Environment: understanding atmospheric and ocean flows
Environment: understanding atmospheric and ocean flows

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Environment: understanding atmospheric and ocean flows

3.9.1 Scientific method

Much of science is concerned with gathering data, so a key part of scientific method involves scientists making observations or measurements about the world, and from these constructing theories about the causes of the observed phenomena. Using these theories or models, the scientist is then able to make predictions as to what might occur in a new but related situation to the ones previously observed. The scientist should then set up or seek such a situation, and test whether the observed behaviour does indeed occur. If it does, then the theory is supported. But if the observations do not accord with the theory, then the theory is either inadequate or possibly completely wrong. So a key part of scientific method is making testable predictions from the data.

The philosopher of science Karl Popper (1902–94) was a major advocate of this approach, and brought in the concept of ‘falsifiability’. In essence, this suggested that a scientific theory would be useful only if it were possible to devise an experiment to test it, whose outcome could be in accord or not with the expectations. The results of such experiments may lead to the theory being rejected, revised, or accepted as possibly true until proved otherwise. Ideally, scientists should strive their hardest to disprove a theory rather than selectively only looking for the evidence that supports it!

The story of Nansen’s expedition in the drifting ice is a spectacular example of scientific method. From the observation that trees from Siberia turned up in Svalbard, he predicted that a ship trapped in the ice would follow the same path. He then proceeded to test this theory in a very practical, but dangerous, way.

The continual attempt to test, and potentially ‘falsify’ (prove to be false), theories is regarded as the essential feature of scientific method that distinguishes it from other approaches. An artist or a journalist may want to present their interpretation of a situation, but this interpretation is often only descriptive, not predictive. Some religions and similar codes make predictions and suggestions about what could or will happen, but these are rarely testable in a way that would be considered scientific.


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