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Empirical evidence: A definition

Scientists in a lab
Researchers gather empirical evidence through experimentation or observation. (Image credit: skynesher via Getty Images)

Empirical evidence is information acquired by observation or experimentation. Scientists record and analyze this data. The process is a central part of the scientific method, leading to the proving or disproving of a hypothesis and our better understanding of the world as a result.

Empirical evidence might be obtained through experiments that seek to provide a measurable or observable reaction, trials that repeat an experiment to test its efficacy (such as a drug trial, for instance) or other forms of data gathering against which a hypothesis can be tested and reliably measured. 

"If a statement is about something that is itself observable, then the empirical testing can be direct. We just have a look to see if it is true. For example, the statement, 'The litmus paper is pink', is subject to direct empirical testing," wrote Peter Kosso in "A Summary of Scientific Method (opens in new tab)" (Springer, 2011).

"Science is most interesting and most useful to us when it is describing the unobservable things like atoms, germs, black holes, gravity, the process of evolution as it happened in the past, and so on," wrote Kosso. Scientific theories, meaning theories about nature that are unobservable, cannot be proven by direct empirical testing, but they can be tested indirectly, according to Kosso. "The nature of this indirect evidence, and the logical relation between evidence and theory, are the crux of scientific method," wrote Kosso.

The scientific method

The scientific method begins with scientists forming questions, or hypotheses, and then acquiring the knowledge through observations and experiments to either support or disprove a specific theory. "Empirical" means "based on observation or experience," according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (opens in new tab). Empirical research is the process of finding empirical evidence. Empirical data is the information that comes from the research.

Before any pieces of empirical data are collected, scientists carefully design their research methods to ensure the accuracy, quality and integrity of the data. If there are flaws in the way that empirical data is collected, the research will not be considered valid.

The scientific method often involves lab experiments that are repeated over and over, and these experiments result in quantitative data in the form of numbers and statistics. However, that is not the only process used for gathering information to support or refute a theory. 

This methodology mostly applies to the natural sciences. "The role of empirical experimentation and observation is negligible in mathematics compared to natural sciences such as psychology, biology or physics," wrote Mark Chang, an adjunct professor at Boston University, in "Principles of Scientific Methods (opens in new tab)" (Chapman and Hall, 2017).

Types of empirical research

"Empirical evidence includes measurements or data collected through direct observation or experimentation," said Jaime Tanner, a professor of biology at Marlboro College in Vermont. There are two research methods used to gather empirical measurements and data: qualitative and quantitative.

Qualitative research, often used in the social sciences, examines the reasons behind human behavior, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) (opens in new tab). It involves data that can be found using the human senses. This type of research is often done in the beginning of an experiment. "When combined with quantitative measures, qualitative study can give a better understanding of health related issues," wrote Dr. Sanjay Kalra for NCBI.

Quantitative research involves methods that are used to collect numerical data and analyze it using statistical methods, ."Quantitative research methods emphasize objective measurements and the statistical, mathematical, or numerical analysis of data collected through polls, questionnaires, and surveys, or by manipulating pre-existing statistical data using computational techniques," according to the LeTourneau University (opens in new tab). This type of research is often used at the end of an experiment to refine and test the previous research.

Identifying empirical evidence

Scientist in a lab

An important step in verifying evidence is having it tested by other researchers to see if they get the same results. (Image credit: PeopleImages via Getty Images)

Identifying empirical evidence in another researcher's experiments can sometimes be difficult. According to the Pennsylvania State University Libraries (opens in new tab), there are some things one can look for when determining if evidence is empirical:

  • Can the experiment be recreated and tested?
  • Does the experiment have a statement about the methodology, tools and controls used?
  • Is there a definition of the group or phenomena being studied?

Bias

The objective of science is that all empirical data that has been gathered through observation, experience and experimentation is without bias. The strength of any scientific research depends on the ability to gather and analyze empirical data in the most unbiased and controlled fashion possible. 

However, in the 1960s, scientific historian and philosopher Thomas Kuhn promoted the idea that scientists can be influenced by prior beliefs and experiences, according to the Center for the Study of Language and Information (opens in new tab)

"Missing observations or incomplete data can also cause bias in data analysis, especially when the missing mechanism is not random," wrote Chang.

Because scientists are human and prone to error, empirical data is often gathered by multiple scientists who independently replicate experiments. This also guards against scientists who unconsciously, or in rare cases consciously, veer from the prescribed research parameters, which could skew the results.

The recording of empirical data is also crucial to the scientific method, as science can only be advanced if data is shared and analyzed. Peer review of empirical data is essential to protect against bad science, according to the University of California (opens in new tab).

Empirical law vs. scientific law

Empirical laws and scientific laws are often the same thing. "Laws are descriptions — often mathematical descriptions — of natural phenomenon," Peter Coppinger, associate professor of biology and biomedical engineering at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, told Live Science. 

Empirical laws are scientific laws that can be proven or disproved using observations or experiments, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (opens in new tab). So, as long as a scientific law can be tested using experiments or observations, it is considered an empirical law.

Empirical, anecdotal and logical evidence

Empirical, anecdotal and logical evidence should not be confused. They are separate types of evidence that can be used to try to prove or disprove and idea or claim.

Logical evidence is used proven or disprove an idea using logic. Deductive reasoning may be used to come to a conclusion to provide logical evidence. For example, "All men are mortal. Harold is a man. Therefore, Harold is mortal."

Anecdotal evidence consists of stories that have been experienced by a person that are told to prove or disprove a point. For example, many people have told stories about their alien abductions to prove that aliens exist. Often, a person's anecdotal evidence cannot be proven or disproven. 

Additional resources and reading

There are some things in nature that science is still working to build evidence for, such as the hunt to explain consciousness.

Meanwhile, in other scientific fields, efforts are still being made to improve research methods, such as the plan by some psychologists to fix the science of psychology.

Bibliography

"A Summary of Scientific Method (opens in new tab)" by Peter Kosso (Springer, 2011)

"Empirical" Merriam-Webster Dictionary (opens in new tab)

"Principles of Scientific Methods (opens in new tab)" by Mark Chang (Chapman and Hall, 2017)

"Qualitative research" by Dr. Sanjay Kalra National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) (opens in new tab)

"Quantitative Research and Analysis: Quantitative Methods Overview" LeTourneau University (opens in new tab)

"Empirical Research in the Social Sciences and Education" Pennsylvania State University Libraries (opens in new tab)

"Thomas Kuhn" Center for the Study of Language and Information (opens in new tab)

"Misconceptions about science" University of California (opens in new tab)

Alina Bradford
Alina Bradford
Alina Bradford is a contributing writer for Live Science. Over the past 16 years, Alina has covered everything from Ebola to androids while writing health, science and tech articles for major publications. She has multiple health, safety and lifesaving certifications from Oklahoma State University. Alina's goal in life is to try as many experiences as possible. To date, she has been a volunteer firefighter, a dispatcher, substitute teacher, artist, janitor, children's book author, pizza maker, event coordinator and much more.