What Is a Hypothesis? (Science)

A hypothesis is a prediction that is tested with an experiment.
A hypothesis is a prediction that is tested with an experiment. Angela Lumsden, Getty Images

What is a hypothesis? A hypothesis (plural hypotheses) is a proposed explanation for an observation. The definition depends on the subject. For example, in science, a hypothesis is part of the scientific method. It is a prediction or explanation that is tested by an experiment. Observations and experiments may disprove a scientific hypothesis, but can never entirely prove one.

But, in the study of logic, a hypothesis is an if-then proposition, typically written in the form, "If X, then Y." In common usage, a hypothesis is simply a proposed explanation or prediction, which may or may not be tested.

Writing a Hypothesis

Most scientific hypotheses are proposed in if-then format because it's easy to design an experiment to see whether or not there is a cause and effect relationship between the independent variable and the dependent variable. The hypothesis is written as a prediction of the outcome of the experiment.

Null Hypothesis and Alternative Hypothesis

Statistically, it's easier to show there is no relationship between two variables than to support their connection. So, scientists often propose the null hypothesis. The null hypothesis assumes changing the independent variable will have no effect on the dependent variable.

In contrast, the alternative hypothesis suggests changing the independent variable will have an effect on the dependent variable. Designing an experiment to test this hypothesis can be trickier, because there are many ways to state an alternative hypothesis.

For example, consider a possible relationship between getting a good night's sleep and getting good grades. The null hypothesis might be stated: "The number of hours of sleep students get is unrelated to their grades" or "Their is no correlation between hours of sleep and grades." An experiment to test this hypothesis might involve collecting data, recording average hours of sleep for each student and grades. If student who get 8 hours of sleep generally do better than students who get 4 hours of sleep or 10 hours of sleep, the hypothesis might be rejected.

But the alternative hypothesis is harder to propose and test. The most general statement would be: "The amount of sleep students get affects their grades." The hypothesis might also be stated as "If you get more sleep, your grades will improve" or "Students who get 9 hours of sleep have better grades than those who get more or less sleep." In an experiment, you can collect the same data, but the statistical analysis is less likely to give you a high confidence limit.

Usually, a scientist starts out with the null hypothesis. From there, it may be possible to propose and test an alternative hypothesis, to narrow down the relationship between the variables.

Example of a Hypothesis

  • If you drop a rock and a feather, they will fall at the same rate.
  • Plants need sunlight in order to live.
  • Eating sugar gives you energy.

Sources

  • Patricia M. Shields (1998). "Pragmatism As a Philosophy of Science: A Tool For Public Administration". In Jay D. White. Research in Public Administration. 4. pp. 195–225 [211]. ISBN 1-55938-888-9.
  • Schick, Theodore; Vaughn, Lewis (2002). How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age. Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education. ISBN 0-7674-2048-9.