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What is Scientific Explanation?

Kathryn Reis, David Wood
  • Author
    Kathryn Reis

    Kathryn B. Reis is a wildlife biologist with 5 years of research experience addressing wildlife ecology and conservation governance. She also has 8 years of professional experience in policy advocacy and governmental affairs and over 4 years of experience as an environmental educator and nature trail interpreter. She earned her B.S. in Wildlife Biology with a minor in Zoology from Colorado State University and a M.S. in Wildlife Ecology from Michigan State University. She is certified as an Associate Wildlife Biologist through The Wildlife Society and as an Educator and Facilitator of the Leopold Education Project.

  • Instructor
    David Wood

    David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

Learn about the process of developing a scientific explanation. Discover how the scientific process results in the formation of a new scientific explanation. Updated: 01/19/2022

Table of Contents


What is Scientific Explanation?

Science is a systematic approach to understanding the physical world. Observations and experimentations are at the heart of all scientific studies. Scientists must design and conduct their research in a manner that minimizes the insertion of bias so their conclusions can reveal general truths about how the world works. Science consists of three overarching fields:

  1. Physical science addresses inorganic components of Earth and the complete universe (e.g., chemistry, physics, astronomy).
  2. Biological science addresses all processes involving organic life on Earth (e.g., biology, botany, medicine).
  3. Social science explores relationships and cultures among humans (e.g., sociology, anthropology, economics).

Scientists within each field review the work of each other to ensure all research is conducted in a professional and replicable manner that is free of bias. It can take many years for scientists to publish their work in a peer-reviewed journal (e.g., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, The New England Journal of Medicine). If fellow scientists find flaws with the research design or believe the researcher made unfounded conclusions, the peer-review team will direct the researcher to correct those mistakes (e.g., re-conduct a part of the experiment).

What is a scientific explanation? It is the outcome of all scientific investigations that follow a systematic approach (often via the scientific process) for recording observations and measurements during a bias-free experiment or non-experimental study. Scientific explanations can be theoretical in nature, like Einstein's Theory of Relativity, offering hypothetical explanations of cause and effect relationships based on carefully analyzed data. Additionally, scientific explanations can yield answers to questions such as how to treat Alzheimer's Disease or how to create biodegradable plastic bags. Scientists continually conduct research under different circumstances to acquire answers for a myriad of questions that interest the human society.

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Scientific Explanation

In order to form a scientific explanation, modern scientists first employ the scientific process (or scientific method) to guide their investigations and form a hypothesis. The Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens initiated the process in the mid-1600s during the Renaissance. The scientific process equips researchers with a systematic approach to learning how a natural phenomenon could occur and consists of the following six steps:

1) Ask a question / Identify a problem

The question could be as innocent as why the sky is blue or as far-fetched as whether time travel is possible. Alternatively, the researcher may want to understand how a kidney cell mutates into a cancerous tumor.

2) Collect background information

To develop a hypothesis for testing purposes, scientists must collect as much information as possible that is already known about the topic they wish to research. Thus they scour the library shelves and interview topical experts to understand the intricacies of their research focus.

3) Develop a preliminary hypothesis

The hypothesis is a logical explanation for why the problem exists. Every research project has at least one set of hypotheses -- the null and the alternative. The null hypothesis represents a previous explanation for the problem at hand. In contrast, the alternative hypothesis states the explanation the scientist hopes to prove is correct.

4) Test the hypothesis

During the experimentation stage, scientists will test their hypothesis in a laboratory setting or in the field. The traditional laboratory experiment has a control group and a test group. In such settings, scientists will manipulate only one factor at a time. Such an approach ensures the scientist can definitively say what factor is responsible for any statistically significant difference observed between the control and test groups.

Some studies, however, have a non-experimental focus and may not require control and test groups. During non-experimental studies, scientists observe and record pre-determined variables that will help them prove the alternative hypothesis is true. For instance, a behavioral ecologist may track the number of interactions between a silverback gorilla and a baby gorilla within a given troop to learn how much involvement the patriarchs have in nurturing their offspring.

5) Analyze the data and form conclusions

Scientists statistically analyze their data to see if the alternative hypothesis is indeed true. Scientists also conduct statistical analyses to find significantly important patterns, trends, and relationships among their data variables. Following data analysis, scientists can then conclude if their alternative hypothesis is a true explanation of how the phenomenon in question occurs. If the analysis results disprove the alternative hypothesis, scientists will have to repeat their investigation, with a new hypothesis or a new research design (or both).

6) Finalize the hypothesis

Once pleased with results of their investigation, scientists finalize their hypothesis, write a technical report about their research process, and submit it to a peer-reviewed journal for review and hopeful publication.

This depiction of the scientific method indicates how the results of one research project informs the development of a subsequent investigation.

Circular diagram showing main steps of scientific method.

As the visual diagram above illustrates, the scientific investigation process is a cyclical event. Scientists in every field draw on each other's findings to inform their own research projects. However, the scientific process is just one form of reasoning scientists employ to test hypotheses and formulate scientific explanations. Other modes of reasoning used are:

  • Probabilistic -- Similar to the scientific process yet this investigative approach relies on statistical probabilities of what could happen if certain conditions are met.
  • Functional -- Scientists in the natural and social realms often use this scientific approach because they deal with systems and structures (e.g., central nervous system, kidneys, human family structure), all of which have a specific purpose to fulfill.

Note how scientific explanations result from a systematic, investigative process that others can replicate, thereby generating the same evidence for a given natural phenomenon. Dogmatic explanations, in contrast, appeal to intuition. They are linked to religious or philosophical beliefs that lack verifiable evidence and are not subject to questioning. Since the days of the Renaissance Period, scientists have strived to counter dogmatic thinking by engaging in thoughtful debates, continually sharing their observations and experimental data from carefully crafted research. Scientists engage in data sharing in order to collectively uncover new understandings of our world and universe.

Scientific Explanation Examples

A classic example of scientific explanation is the theory of classical conditioning. Ivan Pavlov was a physiologist in Russia during the 1890s. His initial research goal was to prove that dogs salivate more when food is presented to them. After a laboratory assistant repeatedly brought food to the experimental dogs, however, Pavlov discovered that the dogs began salivating when they heard the assistant's footsteps. This accidental discovery immediately became the focus of Pavlov's future research.

Pavlov established a laboratory setting to measure salivation of dogs being conditioned to associate a bell sound with food delivery.

Drawing of experiment for conditioning dogs to associate bell with food delivery.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the meaning of scientific explanation?

The meaning of a scientific explanation is that researchers proved a hypothesis to be correct about why a specific phenomenon occurs, such as why the sky is blue. The more times the hypothesis can be proved correct under different circumstances, the more evidence exists for that scientific explantation.

What are the elements of a scientific explanation?

The elements of a scientific explanation are hypotheses, experiments, and data (observations, measurements) that prove a predicted hypothesis is true. The more times the hypothesis can be confirmed under different circumstances, the more confirmation exists for that scientific explanation.

How do you write a scientific explanation?

This FAQ needs to be removed because it is the exact same as the first FAQ that I already answered.

What is an example of a scientific theory?

An example of a scientific theory is Ivan Pavlov's theory of conditioned response. Pavlov predicted that the presentation of food is an unconditioned stimulus because dogs naturally salivate more when they see food. To prove that conditioned (or learned) responses can occur, Pavlov trained a dog to associate the sound of a bell (conditioned stimulus) with the arrival of food. Eventually, the dog began to salivate whenever it heard the bell ring, even if food did not appear. However, Pavlov also discovered that a behavioral response can be learned only if the conditioned stimulus and unconditioned stimulus occur within close time of each other.

What is the process for creating a scientific explanation?

Scientists typically use the hypothetico-deductive method to develop a scientific explanation. Also known as the scientific method, it includes six steps: 1) ask a question; 2) collect background information about the question; 3) form a hypothesis (predict what the causal effect will be); 4) test the hypothesis; 5) analyze the data and form a conclusion; 6) finalize the hypothesis.

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