Despite Newton’s noteworthy articulation, the scientific method actually had its origins much earlier, stretching back to the days of antiquity and the philosopher Aristotle.
Though scientific inquiry was nothing new, even in the days of Aristotle, he is considered the first to have formalised the epistemic process of the scientific method via induction and deduction, taking observations and drawing conclusions from them to be tested against future observations. The core loop of the scientific method in the millennium that followed evolved out of that pendulum process of induction and deduction.
From Aristotle, the scientific method had many caretakers and guardians, each of whom helped to develop the way it guided the discovery of knowledge. It was Ibn Al-Haytham who truly pioneered the concept of experimentation in the scientific method, going beyond an observational methodology and championing the rule of empirical scepticism in the pursuit of truth. For a scholar best known for work on human vision, it is perhaps ironic that Al-Haytham’s vision for empiricism would be so influential on the scientific method.
For many, the modern scientific method is inseparable from the use of hypotheses, for which the work of two famous ‘Bacon’s was responsible. By the 13th Century, the scientific method was robust enough that Roger Bacon could provide a full account of it: from observation to hypothesis to experimentation, and iterating beyond.
By providing detailed accounts of methodology, Bacon was able to ensure the reproducibility of his experiments. Through interrogation of the hypotheses Bacon posed, he could ensure that his work proved the logical conclusions he was contending. These are early ancestors of the modern virtues of reliability and validity, each fundamental to the robustness of science, though the true concept of reliability would not be formalised in the philosophy of the scientific method until much later.
Two centuries after Roger Bacon, it was Francis Bacon who produced the Baconian Method, an attempt to forge a new method beyond Aristotle’s initial construction. Known for the phrase “knowledge is power”, Bacon contended that many of the theories of the past were built upon ill-formed logic or conjecture, and that only through building up from proven axioms could we unlock the power of that knowledge to uncover the secrets of the world. The difference, fundamentally, spoke to the construction of hypotheses: that they should be evidence-based and not merely conjectures to observe against.
In modern science, the same kind of scrutiny to the philosophies of the past was put by Karl Popper, who is chiefly responsible for the philosophy of falsifiability: the idea that a theory is not a scientific theory unless it could have the potential to be proven false by evidence.
Challenging the rise of pseudo-scientific ideas in the early 1900s, Popper observed that many of them would retroactively claim to have predicted events. However, when such a theory’s predictions were incorrect, its proponents would simply use the ambiguity of the theory to claim it still held true.
Popper’s response was simple; if a theory is to have merit as a scientific theory, it must be able to make predictions, those predictions must be able to be tested through observation, and must have the potential to be proven false. If they cannot be proven false, the claim is not a theory. If they are proven false, the theory is disproven.
Ultimately, Popper’s analysis underpins a truth inherent to science: our best understandings of the world can always be challenged with new knowledge, so the endeavour of science is not to create infallible regimes of knowledge, but to establish through logic the best possible understanding of the world until that understanding is challenged.
Indeed, that principle holds true to the method of science as well. It should be plain to see that, despite its robustness and rigour, the scientific method has continued to evolve alongside human knowledge and scientific understanding, transforming but nonetheless maintaining the spirit of rational, empirical logic in the face of the complex and unfathomable secrets of the universe.