Formulating a Viable Scientific Hypothesis

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  • 0:02 Scientific Knowledge
  • 1:30 Hypotheses Follow Questions
  • 3:18 Refining a Hypothesis
  • 4:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

Constructing a viable scientific hypothesis involves several different factors. In this lesson, you'll explore what separates a good hypothesis from a bad one and how to identify if your hypothesis has been formulated properly.

Scientific Knowledge

The word 'science' comes from the Latin 'to know.' This aptly describes what scientists do all the time - they ask questions to learn and know more about our natural world. Humans are incredibly curious, and we want to know as much as possible about other organisms and processes that occur in the environment around us. To do this, we ask questions - the who, what, when, where, and why of life.

These questions often lead scientists to develop hypotheses, which are proposed explanations for scientific observations. They are not 'educated guesses,' as you may have heard before. Hypotheses are developed very carefully, and they specifically aim to describe and/or explain natural phenomena.

A good hypothesis will lead a scientist to predictions that can then be tested through observations or experimentation. The ability to test a hypothesis is key - if you can't test it, you can't determine if it's valid or not! For example, saying that there is another universe outside of ours is an interesting idea, but you can't test it, so it's not a viable hypothesis.

There are a number of other factors that make hypotheses viable. Not only must hypotheses be testable, they need to be clear statements, should identify measurable variables, and be limited to the experiment at hand.

Hypotheses Follow Questions

You can't have a good hypothesis without a good question. That's like putting the cart before the horse - you're just not going to get anywhere! Your scientific question should identify what you're interested in testing. For example, will feeding plants a certain amount of fertilizer make them grow bigger than plants that do not get fertilizer? Or, do low-oxygen waters increase fish mortality?

Do you see how each of these questions is trying to get at a very specific answer? From such questions, you can devise clear research plans to try and solve your problem. This process starts with a solid hypothesis!

Let's say, for example, that you're trying to answer that first question about plant fertilizer. Your question is specific, and you can easily devise a research experiment to find your answer, so let's formulate a good hypothesis. If you believe that because plants need food to survive that an excess of food might cause increased growth in your plants, your hypothesis could be something like, 'plants that are given fertilizer will grow bigger than plants that are not given fertilizer.'

Does this hypothesis fit our criteria? Let's see, first of all, it is testable. You could run an experiment and feed some plants fertilizer while not giving fertilizer to others. It's also a clear statement - it clearly describes what will happen to the plants when they are given fertilizer. The variables are also measurable - both the amount of fertilizer and the growth of the plants can easily be measured and compared. Finally, it is concise - you are making a statement about something that could be determined in one experiment. You won't need to test this one six different ways to get your answer.

Refining a Hypothesis

That was an example of a good hypothesis, but some hypotheses just don't make the cut. These would be statements that are vague, that can't be tested, and that might take several attempts to satisfy with an answer.

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