. scope, simplicity, and explanatory power that are properties of theories themselves, and unification, novel prediction and precision, which are properties a theory has in relation to a body of evidence (800–801). These are the sort of values that may be relevant to explaining and justifying choices that scientists make to pursue/abandon or accept/reject particular theories. Moreover, Douglas (2000) argues that what she calls “non-epistemic values” (in particular, ethical value judgements) also enter into decisions at various stages “internal” to scientific reasoning, such as data collection and interpretation (565). Consider a laboratory toxicology study in which animals exposed to dioxins are compared to unexposed controls. Douglas discusses researchers who want to determine the threshold for safe exposure. Admitting false positives can be expected to lead to overregulation of the chemical industry, while false negatives yield underregulation and thus pose greater risk to public health. The decision about where to set the unsafe exposure threshold, that is, set the threshold for a statistically significant difference between experimental and control animal populations, involves balancing the acceptability of these two types of errors. According to Douglas, this balancing act will depend on “whether we are more concerned about protecting public health from dioxin pollution or whether we are more concerned about protecting industries that produce dioxins from increased regulation” (ibid., 568). That scientists do as a matter of fact sometimes make such decisions is clear. They judge, for instance, a specimen slide of a rat liver to be tumorous or not, and whether borderline cases should count as benign or malignant (ibid., 569–572). Moreover, in such cases, it is not clear that the responsibility of making such decisions could be offloaded to non-scientists.

Many philosophers accept that values can contribute to the generation of empirical results without spoiling their epistemic utility. Anderson’s (2004) diagnosis is as follows:

Deep down, what the objectors find worrisome about allowing value judgments to guide scientific inquiry is not that they have evaluative content, but that these judgments might be held dogmatically, so as to preclude the recognition of evidence that might undermine them. We need to ensure that value judgements do not operate to drive inquiry to a predetermined conclusion. This is our fundamental criterion for distinguishing legitimate from illegitimate uses of values in science. (11)

Data production (including experimental design and execution) is heavily influenced by investigators’ background assumptions. Sometimes these include theoretical commitments that lead experimentalists to produce non-illuminating or misleading evidence. In other cases they may lead experimentalists to ignore, or even fail to produce useful evidence. For example, in order to obtain data on orgasms in female stumptail macaques, one researcher wired up females to produce radio records of orgasmic muscle contractions, heart rate increases, etc. But as Elisabeth Lloyd reports, “… the researcher … wired up the heart rate of the male macaques as the signal to start recording the female orgasms. When I pointed out that the vast majority of female stumptail orgasms occurred during sex among the females alone, he replied that yes he knew that, but he was only interested in important orgasms” (Lloyd 1993, 142). Although female stumptail orgasms occurring during sex with males are atypical, the experimental design was driven by the assumption that what makes features of female sexuality worth studying is their contribution to reproduction (ibid., 139). This assumption influenced experimental design in such a way as to preclude learning about the full range of female stumptail orgasms.

Anderson (2004) presents an influential analysis of the role of values in research on divorce. Researchers committed to an interpretive framework rooted in ‘traditional family values’ could conduct research on the assumption that divorce is mostly bad for spouses and any children that they have (ibid., 12). This background assumption, which is rooted in a normative appraisal of a certain model of good family life, could lead social science researchers to restrict the questions with which they survey their research subjects to ones about the negative impacts of divorce on their lives, thereby curtailing the possibility of discovering ways that divorce may have actually made the ex-spouses lives better (ibid., 13). This is an example of the influence that values can have on the nature of the results that research ultimately yields, which is epistemically detrimental. In this case, the values in play biased the research outcomes to preclude recognition of countervailing evidence. Anderson argues that the problematic influence of values comes when research “is rigged in advance” to confirm certain hypotheses—when the influence of values amounts to incorrigible dogmatism (ibid., 19). “Dogmatism” in her sense is unfalsifiability in practice, “their stubbornness in the face of any conceivable evidence”(ibid., 22).

Fortunately, such dogmatism is not ubiquitous and when it occurs it can often be corrected eventually. Above we noted that the mere involvement of the theory to be tested in the generation of an empirical result does not automatically yield vicious circularity—it depends on how the theory is involved. Furthermore, even if the assumptions initially made in the generation of empirical results are incorrect, future scientists will have opportunities to reassess those assumptions in light of new information and techniques. Thus, as long as scientists continue their work there need be no time at which the epistemic value of an empirical result can be established once and for all. This should come as no surprise to anyone who is aware that science is fallible, but it is no grounds for skepticism. It can be perfectly reasonable to trust the evidence available at present even though it is logically possible for epistemic troubles to arise in the future. A similar point can be made regarding values (although cf. Yap 2016).

Moreover, while the inclusion of values in the generation of an empirical result can sometimes be epistemically bad, values properly deployed can also be harmless, or even epistemically helpful. As in the cases of research on female stumptail macaque orgasms and the effects of divorce, certain values can sometimes serve to illuminate the way in which other epistemically problematic assumptions have hindered potential scientific insight. By valuing knowledge about female sexuality beyond its role in reproduction, scientists can recognize the narrowness of an approach that only conceives of female sexuality insofar as it relates to reproduction. By questioning the absolute value of one traditional ideal for flourishing families, researchers can garner evidence that might end up destabilizing the empirical foundation supporting that ideal.

Empirical results are most obviously put to epistemic work in their contexts of origin. Scientists conceive of empirical research, collect and analyze the relevant data, and then bring the results to bear on the theoretical issues that inspired the research in the first place. However, philosophers have also discussed ways in which empirical results are transferred out of their native contexts and applied in diverse and sometimes unexpected ways (see Leonelli and Tempini 2020). Cases of reuse, or repurposing of empirical results in different epistemic contexts raise several interesting issues for philosophers of science. For one, such cases challenge the assumption that theory (and value) ladenness confines the epistemic utility of empirical results to a particular conceptual framework. Ancient Babylonian eclipse records inscribed on cuneiform tablets have been used to generate constraints on contemporary geophysical theorizing about the causes of the lengthening of the day on Earth (Stephenson, Morrison, and Hohenkerk 2016). This is surprising since the ancient observations were originally recorded for the purpose of making astrological prognostications. Nevertheless, with enough background information, the records as inscribed can be translated, the layers of assumptions baked into their presentation peeled back, and the results repurposed using resources of the contemporary epistemic context, the likes of which the Babylonians could have hardly dreamed.

Furthermore, the potential for reuse and repurposing feeds back on the methodological norms of data production and handling. In light of the difficulty of reusing or repurposing data without sufficient background information about the original context, Goodman et al. (2014) note that “data reuse is most possible when: 1) data; 2) metadata (information describing the data); and 3) information about the process of generating those data, such as code, all all provided” (3). Indeed, they advocate for sharing data and code in addition to results customarily published in science. As we have seen, the loading of data with theory is usually necessary to putting that data to any serious epistemic use—theory-loading makes theory appraisal possible. Philosophers have begun to appreciate that this epistemic boon does not necessarily come at the cost of rendering data “tragically local” (Wylie 2020, 285, quoting Latour 1999). But it is important to note the useful travel of data between contexts is significantly aided by foresight, curation, and management for that aim.

In light of the mediated nature of empirical results, Boyd (2018) argues for an “enriched view of evidence,” in which the evidence that serves as the ‘tribunal of experience’ is understood to be “lines of evidence” composed of the products of data collection and all of the products of their transformation on the way to the generation of empirical results that are ultimately compared to theoretical predictions, considered together with metadata associated with their provenance. Such metadata includes information about theoretical assumptions that are made in data collection, processing, and the presentation of empirical results. Boyd argues that by appealing to metadata to ‘rewind’ the processing of assumption-imbued empirical results and then by re-processing them using new resources, the epistemic utility of empirical evidence can survive transitions to new contexts. Thus, the enriched view of evidence supports the idea that it is not despite the intertwining of the theoretical and empirical that scientists accomplish key epistemic aims, but often in virtue of it (ibid., 420). In addition, it makes the epistemic value of metadata encoding the various assumptions that have been made throughout the course of data collection and processing explicit.

The desirability of explicitly furnishing empirical data and results with auxiliary information that allow them to travel can be appreciated in light of the ‘objectivity’ norm, construed as accessibility to interpersonal scrutiny. When data are repurposed in novel contexts, they are not only shared between subjects, but can in some cases be shared across radically different paradigms with incompatible theoretical commitments.

4. The epistemic value of empirical evidence

One of the important applications of empirical evidence is its use in assessing the epistemic status of scientific theories. In this section we briefly discuss philosophical work on the role of empirical evidence in confirmation/falsification of scientific theories, ‘saving the phenomena,’ and in appraising the empirical adequacy of theories. However, further philosophical work ought to explore the variety of ways that empirical results bear on the epistemic status of theories and theorizing in scientific practice beyond these.

It is natural to think that computability, range of application, and other things being equal, true theories are better than false ones, good approximations are better than bad ones, and highly probable theoretical claims are better than less probable ones. One way to decide whether a theory or a theoretical claim is true, close to the truth, or acceptably probable is to derive predictions from it and use empirical data to evaluate them. Hypothetico-Deductive (HD) confirmation theorists proposed that empirical evidence argues for the truth of theories whose deductive consequences it verifies, and against those whose consequences it falsifies (Popper 1959, 32–34). But laws and theoretical generalization seldom if ever entail observational predictions unless they are conjoined with one or more auxiliary hypotheses taken from the theory they belong to. When the prediction turns out to be false, HD has trouble explaining which of the conjuncts is to blame. If a theory entails a true prediction, it will continue to do so in conjunction with arbitrarily selected irrelevant claims. HD has trouble explaining why the prediction does not confirm the irrelevancies along with the theory of interest.

Another approach to confirmation by empirical evidence is Inference to the Best Explanation (IBE). The idea is roughly that an explanation of the evidence that exhibits certain desirable characteristics with respect to a family of candidate explanations is likely to be the true on (Lipton 1991). On this approach, it is in virtue of their successful explanation of the empirical evidence that theoretical claims are supported. Naturally, IBE advocates face the challenges of defending a suitable characterization of what counts as the ‘best’ and of justifying the limited pool of candidate explanations considered (Stanford 2006).

Bayesian approaches to scientific confirmation have garnered significant attention and are now widespread in philosophy of science. Bayesians hold that the evidential bearing of empirical evidence on a theoretical claim is to be understood in terms of likelihood or conditional probability. For example, whether empirical evidence argues for a theoretical claim might be thought to depend upon whether it is more probable (and if so how much more probable) than its denial conditional on a description of the evidence together with background beliefs, including theoretical commitments. But by Bayes’ Theorem, the posterior probability of the claim of interest (that is, its probability given the evidence) is proportional to that claim’s prior probability. How to justify the choice of these prior probability assignments is one of the most notorious points of contention arising for Bayesians. If one makes the assignment of priors a subjective matter decided by epistemic agents, then it is not clear that they can be justified. Once again, one’s use of evidence to evaluate a theory depends in part upon one’s theoretical commitments (Earman 1992, 33–86; Roush 2005, 149–186). If one instead appeals to chains of successive updating using Bayes’ Theorem based on past evidence, one has to invoke assumptions that generally do not obtain in actual scientific reasoning. For instance, to ‘wash out’ the influence of priors a limit theorem is invoked wherein we consider very many updating iterations, but much scientific reasoning of interest does not happen in the limit, and so in practice priors hold unjustified sway (Norton 2021, 33).

Rather than attempting to cast all instances of confirmation based on empirical evidence as belonging to a universal schema, a better approach may be to ‘go local’. Norton’s material theory of induction argues that inductive support arises from background knowledge, that is, from material facts that are domain specific. Norton argues that, for instance, the induction from “Some samples of the element bismuth melt at 271°C” to “all samples of the element bismuth melt at 271°C” is admissible not in virtue of some universal schema that carries us from ‘some’ to ‘all’ but matters of fact (Norton 2003). In this particular case, the fact that licenses the induction is a fact about elements: “their samples are generally uniform in their physical properties” (ibid., 650). This is a fact pertinent to chemical elements, but not to samples of material like wax (ibid.). Thus Norton repeatedly emphasizes that “all induction is local”.

Still, there are those who may be skeptical about the very possibility of confirmation or of successful induction. Insofar as the bearing of evidence on theory is never totally decisive, insofar there is no single trusty universal schema that captures empirical support, perhaps the relationship between empirical evidence and scientific theory is not really about support after all. Giving up on empirical support would not automatically mean abandoning any epistemic value for empirical evidence. Rather than confirm theory, the epistemic role of evidence could be to constrain, for example by furnishing phenomena for theory to systematize or to adequately model.

Theories are said to ‘save’ observable phenomena if they satisfactorily predict, describe, or systematize them. How well a theory performs any of these tasks need not depend upon the truth or accuracy of its basic principles. Thus according to Osiander’s preface to Copernicus’ On the Revolutions , a locus classicus, astronomers “… cannot in any way attain to true causes” of the regularities among observable astronomical events, and must content themselves with saving the phenomena in the sense of using

… whatever suppositions enable … [them] to be computed correctly from the principles of geometry for the future as well as the past … (Osiander 1543, XX)

Theorists are to use those assumptions as calculating tools without committing themselves to their truth. In particular, the assumption that the planets revolve around the sun must be evaluated solely in terms of how useful it is in calculating their observable relative positions to a satisfactory approximation. Pierre Duhem’s Aim and Structure of Physical Theory articulates a related conception. For Duhem a physical theory

… is a system of mathematical propositions, deduced from a small number of principles, which aim to represent as simply and completely, and exactly as possible, a set of experimental laws. (Duhem 1906, 19)

‘Experimental laws’ are general, mathematical descriptions of observable experimental results. Investigators produce them by performing measuring and other experimental operations and assigning symbols to perceptible results according to pre-established operational definitions (Duhem 1906, 19). For Duhem, the main function of a physical theory is to help us store and retrieve information about observables we would not otherwise be able to keep track of. If that is what a theory is supposed to accomplish, its main virtue should be intellectual economy. Theorists are to replace reports of individual observations with experimental laws and devise higher level laws (the fewer, the better) from which experimental laws (the more, the better) can be mathematically derived (Duhem 1906, 21ff).

A theory’s experimental laws can be tested for accuracy and comprehensiveness by comparing them to observational data. Let EL be one or more experimental laws that perform acceptably well on such tests. Higher level laws can then be evaluated on the basis of how well they integrate EL into the rest of the theory. Some data that don’t fit integrated experimental laws won’t be interesting enough to worry about. Other data may need to be accommodated by replacing or modifying one or more experimental laws or adding new ones. If the required additions, modifications or replacements deliver experimental laws that are harder to integrate, the data count against the theory. If the required changes are conducive to improved systematization the data count in favor of it. If the required changes make no difference, the data don’t argue for or against the theory.

On van Fraassen’s (1980) semantic account, a theory is empirically adequate when the empirical structure of at least one model of that theory is isomorphic to what he calls the “appearances” (45). In other words, when the theory “has at least one model that all the actual phenomena fit inside” (12). Thus, for van Fraassen, we continually check the empirical adequacy of our theories by seeing if they have the structural resources to accommodate new observations. We’ll never know that a given theory is totally empirically adequate, since for van Fraassen, empirical adequacy obtains with respect to all that is observable in principle to creatures like us, not all that has already been observed (69).

The primary appeal of dealing in empirical adequacy rather than confirmation is its appropriate epistemic humility. Instead of claiming that confirming evidence justifies belief (or boosted confidence) that a theory is true, one is restricted to saying that the theory continues to be consistent with the evidence as far as we can tell so far. However, if the epistemic utility of empirical results in appraising the status of theories is just to judge their empirical adequacy, then it may be difficult to account for the difference between adequate but unrealistic theories, and those equally adequate theories that ought to be taken seriously as representations. Appealing to extra-empirical virtues like parsimony may be a way out, but one that will not appeal to philosophers skeptical of the connection thereby supposed between such virtues and representational fidelity.

On an earlier way of thinking, observation was to serve as the unmediated foundation of science—direct access to the facts upon which the edifice of scientific knowledge could be built. When conflict arose between factions with different ideological commitments, observations could furnish the material for neutral arbitration and settle the matter objectively, in virtue of being independent of non-empirical commitments. According to this view, scientists working in different paradigms could at least appeal to the same observations, and propagandists could be held accountable to the publicly accessible content of theory and value-free observations. Despite their different theories, Priestley and Lavoisier could find shared ground in the observations. Anti-Semites would be compelled to admit the success of a theory authored by a Jewish physicist, in virtue of the unassailable facts revealed by observation.

This version of empiricism with respect to science does not accord well with the fact that observation per se plays a relatively small role in many actual scientific methodologies, and the fact that even the most ‘raw’ data is often already theoretically imbued. The strict contrast between theory and observation in science is more fruitfully supplanted by inquiry into the relationship between theorizing and empirical results.

Contemporary philosophers of science tend to embrace the theory ladenness of empirical results. Instead of seeing the integration of the theoretical and the empirical as an impediment to furthering scientific knowledge, they see it as necessary. A ‘view from nowhere’ would not bear on our particular theories. That is, it is impossible to put empirical results to use without recruiting some theoretical resources. In order to use an empirical result to constrain or test a theory it has to be processed into a form that can be compared to that theory. To get stellar spectrograms to bear on Newtonian or relativistic cosmology, they need to be processed—into galactic rotation curves, say. The spectrograms by themselves are just artifacts, pieces of paper. Scientists need theoretical resources in order to even identify that such artifacts bear information relevant for their purposes, and certainly to put them to any epistemic use in assessing theories.

This outlook does not render contemporary philosophers of science all constructivists, however. Theory mediates the connection between the target of inquiry and the scientific worldview, it does not sever it. Moreover, vigilance is still required to ensure that the particular ways in which theory is ‘involved’ in the production of empirical results are not epistemically detrimental. Theory can be deployed in experiment design, data processing, and presentation of results in unproductive ways, for instance, in determining whether the results will speak for or against a particular theory regardless of what the world is like. Critical appraisal of the roles of theory is thus important for genuine learning about nature through science. Indeed, it seems that extra-empirical values can sometimes assist such critical appraisal. Instead of viewing observation as the theory-free and for that reason furnishing the content with which to appraise theories, we might attend to the choices and mistakes that can be made in collecting and generating empirical results with the help of theoretical resources, and endeavor to make choices conducive to learning and correct mistakes as we discover them.

Recognizing the involvement of theory and values in the constitution and generation of empirical results does not undermine the special epistemic value of empirical science in contrast to propaganda and pseudoscience. In cases where the influence of cultural, political, and religious values hinder scientific inquiry, it is often the case that they do so by limiting or determining the nature of the empirical results. Yet, by working to make the assumptions that shape results explicit we can examine their suitability for our purposes and attempt to restructure inquiry as necessary. When disagreements arise, scientists can attempt to settle them by appealing to the causal connections between the research target and the empirical data. The tribunal of experience speaks through empirical results, but it only does so through via careful fashioning with theoretical resources.

  • Anderson, E., 2004, “Uses of Value Judgments in Science: A General Argument, with Lessons from a Case Study of Feminist Research on Divorce,” Hypatia , 19(1): 1–24.
  • Aristotle(a), Generation of Animals in Complete Works of Aristotle (Volume 1), J. Barnes (ed.), Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995, pp. 774–993
  • Aristotle(b), History of Animals in Complete Works of Aristotle (Volume 1), J. Barnes (ed.), Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995, pp. 1111–1228.
  • Azzouni, J., 2004, “Theory, Observation, and Scientific Realism,” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science , 55(3): 371–92.
  • Bacon, Francis, 1620, Novum Organum with other parts of the Great Instauration , P. Urbach and J. Gibson (eds. and trans.), La Salle: Open Court, 1994.
  • Bogen, J., 2016, “Empiricism and After,”in P. Humphreys (ed.), Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Science , Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 779–795.
  • Bogen, J, and Woodward, J., 1988, “Saving the Phenomena,” Philosophical Review , XCVII (3): 303–352.
  • Bokulich, A., 2020, “Towards a Taxonomy of the Model-Ladenness of Data,” Philosophy of Science , 87(5): 793–806.
  • Borrelli, A., 2012, “The Case of the Composite Higgs: The Model as a ‘Rosetta Stone’ in Contemporary High-Energy Physics,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science (Part B: Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics), 43(3): 195–214.
  • Boyd, N. M., 2018, “Evidence Enriched,” Philosophy of Science , 85(3): 403–21.
  • Boyle, R., 1661, The Sceptical Chymist , Montana: Kessinger (reprint of 1661 edition).
  • Bridgman, P., 1927, The Logic of Modern Physics , New York: Macmillan.
  • Chang, H., 2005, “A Case for Old-fashioned Observability, and a Reconstructive Empiricism,” Philosophy of Science , 72(5): 876–887.
  • Collins, H. M., 1985 Changing Order , Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Conant, J.B., 1957, (ed.) “The Overthrow of the Phlogiston Theory: The Chemical Revolution of 1775–1789,” in J.B.Conant and L.K. Nash (eds.), Harvard Studies in Experimental Science , Volume I, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, pp. 65–116).
  • Daston, L., and P. Galison, 2007, Objectivity , Brooklyn: Zone Books.
  • Douglas, H., 2000, “Inductive Risk and Values in Science,” Philosophy of Science , 67(4): 559–79.
  • –––, 2013, “The Value of Cognitive Values,” Philosophy of Science , 80(5): 796–806.
  • Duhem, P., 1906, The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory , P. Wiener (tr.), Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.
  • Earman, J., 1992, Bayes or Bust? , Cambridge: MIT Press.
  • Feest, U., 2005, “Operationism in psychology: what the debate is about, what the debate should be about,” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences , 41(2): 131–149.
  • Feyerabend, P.K., 1969, “Science Without Experience,” in P.K. Feyerabend, Realism, Rationalism, and Scientific Method (Philosophical Papers I), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985, pp. 132–136.
  • Franklin, A., 1986, The Neglect of Experiment , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Galison, P., 1987, How Experiments End , Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • –––, 1990, “Aufbau/Bauhaus: logical positivism and architectural modernism,” Critical Inquiry , 16 (4): 709–753.
  • Goodman, A., et al., 2014, “Ten Simple Rules for the Care and Feeding of Scientific Data,” PLoS Computational Biology , 10(4): e1003542.
  • Hacking, I., 1981, “Do We See Through a Microscope?,” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly , 62(4): 305–322.
  • –––, 1983, Representing and Intervening , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Hanson, N.R., 1958, Patterns of Discovery , Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  • Hempel, C.G., 1952, “Fundamentals of Concept Formation in Empirical Science,” in Foundations of the Unity of Science , Volume 2, O. Neurath, R. Carnap, C. Morris (eds.), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970, pp. 651–746.
  • Herschel, J. F. W., 1830, Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy , New York: Johnson Reprint Corp., 1966.
  • Hooke, R., 1705, “The Method of Improving Natural Philosophy,” in R. Waller (ed.), The Posthumous Works of Robert Hooke , London: Frank Cass and Company, 1971.
  • Horowitz, P., and W. Hill, 2015, The Art of Electronics , third edition, New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Intemann, K., 2021, “Feminist Perspectives on Values in Science,” in S. Crasnow and L. Intemann (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Feminist Philosophy of Science , New York: Routledge, pp. 201–15.
  • Kuhn, T.S., The Structure of Scientific Revolutions , 1962, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, reprinted,1996.
  • Latour, B., 1999, “Circulating Reference: Sampling the Soil in the Amazon Forest,” in Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies , Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 24–79.
  • Latour, B., and Woolgar, S., 1979, Laboratory Life, The Construction of Scientific Facts , Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.
  • Laymon, R., 1988, “The Michelson-Morley Experiment and the Appraisal of Theories,” in A. Donovan, L. Laudan, and R. Laudan (eds.), Scrutinizing Science: Empirical Studies of Scientific Change , Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, pp. 245–266.
  • Leonelli, S., 2009, “On the Locality of Data and Claims about Phenomena,” Philosophy of Science , 76(5): 737–49.
  • Leonelli, S., and N. Tempini (eds.), 2020, Data Journeys in the Sciences , Cham: Springer.
  • Lipton, P., 1991, Inference to the Best Explanation , London: Routledge.
  • Lloyd, E.A., 1993, “Pre-theoretical Assumptions In Evolutionary Explanations of Female Sexuality,” Philosophical Studies , 69: 139–153.
  • –––, 2012, “The Role of ‘Complex’ Empiricism in the Debates about Satellite Data and Climate Models,”, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science (Part A), 43(2): 390–401.
  • Longino, H., 1979, “Evidence and Hypothesis: An Analysis of Evidential Relations,” Philosophy of Science , 46(1): 35–56.
  • –––, 2020, “Afterward:Data in Transit,” in S. Leonelli and N. Tempini (eds.), Data Journeys in the Sciences , Cham: Springer, pp. 391–400.
  • Lupyan, G., 2015, “Cognitive Penetrability of Perception in the Age of Prediction – Predictive Systems are Penetrable Systems,” Review of Philosophical Psychology , 6(4): 547–569. doi:10.1007/s13164-015-0253-4
  • Mill, J. S., 1872, System of Logic , London: Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer.
  • Norton, J., 2003, “A Material Theory of Induction,” Philosophy of Science , 70(4): 647–70.
  • –––, 2021, The Material Theory of Induction , http://www.pitt.edu/~jdnorton/papers/material_theory/Material_Induction_March_14_2021.pdf .
  • Nyquist, H., 1928, “Thermal Agitation of Electric Charge in Conductors,” Physical Review , 32(1): 110–13.
  • O’Connor, C. and J. O. Weatherall, 2019, The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread , New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Olesko, K.M. and Holmes, F.L., 1994, “Experiment, Quantification and Discovery: Helmholtz’s Early Physiological Researches, 1843–50,” in D. Cahan, (ed.), Hermann Helmholtz and the Foundations of Nineteenth Century Science , Berkeley: UC Press, pp. 50–108.
  • Osiander, A., 1543, “To the Reader Concerning the Hypothesis of this Work,” in N. Copernicus On the Revolutions , E. Rosen (tr., ed.), Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978, p. XX.
  • Parker, W. S., 2016, “Reanalysis and Observation: What’s the Difference?,” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society , 97(9): 1565–72.
  • –––, 2017, “Computer Simulation, Measurement, and Data Assimilation,” The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science , 68(1): 273–304.
  • Popper, K.R.,1959, The Logic of Scientific Discovery , K.R. Popper (tr.), New York: Basic Books.
  • Rheinberger, H. J., 1997, Towards a History of Epistemic Things: Synthesizing Proteins in the Test Tube , Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Roush, S., 2005, Tracking Truth , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Rudner, R., 1953, “The Scientist Qua Scientist Makes Value Judgments,” Philosophy of Science , 20(1): 1–6.
  • Schlick, M., 1935, “Facts and Propositions,” in Philosophy and Analysis , M. Macdonald (ed.), New York: Philosophical Library, 1954, pp. 232–236.
  • Schottky, W. H., 1918, “Über spontane Stromschwankungen in verschiedenen Elektrizitätsleitern,” Annalen der Physik , 362(23): 541–67.
  • Shapere, D., 1982, “The Concept of Observation in Science and Philosophy,” Philosophy of Science , 49(4): 485–525.
  • Stanford, K., 1991, Exceeding Our Grasp: Science, History, and the Problem of Unconceived Alternatives , Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Stephenson, F. R., L. V. Morrison, and C. Y. Hohenkerk, 2016, “Measurement of the Earth’s Rotation: 720 BC to AD 2015,” Proceedings of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences , 472: 20160404.
  • Stuewer, R.H., 1985, “Artificial Disintegration and the Cambridge-Vienna Controversy,” in P. Achinstein and O. Hannaway (eds.), Observation, Experiment, and Hypothesis in Modern Physical Science , Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 239–307.
  • Suppe, F., 1977, in F. Suppe (ed.) The Structure of Scientific Theories , Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
  • Van Fraassen, B.C, 1980, The Scientific Image , Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Ward, Z. B., 2021, “On Value-Laden Science,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A , 85: 54–62.
  • Whewell, W., 1858, Novum Organon Renovatum , Book II, in William Whewell Theory of Scientific Method , R.E. Butts (ed.), Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1989, pp. 103–249.
  • Woodward, J. F., 2010, “Data, Phenomena, Signal, and Noise,” Philosophy of Science , 77(5): 792–803.
  • –––, 2011, “Data and Phenomena: A Restatement and Defense,” Synthese , 182(1): 165–79.
  • Wylie, A., 2020, “Radiocarbon Dating in Archaeology: Triangulation and Traceability,” in S. Leonelli and N. Tempini (eds.), Data Journeys in the Sciences , Cham: Springer, pp. 285–301.
  • Yap, A., 2016, “Feminist Radical Empiricism, Values, and Evidence,” Hypatia , 31(1): 58–73.
How to cite this entry . Preview the PDF version of this entry at the Friends of the SEP Society . Look up topics and thinkers related to this entry at the Internet Philosophy Ontology Project (InPhO). Enhanced bibliography for this entry at PhilPapers , with links to its database.
  • Confirmation , by Franz Huber, in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy .
  • Transcript of Katzmiller v. Dover Area School District (on the teaching of intelligent design).

Bacon, Francis | Bayes’ Theorem | constructive empiricism | Duhem, Pierre | empiricism: logical | epistemology: Bayesian | feminist philosophy, topics: perspectives on science | incommensurability: of scientific theories | Locke, John | measurement: in science | models in science | physics: experiment in | science: and pseudo-science | scientific objectivity | scientific research and big data | statistics, philosophy of

Copyright © 2021 by Nora Mills Boyd < nboyd @ siena . edu > James Bogen

  • Accessibility

Support SEP

Mirror sites.

View this site from another server:

  • Info about mirror sites

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is copyright © 2023 by The Metaphysics Research Lab , Department of Philosophy, Stanford University

Library of Congress Catalog Data: ISSN 1095-5054

Grad Coach

What Is A Research (Scientific) Hypothesis? A plain-language explainer + examples

By:  Derek Jansen (MBA)  | Reviewed By: Dr Eunice Rautenbach | June 2020

If you’re new to the world of research, or it’s your first time writing a dissertation or thesis, you’re probably noticing that the words “research hypothesis” and “scientific hypothesis” are used quite a bit, and you’re wondering what they mean in a research context .

“Hypothesis” is one of those words that people use loosely, thinking they understand what it means. However, it has a very specific meaning within academic research. So, it’s important to understand the exact meaning before you start hypothesizing. 

Research Hypothesis 101

  • What is a hypothesis ?
  • What is a research hypothesis (scientific hypothesis)?
  • Requirements for a research hypothesis
  • Definition of a research hypothesis
  • The null hypothesis

What is a hypothesis?

Let’s start with the general definition of a hypothesis (not a research hypothesis or scientific hypothesis), according to the Cambridge Dictionary:

Hypothesis: an idea or explanation for something that is based on known facts but has not yet been proved.

In other words, it’s a statement that provides an explanation for why or how something works, based on facts (or some reasonable assumptions), but that has not yet been specifically tested . For example, a hypothesis might look something like this:

Hypothesis: sleep impacts academic performance.

This statement predicts that academic performance will be influenced by the amount and/or quality of sleep a student engages in – sounds reasonable, right? It’s based on reasonable assumptions , underpinned by what we currently know about sleep and health (from the existing literature). So, loosely speaking, we could call it a hypothesis, at least by the dictionary definition.

But that’s not good enough…

Unfortunately, that’s not quite sophisticated enough to describe a research hypothesis (also sometimes called a scientific hypothesis), and it wouldn’t be acceptable in a dissertation, thesis or research paper . In the world of academic research, a statement needs a few more criteria to constitute a true research hypothesis .

What is a research hypothesis?

A research hypothesis (also called a scientific hypothesis) is a statement about the expected outcome of a study (for example, a dissertation or thesis). To constitute a quality hypothesis, the statement needs to have three attributes – specificity , clarity and testability .

Let’s take a look at these more closely.

Need a helping hand?

hypothesis explanation for observation

Hypothesis Essential #1: Specificity & Clarity

A good research hypothesis needs to be extremely clear and articulate about both what’ s being assessed (who or what variables are involved ) and the expected outcome (for example, a difference between groups, a relationship between variables, etc.).

Let’s stick with our sleepy students example and look at how this statement could be more specific and clear.

Hypothesis: Students who sleep at least 8 hours per night will, on average, achieve higher grades in standardised tests than students who sleep less than 8 hours a night.

As you can see, the statement is very specific as it identifies the variables involved (sleep hours and test grades), the parties involved (two groups of students), as well as the predicted relationship type (a positive relationship). There’s no ambiguity or uncertainty about who or what is involved in the statement, and the expected outcome is clear.

Contrast that to the original hypothesis we looked at – “Sleep impacts academic performance” – and you can see the difference. “Sleep” and “academic performance” are both comparatively vague , and there’s no indication of what the expected relationship direction is (more sleep or less sleep). As you can see, specificity and clarity are key.

A good research hypothesis needs to be very clear about what’s being assessed and very specific about the expected outcome.

Hypothesis Essential #2: Testability (Provability)

A statement must be testable to qualify as a research hypothesis. In other words, there needs to be a way to prove (or disprove) the statement. If it’s not testable, it’s not a hypothesis – simple as that.

For example, consider the hypothesis we mentioned earlier:

Hypothesis: Students who sleep at least 8 hours per night will, on average, achieve higher grades in standardised tests than students who sleep less than 8 hours a night.  

We could test this statement by undertaking a quantitative study involving two groups of students, one that gets 8 or more hours of sleep per night for a fixed period, and one that gets less. We could then compare the standardised test results for both groups to see if there’s a statistically significant difference. 

Again, if you compare this to the original hypothesis we looked at – “Sleep impacts academic performance” – you can see that it would be quite difficult to test that statement, primarily because it isn’t specific enough. How much sleep? By who? What type of academic performance?

So, remember the mantra – if you can’t test it, it’s not a hypothesis 🙂

A good research hypothesis must be testable. In other words, you must able to collect observable data in a scientifically rigorous fashion to test it.

Defining A Research Hypothesis

You’re still with us? Great! Let’s recap and pin down a clear definition of a hypothesis.

A research hypothesis (or scientific hypothesis) is a statement about an expected relationship between variables, or explanation of an occurrence, that is clear, specific and testable.

So, when you write up hypotheses for your dissertation or thesis, make sure that they meet all these criteria. If you do, you’ll not only have rock-solid hypotheses but you’ll also ensure a clear focus for your entire research project.

What about the null hypothesis?

You may have also heard the terms null hypothesis , alternative hypothesis, or H-zero thrown around. At a simple level, the null hypothesis is the counter-proposal to the original hypothesis.

For example, if the hypothesis predicts that there is a relationship between two variables (for example, sleep and academic performance), the null hypothesis would predict that there is no relationship between those variables.

At a more technical level, the null hypothesis proposes that no statistical significance exists in a set of given observations and that any differences are due to chance alone.

And there you have it – hypotheses in a nutshell. 

If you have any questions, be sure to leave a comment below and we’ll do our best to help you. If you need hands-on help developing and testing your hypotheses, consider our private coaching service , where we hold your hand through the research journey.

hypothesis explanation for observation

Psst... there’s more!

This post was based on one of our popular Research Bootcamps . If you're working on a research project, you'll definitely want to check this out ...

You Might Also Like:

Research limitations vs delimitations


Lynnet Chikwaikwai

Very useful information. I benefit more from getting more information in this regard.

Dr. WuodArek

Very great insight,educative and informative. Please give meet deep critics on many research data of public international Law like human rights, environment, natural resources, law of the sea etc


In a book I read a distinction is made between null, research, and alternative hypothesis. As far as I understand, alternative and research hypotheses are the same. Can you please elaborate? Best Afshin

GANDI Benjamin

This is a self explanatory, easy going site. I will recommend this to my friends and colleagues.

Lucile Dossou-Yovo

Very good definition. How can I cite your definition in my thesis? Thank you. Is nul hypothesis compulsory in a research?


It’s a counter-proposal to be proven as a rejection

Egya Salihu

Please what is the difference between alternate hypothesis and research hypothesis?

Mulugeta Tefera

It is a very good explanation. However, it limits hypotheses to statistically tasteable ideas. What about for qualitative researches or other researches that involve quantitative data that don’t need statistical tests?

Derek Jansen

In qualitative research, one typically uses propositions, not hypotheses.


could you please elaborate it more

Patricia Nyawir

I’ve benefited greatly from these notes, thank you.

Hopeson Khondiwa

This is very helpful

Dr. Andarge

well articulated ideas are presented here, thank you for being reliable sources of information


Excellent. Thanks for being clear and sound about the research methodology and hypothesis (quantitative research)

I have only a simple question regarding the null hypothesis. – Is the null hypothesis (Ho) known as the reversible hypothesis of the alternative hypothesis (H1? – How to test it in academic research?

Tesfaye Negesa Urge

this is very important note help me much more


  • What Is Research Methodology? Simple Definition (With Examples) - Grad Coach - […] Contrasted to this, a quantitative methodology is typically used when the research aims and objectives are confirmatory in nature. For example,…

Submit a Comment Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Save my name, email, and website in this browser for the next time I comment.

  • Print Friendly

Logo for M Libraries Publishing

Want to create or adapt books like this? Learn more about how Pressbooks supports open publishing practices.

Theme 2: How Does Blood and Organ Donation Work?

2.9 The Process of Science

Like geology, physics, and chemistry, biology is a science that gathers knowledge about the natural world. Specifically, biology is the study of life. The discoveries of biology are made by a community of researchers who work individually and together using agreed-on methods. In this sense, biology, like all sciences is a social enterprise like politics or the arts. The methods of science include careful observation, record keeping, logical and mathematical reasoning, experimentation, and submitting conclusions to the scrutiny of others. Science also requires considerable imagination and creativity; a well-designed experiment is commonly described as elegant, or beautiful. Like politics, science has considerable practical implications and some science is dedicated to practical applications, such as the prevention of disease (see  Figure 1 ). Other science proceeds largely motivated by curiosity. Whatever its goal, there is no doubt that science, including biology, has transformed human existence and will continue to do so.

Scanning electronic micrograph depicts E. coli bacteria aggregated together.

The Nature of Science

Biology is a science, but what exactly is science? What does the study of biology share with other scientific disciplines?  Science  (from the Latin  scientia,  meaning “knowledge”) can be defined as knowledge about the natural world.

Science is a very specific way of learning, or knowing, about the world. The history of the past 500 years demonstrates that science is a very powerful way of knowing about the world; it is largely responsible for the technological revolutions that have taken place during this time. There are however, areas of knowledge and human experience that the methods of science cannot be applied to. These include such things as answering purely moral questions, aesthetic questions, or what can be generally categorized as spiritual questions. Science cannot investigate these areas because they are outside the realm of material phenomena, the phenomena of matter and energy, and cannot be observed and measured.

The  scientific method  is a method of research with defined steps that include experiments and careful observation. The steps of the scientific method will be examined in detail later, but one of the most important aspects of this method is the testing of hypotheses. A  hypothesis  is a suggested explanation for an event, which can be tested. Hypotheses, or tentative explanations, are generally produced within the context of a  scientific theory . A scientific theory is a generally accepted, thoroughly tested and confirmed explanation for a set of observations or phenomena. Scientific theory is the foundation of scientific knowledge. In addition, in many scientific disciplines (less so in biology) there are  scientific laws , often expressed in mathematical formulas, which describe how elements of nature will behave under certain specific conditions. There is not an evolution of hypotheses through theories to laws as if they represented some increase in certainty about the world. Hypotheses are the day-to-day material that scientists work with and they are developed within the context of theories. Laws are concise descriptions of parts of the world that are amenable to formulaic or mathematical description.

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? Or maybe all of the above? Science includes such diverse fields as astronomy, biology, computer sciences, geology, logic, physics, chemistry, and mathematics ( Figure 2 ). However, those fields of science related to the physical world and its phenomena and processes are considered  natural sciences . Thus, a museum of natural sciences might contain any of the items listed above.

Some fields of science include astronomy, biology, computer science, geology, logic, physics, chemistry, and mathematics. (credit: "Image Editor/Flickr)"

There is no complete agreement when it comes to defining what the natural sciences include. 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, physics, and chemistry. Some disciplines such as biophysics and biochemistry build on two sciences and are interdisciplinary.

Scientific Inquiry

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. Two methods of logical thinking are used: 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 (descriptive) or quantitative (consisting of numbers), and the raw data can be supplemented 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 the analysis of a large amount of data. Brain studies often work this way. Many brains are observed while people are doing a task. The part of the brain that lights up, indicating activity, is then demonstrated to be the part controlling the response to that task.

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 forecast specific results. From those general principles, a scientist can extrapolate and predict the specific results that would be valid as long as the general principles are valid. For example, a prediction would be that if the climate is becoming warmer in a region, the distribution of plants and animals should change. Comparisons have been made between distributions in the past and the present, and the many changes that have been found are consistent with a warming climate. Finding the change in distribution is evidence that the climate change conclusion is a valid one.

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  aims to observe, explore, and discover, while  hypothesis-based science  begins with a specific question or problem and a potential answer or solution that can be tested. The boundary between these two forms of study is often blurred, because most scientific endeavors combine both approaches. Observations lead to questions, questions lead to forming a hypothesis as a possible answer to those questions, and then the hypothesis is tested. Thus, descriptive science and hypothesis-based science are in continuous dialogue.

Hypothesis Testing

Biologists study the living world by posing questions about it and seeking science-based responses. This approach is common to other sciences as well and is often referred to as the scientific method. The scientific method was used even in ancient times, but it was first documented by England’s Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626) ( Figure 3 ), who set up inductive methods for scientific inquiry. The scientific method is not exclusively used by biologists but can be applied to almost anything as a logical problem-solving method.

Painting depicts Sir Francis Bacon in a long cloak.

The scientific process typically starts with an observation (often a problem to be solved) 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?”

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

Once a hypothesis has been selected, a prediction may be made. 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.”

A hypothesis must be testable to ensure that it is valid. For example, a hypothesis that depends on what a bear thinks is not testable, because it can never be known what a bear thinks. It should also be  falsifiable , meaning that it can be disproven by experimental results. An example of an unfalsifiable hypothesis is “Botticelli’s  Birth of Venus  is beautiful.” There is no experiment that might show this statement to be false. To test a hypothesis, a researcher will conduct one or more experiments designed to eliminate one or more of the hypotheses. This is important. A hypothesis can be disproven, or eliminated, but it can never be proven. Science does not deal in proofs like mathematics. If an experiment fails to disprove a hypothesis, then we find support for that explanation, but this is not to say that down the road a better explanation will not be found, or a more carefully designed experiment will be found to falsify the hypothesis.

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. A  control  is a part of the experiment that does not change. Look for the variables and controls in the example that follows. As a simple example, an experiment might be conducted to test the hypothesis that phosphate limits the growth of algae in freshwater ponds. A series of artificial ponds are filled with water and half of them are treated by adding phosphate each week, while the other half are treated by adding a salt that is known not to be used by algae. The variable here is the phosphate (or lack of phosphate), the experimental or treatment cases are the ponds with added phosphate and the control ponds are those with something inert added, such as the salt. Just adding something is also a control against the possibility that adding extra matter to the pond has an effect. If the treated ponds show lesser growth of algae, then we have found support for our hypothesis. If they do not, then we reject our hypothesis. Be aware that rejecting one hypothesis does not determine whether or not the other hypotheses can be accepted; it simply eliminates one hypothesis that is not valid ( Figure 4 ). Using the scientific method, the hypotheses that are inconsistent with experimental data are rejected.

A flow chart shows the steps in the scientific method. In step 1, an observation is made. In step 2, a question is asked about the observation. In step 3, an answer to the question, called a hypothesis, is proposed. In step 4, a prediction is made based on the hypothesis. In step 5, an experiment is done to test the prediction. In step 6, the results are analyzed to determine whether or not the hypothesis is supported. If the hypothesis is not supported, another hypothesis is made. In either case, the results are reported.

In the example below, the scientific method is used to solve an everyday problem. Which part in the example below is the hypothesis? Which is the prediction? Based on the results of the experiment, is the hypothesis supported? If it is not supported, propose some alternative hypotheses.

  • My toaster doesn’t toast my bread.
  • Why doesn’t my toaster work?
  • There is something wrong with the electrical outlet.
  • If something is wrong with the outlet, my coffeemaker also won’t work when plugged into it.
  • I plug my coffeemaker into the outlet.
  • My coffeemaker works.

In practice, the scientific method is not as rigid and structured as it might at first appear. Sometimes an experiment leads to conclusions that favor a change in approach; often, an experiment brings entirely new scientific questions to the puzzle. Many times, science does not operate in a linear fashion; instead, scientists continually draw inferences and make generalizations, finding patterns as their research proceeds. Scientific reasoning is more complex than the scientific method alone suggests.

Basic and Applied Science

The scientific community has been debating for the last few decades about the value of different types of science. Is it valuable to pursue science for the sake of simply gaining knowledge, or does scientific knowledge only have worth if we can apply it to solving a specific problem or bettering our lives? This question focuses on the differences between two types of science: basic science and applied science.

Basic science  or “pure” science seeks to expand knowledge regardless of the short-term application of that knowledge. It is not focused on developing a product or a service of immediate public or commercial value. The immediate goal of basic science is knowledge for knowledge’s sake, though this does not mean that in the end it may not result in an application.

In contrast,  applied science  or “technology,” aims to use science to solve real-world problems, making it possible, for example, to improve a crop yield, find a cure for a particular disease, or save animals threatened by a natural disaster. In applied science, the problem is usually defined for the researcher.

Some individuals may perceive applied science as “useful” and basic science as “useless.” A question these people might pose to a scientist advocating knowledge acquisition would be, “What for?” A careful look at the history of science, however, reveals that basic knowledge has resulted in many remarkable applications of great value. Many scientists think that a basic understanding of science is necessary before an application is developed; therefore, applied science relies on the results generated through basic science. Other scientists think that it is time to move on from basic science and instead to find solutions to actual problems. Both approaches are valid. It is true that there are problems that demand immediate attention; however, few solutions would be found without the help of the knowledge generated through basic science.

One example of how basic and applied science can work together to solve practical problems occurred after the discovery of DNA structure led to an understanding of the molecular mechanisms governing DNA replication. Strands of DNA, unique in every human, are found in our cells, where they provide the instructions necessary for life. During DNA replication, new copies of DNA are made, shortly before a cell divides to form new cells. Understanding the mechanisms of DNA replication enabled scientists to develop laboratory techniques that are now used to identify genetic diseases, pinpoint individuals who were at a crime scene, and determine paternity. Without basic science, it is unlikely that applied science would exist.

Another example of the link between basic and applied research is the Human Genome Project, a study in which each human chromosome was analyzed and mapped to determine the precise sequence of DNA subunits and the exact location of each gene. (The gene is the basic unit of heredity; an individual’s complete collection of genes is his or her genome.) Other organisms have also been studied as part of this project to gain a better understanding of human chromosomes. The Human Genome Project ( Figure 5 ) relied on basic research carried out with non-human organisms and, later, with the human genome. An important end goal eventually became using the data for applied research seeking cures for genetically related diseases.

The human genome project’s logo is shown, depicting a human being inside a DNA double helix. The words chemistry, biology, physics, ethics, informatics and engineering surround the circular image.

While research efforts in both basic science and applied science are usually carefully planned, it is important to note that some discoveries are made by serendipity, that is, by means of a fortunate accident or a lucky surprise. Penicillin was discovered when biologist Alexander Fleming accidentally left a petri dish of  Staphylococcus  bacteria open. An unwanted mold grew, killing the bacteria. The mold turned out to be  Penicillium , and a new antibiotic was discovered. Even in the highly organized world of science, luck—when combined with an observant, curious mind—can lead to unexpected breakthroughs.

Reporting Scientific Work

Whether scientific research is basic science or applied science, scientists must share their findings for other researchers to expand and build upon their discoveries. Communication and collaboration within and between sub disciplines of science are key to the advancement of knowledge in science. For this reason, an important aspect of a scientist’s work is disseminating results and communicating with peers. Scientists can share results by presenting them at a scientific meeting or conference, but this approach can reach only the limited few who are present. Instead, most scientists present their results in peer-reviewed articles that are published in scientific journals.  Peer-reviewed articles  are scientific papers that are reviewed, usually anonymously by a scientist’s colleagues, or peers. These colleagues are qualified individuals, often experts in the same research area, who judge whether or not the scientist’s work is suitable for publication. The process of peer review helps to ensure that the research described in a scientific paper or grant proposal is original, significant, logical, and thorough. Grant proposals, which are requests for research funding, are also subject to peer review. Scientists publish their work so other scientists can reproduce their experiments under similar or different conditions to expand on the findings. The experimental results must be consistent with the findings of other scientists.

There are many journals and the popular press that do not use a peer-review system. A large number of online open-access journals, journals with articles available without cost, are now available many of which use rigorous peer-review systems, but some of which do not. Results of any studies published in these forums without peer review are not reliable and should not form the basis for other scientific work. In one exception, journals may allow a researcher to cite a personal communication from another researcher about unpublished results with the cited author’s permission.

Section Summary

Biology is the science that studies living organisms and their interactions with one another and their environments. Science attempts to describe and understand the nature of the universe in whole or in part. Science has many fields; those fields related to the physical world and its phenomena are considered natural sciences.

A hypothesis is a tentative explanation for an observation. A scientific theory is a well-tested and consistently verified explanation for a set of observations or phenomena. A scientific law is a description, often in the form of a mathematical formula, of the behavior of an aspect of nature under certain circumstances. Two types of logical reasoning are used in science. Inductive reasoning uses results to produce general scientific principles. Deductive reasoning is a form of logical thinking that predicts results by applying general principles. The common thread throughout scientific research is the use of the scientific method. Scientists present their results in peer-reviewed scientific papers published in scientific journals.

Science can be basic or applied. The main goal of basic science is to expand knowledge without any expectation of short-term practical application of that knowledge. The primary goal of applied research, however, is to solve practical problems.

Human Biology Copyright © by Sarah Malmquist and Kristina Prescott is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book

Scientific Hypothesis, Model, Theory, and Law

Understanding the Difference Between Basic Scientific Terms

Hero Images / Getty Images

  • Chemical Laws
  • Periodic Table
  • Projects & Experiments
  • Scientific Method
  • Biochemistry
  • Physical Chemistry
  • Medical Chemistry
  • Chemistry In Everyday Life
  • Famous Chemists
  • Activities for Kids
  • Abbreviations & Acronyms
  • Weather & Climate
  • Ph.D., Biomedical Sciences, University of Tennessee at Knoxville
  • B.A., Physics and Mathematics, Hastings College

Words have precise meanings in science. For example, "theory," "law," and "hypothesis" don't all mean the same thing. Outside of science, you might say something is "just a theory," meaning it's a supposition that may or may not be true. In science, however, a theory is an explanation that generally is accepted to be true. Here's a closer look at these important, commonly misused terms.

A hypothesis is an educated guess, based on observation. It's a prediction of cause and effect. Usually, a hypothesis can be supported or refuted through experimentation or more observation. A hypothesis can be disproven but not proven to be true.

Example: If you see no difference in the cleaning ability of various laundry detergents, you might hypothesize that cleaning effectiveness is not affected by which detergent you use. This hypothesis can be disproven if you observe a stain is removed by one detergent and not another. On the other hand, you cannot prove the hypothesis. Even if you never see a difference in the cleanliness of your clothes after trying 1,000 detergents, there might be one more you haven't tried that could be different.

Scientists often construct models to help explain complex concepts. These can be physical models like a model volcano or atom  or conceptual models like predictive weather algorithms. A model doesn't contain all the details of the real deal, but it should include observations known to be valid.

Example: The  Bohr model shows electrons orbiting the atomic nucleus, much the same way as the way planets revolve around the sun. In reality, the movement of electrons is complicated but the model makes it clear that protons and neutrons form a nucleus and electrons tend to move around outside the nucleus.

A scientific theory summarizes a hypothesis or group of hypotheses that have been supported with repeated testing. A theory is valid as long as there is no evidence to dispute it. Therefore, theories can be disproven. Basically, if evidence accumulates to support a hypothesis, then the hypothesis can become accepted as a good explanation of a phenomenon. One definition of a theory is to say that it's an accepted hypothesis.

Example: It is known that on June 30, 1908, in Tunguska, Siberia, there was an explosion equivalent to the detonation of about 15 million tons of TNT. Many hypotheses have been proposed for what caused the explosion. It was theorized that the explosion was caused by a natural extraterrestrial phenomenon , and was not caused by man. Is this theory a fact? No. The event is a recorded fact. Is this theory, generally accepted to be true, based on evidence to-date? Yes. Can this theory be shown to be false and be discarded? Yes.

A scientific law generalizes a body of observations. At the time it's made, no exceptions have been found to a law. Scientific laws explain things but they do not describe them. One way to tell a law and a theory apart is to ask if the description gives you the means to explain "why." The word "law" is used less and less in science, as many laws are only true under limited circumstances.

Example: Consider Newton's Law of Gravity . Newton could use this law to predict the behavior of a dropped object but he couldn't explain why it happened.

As you can see, there is no "proof" or absolute "truth" in science. The closest we get are facts, which are indisputable observations. Note, however, if you define proof as arriving at a logical conclusion, based on the evidence, then there is "proof" in science. Some work under the definition that to prove something implies it can never be wrong, which is different. If you're asked to define the terms hypothesis, theory, and law, keep in mind the definitions of proof and of these words can vary slightly depending on the scientific discipline. What's important is to realize they don't all mean the same thing and cannot be used interchangeably.

  • Null Hypothesis Examples
  • Theory Definition in Science
  • Hypothesis, Model, Theory, and Law
  • What Is a Scientific or Natural Law?
  • Scientific Hypothesis Examples
  • The Continental Drift Theory: Revolutionary and Significant
  • What 'Fail to Reject' Means in a Hypothesis Test
  • What Is a Hypothesis? (Science)
  • Hypothesis Definition (Science)
  • Definition of a Hypothesis
  • Processual Archaeology
  • The Basics of Physics in Scientific Study
  • What Is the Difference Between Hard and Soft Science?
  • Tips on Winning the Debate on Evolution
  • Geological Thinking: Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses
  • 5 Common Misconceptions About Evolution

Why the Pandemic Probably Started in a Lab, in 5 Key Points

hypothesis explanation for observation

By Alina Chan

Dr. Chan is a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute of M.I.T. and Harvard, and a co-author of “Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19.”

This article has been updated to reflect news developments.

On Monday, Dr. Anthony Fauci returned to the halls of Congress and testified before the House subcommittee investigating the Covid-19 pandemic. He was questioned about several topics related to the government’s handling of Covid-19, including how the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which he directed until retiring in 2022, supported risky virus work at a Chinese institute whose research may have caused the pandemic.

For more than four years, reflexive partisan politics have derailed the search for the truth about a catastrophe that has touched us all. It has been estimated that at least 25 million people around the world have died because of Covid-19, with over a million of those deaths in the United States.

Although how the pandemic started has been hotly debated, a growing volume of evidence — gleaned from public records released under the Freedom of Information Act, digital sleuthing through online databases, scientific papers analyzing the virus and its spread, and leaks from within the U.S. government — suggests that the pandemic most likely occurred because a virus escaped from a research lab in Wuhan, China. If so, it would be the most costly accident in the history of science.

Here’s what we now know:

1 The SARS-like virus that caused the pandemic emerged in Wuhan, the city where the world’s foremost research lab for SARS-like viruses is located.

  • At the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a team of scientists had been hunting for SARS-like viruses for over a decade, led by Shi Zhengli.
  • Their research showed that the viruses most similar to SARS‑CoV‑2, the virus that caused the pandemic, circulate in bats that live r oughly 1,000 miles away from Wuhan. Scientists from Dr. Shi’s team traveled repeatedly to Yunnan province to collect these viruses and had expanded their search to Southeast Asia. Bats in other parts of China have not been found to carry viruses that are as closely related to SARS-CoV-2.

hypothesis explanation for observation

The closest known relatives to SARS-CoV-2 were found in southwestern China and in Laos.

Large cities

Mine in Yunnan province

Cave in Laos

South China Sea

hypothesis explanation for observation

The closest known relatives to SARS-CoV-2

were found in southwestern China and in Laos.


hypothesis explanation for observation

The closest known relatives to SARS-CoV-2 were found

in southwestern China and Laos.

Sources: Sarah Temmam et al., Nature; SimpleMaps

Note: Cities shown have a population of at least 200,000.

hypothesis explanation for observation

There are hundreds of large cities in China and Southeast Asia.

hypothesis explanation for observation

There are hundreds of large cities in China

and Southeast Asia.

hypothesis explanation for observation

The pandemic started roughly 1,000 miles away, in Wuhan, home to the world’s foremost SARS-like virus research lab.

hypothesis explanation for observation

The pandemic started roughly 1,000 miles away,

in Wuhan, home to the world’s foremost SARS-like virus research lab.

hypothesis explanation for observation

The pandemic started roughly 1,000 miles away, in Wuhan,

home to the world’s foremost SARS-like virus research lab.

  • Even at hot spots where these viruses exist naturally near the cave bats of southwestern China and Southeast Asia, the scientists argued, as recently as 2019 , that bat coronavirus spillover into humans is rare .
  • When the Covid-19 outbreak was detected, Dr. Shi initially wondered if the novel coronavirus had come from her laboratory , saying she had never expected such an outbreak to occur in Wuhan.
  • The SARS‑CoV‑2 virus is exceptionally contagious and can jump from species to species like wildfire . Yet it left no known trace of infection at its source or anywhere along what would have been a thousand-mile journey before emerging in Wuhan.

2 The year before the outbreak, the Wuhan institute, working with U.S. partners, had proposed creating viruses with SARS‑CoV‑2’s defining feature.

  • Dr. Shi’s group was fascinated by how coronaviruses jump from species to species. To find viruses, they took samples from bats and other animals , as well as from sick people living near animals carrying these viruses or associated with the wildlife trade. Much of this work was conducted in partnership with the EcoHealth Alliance, a U.S.-based scientific organization that, since 2002, has been awarded over $80 million in federal funding to research the risks of emerging infectious diseases.
  • The laboratory pursued risky research that resulted in viruses becoming more infectious : Coronaviruses were grown from samples from infected animals and genetically reconstructed and recombined to create new viruses unknown in nature. These new viruses were passed through cells from bats, pigs, primates and humans and were used to infect civets and humanized mice (mice modified with human genes). In essence, this process forced these viruses to adapt to new host species, and the viruses with mutations that allowed them to thrive emerged as victors.
  • By 2019, Dr. Shi’s group had published a database describing more than 22,000 collected wildlife samples. But external access was shut off in the fall of 2019, and the database was not shared with American collaborators even after the pandemic started , when such a rich virus collection would have been most useful in tracking the origin of SARS‑CoV‑2. It remains unclear whether the Wuhan institute possessed a precursor of the pandemic virus.
  • In 2021, The Intercept published a leaked 2018 grant proposal for a research project named Defuse , which had been written as a collaboration between EcoHealth, the Wuhan institute and Ralph Baric at the University of North Carolina, who had been on the cutting edge of coronavirus research for years. The proposal described plans to create viruses strikingly similar to SARS‑CoV‑2.
  • Coronaviruses bear their name because their surface is studded with protein spikes, like a spiky crown, which they use to enter animal cells. T he Defuse project proposed to search for and create SARS-like viruses carrying spikes with a unique feature: a furin cleavage site — the same feature that enhances SARS‑CoV‑2’s infectiousness in humans, making it capable of causing a pandemic. Defuse was never funded by the United States . However, in his testimony on Monday, Dr. Fauci explained that the Wuhan institute would not need to rely on U.S. funding to pursue research independently.

hypothesis explanation for observation

The Wuhan lab ran risky experiments to learn about how SARS-like viruses might infect humans.

1. Collect SARS-like viruses from bats and other wild animals, as well as from people exposed to them.

hypothesis explanation for observation

2. Identify high-risk viruses by screening for spike proteins that facilitate infection of human cells.

hypothesis explanation for observation

2. Identify high-risk viruses by screening for spike proteins that facilitate infection of

human cells.

hypothesis explanation for observation

In Defuse, the scientists proposed to add a furin cleavage site to the spike protein.

3. Create new coronaviruses by inserting spike proteins or other features that could make the viruses more infectious in humans.

hypothesis explanation for observation

4. Infect human cells, civets and humanized mice with the new coronaviruses, to determine how dangerous they might be.

hypothesis explanation for observation

  • While it’s possible that the furin cleavage site could have evolved naturally (as seen in some distantly related coronaviruses), out of the hundreds of SARS-like viruses cataloged by scientists, SARS‑CoV‑2 is the only one known to possess a furin cleavage site in its spike. And the genetic data suggest that the virus had only recently gained the furin cleavage site before it started the pandemic.
  • Ultimately, a never-before-seen SARS-like virus with a newly introduced furin cleavage site, matching the description in the Wuhan institute’s Defuse proposal, caused an outbreak in Wuhan less than two years after the proposal was drafted.
  • When the Wuhan scientists published their seminal paper about Covid-19 as the pandemic roared to life in 2020, they did not mention the virus’s furin cleavage site — a feature they should have been on the lookout for, according to their own grant proposal, and a feature quickly recognized by other scientists.
  • Worse still, as the pandemic raged, their American collaborators failed to publicly reveal the existence of the Defuse proposal. The president of EcoHealth, Peter Daszak, recently admitted to Congress that he doesn’t know about virus samples collected by the Wuhan institute after 2015 and never asked the lab’s scientists if they had started the work described in Defuse. In May, citing failures in EcoHealth’s monitoring of risky experiments conducted at the Wuhan lab, the Biden administration suspended all federal funding for the organization and Dr. Daszak, and initiated proceedings to bar them from receiving future grants. In his testimony on Monday, Dr. Fauci said that he supported the decision to suspend and bar EcoHealth.
  • Separately, Dr. Baric described the competitive dynamic between his research group and the institute when he told Congress that the Wuhan scientists would probably not have shared their most interesting newly discovered viruses with him . Documents and email correspondence between the institute and Dr. Baric are still being withheld from the public while their release is fiercely contested in litigation.
  • In the end, American partners very likely knew of only a fraction of the research done in Wuhan. According to U.S. intelligence sources, some of the institute’s virus research was classified or conducted with or on behalf of the Chinese military . In the congressional hearing on Monday, Dr. Fauci repeatedly acknowledged the lack of visibility into experiments conducted at the Wuhan institute, saying, “None of us can know everything that’s going on in China, or in Wuhan, or what have you. And that’s the reason why — I say today, and I’ve said at the T.I.,” referring to his transcribed interview with the subcommittee, “I keep an open mind as to what the origin is.”

3 The Wuhan lab pursued this type of work under low biosafety conditions that could not have contained an airborne virus as infectious as SARS‑CoV‑2.

  • Labs working with live viruses generally operate at one of four biosafety levels (known in ascending order of stringency as BSL-1, 2, 3 and 4) that describe the work practices that are considered sufficiently safe depending on the characteristics of each pathogen. The Wuhan institute’s scientists worked with SARS-like viruses under inappropriately low biosafety conditions .

hypothesis explanation for observation

In the United States, virologists generally use stricter Biosafety Level 3 protocols when working with SARS-like viruses.

Biosafety cabinets prevent

viral particles from escaping.

Viral particles

Personal respirators provide

a second layer of defense against breathing in the virus.


Gloves prevent skin contact.

Disposable wraparound

gowns cover much of the rest of the body.

hypothesis explanation for observation

Personal respirators provide a second layer of defense against breathing in the virus.

Disposable wraparound gowns

cover much of the rest of the body.

Note: ​​Biosafety levels are not internationally standardized, and some countries use more permissive protocols than others.

hypothesis explanation for observation

The Wuhan lab had been regularly working with SARS-like viruses under Biosafety Level 2 conditions, which could not prevent a highly infectious virus like SARS-CoV-2 from escaping.

Some work is done in the open air, and masks are not required.

Less protective equipment provides more opportunities

for contamination.

hypothesis explanation for observation

Some work is done in the open air,

and masks are not required.

Less protective equipment provides more opportunities for contamination.

  • In one experiment, Dr. Shi’s group genetically engineered an unexpectedly deadly SARS-like virus (not closely related to SARS‑CoV‑2) that exhibited a 10,000-fold increase in the quantity of virus in the lungs and brains of humanized mice . Wuhan institute scientists handled these live viruses at low biosafet y levels , including BSL-2.
  • Even the much more stringent containment at BSL-3 cannot fully prevent SARS‑CoV‑2 from escaping . Two years into the pandemic, the virus infected a scientist in a BSL-3 laboratory in Taiwan, which was, at the time, a zero-Covid country. The scientist had been vaccinated and was tested only after losing the sense of smell. By then, more than 100 close contacts had been exposed. Human error is a source of exposure even at the highest biosafety levels , and the risks are much greater for scientists working with infectious pathogens at low biosafety.
  • An early draft of the Defuse proposal stated that the Wuhan lab would do their virus work at BSL-2 to make it “highly cost-effective.” Dr. Baric added a note to the draft highlighting the importance of using BSL-3 to contain SARS-like viruses that could infect human cells, writing that “U.S. researchers will likely freak out.” Years later, after SARS‑CoV‑2 had killed millions, Dr. Baric wrote to Dr. Daszak : “I have no doubt that they followed state determined rules and did the work under BSL-2. Yes China has the right to set their own policy. You believe this was appropriate containment if you want but don’t expect me to believe it. Moreover, don’t insult my intelligence by trying to feed me this load of BS.”
  • SARS‑CoV‑2 is a stealthy virus that transmits effectively through the air, causes a range of symptoms similar to those of other common respiratory diseases and can be spread by infected people before symptoms even appear. If the virus had escaped from a BSL-2 laboratory in 2019, the leak most likely would have gone undetected until too late.
  • One alarming detail — leaked to The Wall Street Journal and confirmed by current and former U.S. government officials — is that scientists on Dr. Shi’s team fell ill with Covid-like symptoms in the fall of 2019 . One of the scientists had been named in the Defuse proposal as the person in charge of virus discovery work. The scientists denied having been sick .

4 The hypothesis that Covid-19 came from an animal at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan is not supported by strong evidence.

  • In December 2019, Chinese investigators assumed the outbreak had started at a centrally located market frequented by thousands of visitors daily. This bias in their search for early cases meant that cases unlinked to or located far away from the market would very likely have been missed. To make things worse, the Chinese authorities blocked the reporting of early cases not linked to the market and, claiming biosafety precautions, ordered the destruction of patient samples on January 3, 2020, making it nearly impossible to see the complete picture of the earliest Covid-19 cases. Information about dozens of early cases from November and December 2019 remains inaccessible.
  • A pair of papers published in Science in 2022 made the best case for SARS‑CoV‑2 having emerged naturally from human-animal contact at the Wuhan market by focusing on a map of the early cases and asserting that the virus had jumped from animals into humans twice at the market in 2019. More recently, the two papers have been countered by other virologists and scientists who convincingly demonstrate that the available market evidence does not distinguish between a human superspreader event and a natural spillover at the market.
  • Furthermore, the existing genetic and early case data show that all known Covid-19 cases probably stem from a single introduction of SARS‑CoV‑2 into people, and the outbreak at the Wuhan market probably happened after the virus had already been circulating in humans.

hypothesis explanation for observation

An analysis of SARS-CoV-2’s evolutionary tree shows how the virus evolved as it started to spread through humans.

SARS-COV-2 Viruses closest

to bat coronaviruses

more mutations

hypothesis explanation for observation

Source: Lv et al., Virus Evolution (2024) , as reproduced by Jesse Bloom

hypothesis explanation for observation

The viruses that infected people linked to the market were most likely not the earliest form of the virus that started the pandemic.

hypothesis explanation for observation

  • Not a single infected animal has ever been confirmed at the market or in its supply chain. Without good evidence that the pandemic started at the Huanan Seafood Market, the fact that the virus emerged in Wuhan points squarely at its unique SARS-like virus laboratory.

5 Key evidence that would be expected if the virus had emerged from the wildlife trade is still missing.

hypothesis explanation for observation

In previous outbreaks of coronaviruses, scientists were able to demonstrate natural origin by collecting multiple pieces of evidence linking infected humans to infected animals.

Infected animals

Earliest known

cases exposed to

live animals

Antibody evidence

of animals and

animal traders having

been infected

Ancestral variants

of the virus found in

Documented trade

of host animals

between the area

where bats carry

closely related viruses

and the outbreak site

hypothesis explanation for observation

Infected animals found

Earliest known cases exposed to live animals

Antibody evidence of animals and animal

traders having been infected

Ancestral variants of the virus found in animals

Documented trade of host animals

between the area where bats carry closely

related viruses and the outbreak site

hypothesis explanation for observation

For SARS-CoV-2, these same key pieces of evidence are still missing , more than four years after the virus emerged.

hypothesis explanation for observation

For SARS-CoV-2, these same key pieces of evidence are still missing ,

more than four years after the virus emerged.

  • Despite the intense search trained on the animal trade and people linked to the market, investigators have not reported finding any animals infected with SARS‑CoV‑2 that had not been infected by humans. Yet, infected animal sources and other connective pieces of evidence were found for the earlier SARS and MERS outbreaks as quickly as within a few days, despite the less advanced viral forensic technologies of two decades ago.
  • Even though Wuhan is the home base of virus hunters with world-leading expertise in tracking novel SARS-like viruses, investigators have either failed to collect or report key evidence that would be expected if Covid-19 emerged from the wildlife trade . For example, investigators have not determined that the earliest known cases had exposure to intermediate host animals before falling ill. No antibody evidence shows that animal traders in Wuhan are regularly exposed to SARS-like viruses, as would be expected in such situations.
  • With today’s technology, scientists can detect how respiratory viruses — including SARS, MERS and the flu — circulate in animals while making repeated attempts to jump across species . Thankfully, these variants usually fail to transmit well after crossing over to a new species and tend to die off after a small number of infections. In contrast, virologists and other scientists agree that SARS‑CoV‑2 required little to no adaptation to spread rapidly in humans and other animals . The virus appears to have succeeded in causing a pandemic upon its only detected jump into humans.

The pandemic could have been caused by any of hundreds of virus species, at any of tens of thousands of wildlife markets, in any of thousands of cities, and in any year. But it was a SARS-like coronavirus with a unique furin cleavage site that emerged in Wuhan, less than two years after scientists, sometimes working under inadequate biosafety conditions, proposed collecting and creating viruses of that same design.

While several natural spillover scenarios remain plausible, and we still don’t know enough about the full extent of virus research conducted at the Wuhan institute by Dr. Shi’s team and other researchers, a laboratory accident is the most parsimonious explanation of how the pandemic began.

Given what we now know, investigators should follow their strongest leads and subpoena all exchanges between the Wuhan scientists and their international partners, including unpublished research proposals, manuscripts, data and commercial orders. In particular, exchanges from 2018 and 2019 — the critical two years before the emergence of Covid-19 — are very likely to be illuminating (and require no cooperation from the Chinese government to acquire), yet they remain beyond the public’s view more than four years after the pandemic began.

Whether the pandemic started on a lab bench or in a market stall, it is undeniable that U.S. federal funding helped to build an unprecedented collection of SARS-like viruses at the Wuhan institute, as well as contributing to research that enhanced them . Advocates and funders of the institute’s research, including Dr. Fauci, should cooperate with the investigation to help identify and close the loopholes that allowed such dangerous work to occur. The world must not continue to bear the intolerable risks of research with the potential to cause pandemics .

A successful investigation of the pandemic’s root cause would have the power to break a decades-long scientific impasse on pathogen research safety, determining how governments will spend billions of dollars to prevent future pandemics. A credible investigation would also deter future acts of negligence and deceit by demonstrating that it is indeed possible to be held accountable for causing a viral pandemic. Last but not least, people of all nations need to see their leaders — and especially, their scientists — heading the charge to find out what caused this world-shaking event. Restoring public trust in science and government leadership requires it.

A thorough investigation by the U.S. government could unearth more evidence while spurring whistleblowers to find their courage and seek their moment of opportunity. It would also show the world that U.S. leaders and scientists are not afraid of what the truth behind the pandemic may be.

More on how the pandemic may have started

hypothesis explanation for observation

Where Did the Coronavirus Come From? What We Already Know Is Troubling.

Even if the coronavirus did not emerge from a lab, the groundwork for a potential disaster had been laid for years, and learning its lessons is essential to preventing others.

By Zeynep Tufekci

hypothesis explanation for observation

Why Does Bad Science on Covid’s Origin Get Hyped?

If the raccoon dog was a smoking gun, it fired blanks.

By David Wallace-Wells

hypothesis explanation for observation

A Plea for Making Virus Research Safer

A way forward for lab safety.

By Jesse Bloom

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips . And here’s our email: [email protected] .

Follow the New York Times Opinion section on Facebook , Instagram , TikTok , WhatsApp , X and Threads .

Alina Chan ( @ayjchan ) is a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute of M.I.T. and Harvard, and a co-author of “ Viral : The Search for the Origin of Covid-19.” She was a member of the Pathogens Project , which the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists organized to generate new thinking on responsible, high-risk pathogen research.

  • Share full article



  1. 13 Different Types of Hypothesis (2024)

    hypothesis explanation for observation

  2. Hypothesis

    hypothesis explanation for observation

  3. Marketing Research Hypothesis Examples : Research questions hypotheses

    hypothesis explanation for observation

  4. Observation asking questions testable explanation hypothesis experiments sharing

    hypothesis explanation for observation

  5. What Are The Following Parts Of Scientific Inquiry Explained

    hypothesis explanation for observation

  6. Chapter 1 Introduction to Chemistry 1.3 Thinking Like a Scientist

    hypothesis explanation for observation




  3. Concept of Hypothesis in Hindi || Research Hypothesis || #ugcnetphysicaleducation #ntaugcnet

  4. rational explanation hypothesis

  5. How To Formulate The Hypothesis/What is Hypothesis?

  6. In the scientific method, a hypothesis is an a observation b measurement c test d propos


  1. Scientific hypothesis

    Table of Contents scientific hypothesis, an idea that proposes a tentative explanation about a phenomenon or a narrow set of phenomena observed in the natural world.The two primary features of a scientific hypothesis are falsifiability and testability, which are reflected in an "If…then" statement summarizing the idea and in the ability to be supported or refuted through observation and ...

  2. What Is a Hypothesis? The Scientific Method

    A hypothesis (plural hypotheses) is a proposed explanation for an observation. The definition depends on the subject. In science, a hypothesis is part of the scientific method. It is a prediction or explanation that is tested by an experiment. Observations and experiments may disprove a scientific hypothesis, but can never entirely prove one.

  3. How to Write a Strong Hypothesis

    Developing a hypothesis (with example) Step 1. Ask a question. Writing a hypothesis begins with a research question that you want to answer. The question should be focused, specific, and researchable within the constraints of your project. Example: Research question.

  4. The scientific method (article)

    The scientific method. At the core of biology and other sciences lies a problem-solving approach called the scientific method. The scientific method has five basic steps, plus one feedback step: Make an observation. Ask a question. Form a hypothesis, or testable explanation. Make a prediction based on the hypothesis.

  5. What is a Hypothesis

    Hypothesis. Definition: Hypothesis is an educated guess or proposed explanation for a phenomenon, based on some initial observations or data. ... Testable: A hypothesis must be able to be tested through observation or experimentation. This means that it must be possible to collect data that will either support or refute the hypothesis.

  6. What is a scientific hypothesis?

    Bibliography. A scientific hypothesis is a tentative, testable explanation for a phenomenon in the natural world. It's the initial building block in the scientific method. Many describe it as an ...

  7. Scientific Method: Observation, Hypothesis and Experiment (Video ...

    The scientific method is a detailed, empirical problem-solving process used by biologists and other scientists. This iterative approach involves formulating a question based on observation, developing a testable potential explanation for the observation (called a hypothesis), making and testing predictions based on the hypothesis, and using the findings to create new hypotheses and predictions.

  8. The Scientific Method Tutorial

    A hypothesis is a statement created by the researcher as a potential explanation for an observation or phenomena. The hypothesis converts the researcher's original question into a statement that can be used to make predictions about what should be observed if the hypothesis is true.

  9. Hypothesis

    The hypothesis of Andreas Cellarius, showing the planetary motions in eccentric and epicyclical orbits. A hypothesis (pl.: hypotheses) is a proposed explanation for a phenomenon.For a hypothesis to be a scientific hypothesis, the scientific method requires that one can test it. Scientists generally base scientific hypotheses on previous observations that cannot satisfactorily be explained with ...

  10. Scientific Method: Definition and Examples

    The scientific method is a series of steps followed by scientific investigators to answer specific questions about the natural world. It involves making observations, formulating a hypothesis, and conducting scientific experiments. Scientific inquiry starts with an observation followed by the formulation of a question about what has been observed.

  11. Biology and the scientific method review

    Meaning. Biology. The study of living things. Observation. Noticing and describing events in an orderly way. Hypothesis. A scientific explanation that can be tested through experimentation or observation. Controlled experiment. An experiment in which only one variable is changed.

  12. Hypothesis

    One hypothesis is a tentative explanation for an observation or phenomenon. It is based on prior knowledge and understanding of the world, and it can be tested by gathering and analyzing data. Observed facts are the data that are collected to test a hypothesis. They can support or refute the hypothesis.

  13. Observation, Hypothesis, Laws and Theories in Science (Video)

    Thus, while a hypothesis is a proposed explanation for a particular observation, a theory is a well-tested explanation for a broad set of observations that explain a particular facet of the physical world around us. Scientific laws are statements about particular observations; they do not explain the reason involved. This text is adapted from ...

  14. Scientific Method & Observation

    The scientific method does include observation. The steps of the scientific method include: Observation. Question. Hypothesis. Experiment. Conclusion. These steps can be modified to include other ...

  15. 1.2.1: The Scientific Method

    After deciding to learn more about an observation or a set of observations, scientists generally begin an investigation by forming a hypothesis, a tentative explanation for the observation(s). The hypothesis may not be correct, but it puts the scientist's understanding of the system being studied into a form that can be tested.

  16. The Scientific Method

    The hypothesis is a simple statement that defines what you think the outcome of your experiment will be. All of the first stage of the Scientific Method -- the observation, or research stage -- is designed to help you express a problem in a single question ("Does the amount of sunlight in a garden affect tomato size?") and propose an answer to ...

  17. Scientific Hypotheses: Writing, Promoting, and Predicting Implications

    One of the experts in the field defines "hypothesis" as a well-argued analysis of available evidence to provide a realistic (scientific) explanation of existing facts, fill gaps in public understanding of sophisticated processes, and propose a new theory or a test.4 A hypothesis can be proven wrong partially or entirely. However, even such ...

  18. Hypothesis: Definition, Examples, and Types

    A hypothesis is a tentative statement about the relationship between two or more variables. It is a specific, testable prediction about what you expect to happen in a study. It is a preliminary answer to your question that helps guide the research process. Consider a study designed to examine the relationship between sleep deprivation and test ...

  19. Theory and Observation in Science

    Although theory testing dominates much of the standard philosophical literature on observation, much of what this entry says about the role of observation in theory testing applies also to its role in inventing, and modifying theories, and applying them to tasks in engineering, medicine, and other practical enterprises. 2.

  20. What Is A Research Hypothesis? A Simple Definition

    A research hypothesis (or scientific hypothesis) is a statement about an expected relationship between variables, or explanation of an occurrence, that is clear, specific and testable. So, when you write up hypotheses for your dissertation or thesis, make sure that they meet all these criteria. If you do, you'll not only have rock-solid ...

  21. Writing a hypothesis and prediction

    A hypothesis is developed from an idea or question based on an observation. A prediction is then made, an experiment carried out to test this, then the results are analysed and conclusions can be ...

  22. 2.9 The Process of Science

    A hypothesis is a tentative explanation for an observation. A scientific theory is a well-tested and consistently verified explanation for a set of observations or phenomena. A scientific law is a description, often in the form of a mathematical formula, of the behavior of an aspect of nature under certain circumstances.

  23. Scientific Hypothesis, Theory, Law Definitions

    A hypothesis is an educated guess, based on observation. It's a prediction of cause and effect. Usually, a hypothesis can be supported or refuted through experimentation or more observation. A hypothesis can be disproven but not proven to be true. Example: If you see no difference in the cleaning ability of various laundry detergents, you might ...

  24. (PDF) The cryptoterrestrial hypothesis: A case for scientific openness

    class of hypothesis: an unconventional terrestrial explanation, outside the prevailing consensus view of the universe. This is the ultraterrestrial hypothesis, which in cludes as a subset the ...

  25. Why the Pandemic Probably Started in a Lab, in 5 Key Points

    Dr. Chan is a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute of M.I.T. and Harvard, and a co-author of "Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19." This article has been updated to reflect news ...