A Scientific Argument

Why Do Scientists Argue and Challenge Each Other's Results?

Debate among scientists Image Credit: Microsoft Clip Art

Remember, one of the foundations of scientific inquiry is the assumption that scientific ideas must be confirmed and are subject to revision. Although the back-and-forth debates among scientists may sometimes be confusing to the public, these challenges and counter-challenges serve a very useful and necessary purpose in advancing scientific knowledge.

By using empirical methods, scientists make it possible for other scientists to reexamine evidence and data, repeat experiments, replicate research results and confirm (or reject) explanations. Scientists want other scientists (or peers) in the same field of study to review their methods and challenge their results. Why? Because the public and the scientific community will have confidence in their explanations only after other qualified scientists have judged their work to be valid.


What Is a Scientific Argument?

You already know what an argument is: a disagreement between people about some issue they feel is important. A scientific argument is defined as people disagreeing about scientific explanations (claims) using empirical data (evidence) to justify their side of the argument.  A scientific argument is a process that scientists follow to guide their research activities. Scientists identify weaknesses and limitations in others' arguments, with the ultimate goal of refining and improving scientific explanations and experimental designs. This process is known as evidence-based argumentation.

The figure below explains the three components of a scientific argument - the claim (or the explanation), the evidence (or the observations), and the rationale (or the reasoning).

A Scientific Argument

Claim   Evidence   Rationale

An explanation or an answer to a research question that

is supported by

Observations that show trends over time or relationships between variables

and is justified by

Reasoning that explains the evidence and why it supports the claim.

Adapted from Sampson, Grooms, and Walker, 2011

In a nutshell, scientific argumentation requires scientists to support their claims (either for or against a particular idea or explanation) with evidence that has been gathered through observation or experimentation and then to use logic and reason to justify why that evidence supports their claims. Scientific arguments use evidence and data rather than belief or opinion to support a claim because evidence and data can be empirically reexamined and retested, whereas beliefs and opinions (no matter how strongly held) cannot be empirically verified.

Learning how to construct a valid scientific argument will help you recognize arguments that are unscientific — those based wholly or in part on emotion, ignorance, misinterpretation of scientific evidence, or denial.

According to environmental scientist, Dr. Haydn Washington, and Skeptical Science Website founder, John Cook, "An objective scientist should be skeptical: one should not jump to conclusions or believe something simply because it is fashionable and agrees with current dogma."

(Washington & Cook, 2011, p. 1)