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In science, empirical means knowledge gained by experiments or observations, and you need to use your senses (sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste) to acquire empirical knowledge. So what does that mean?
To understand the meaning of empirical, you need to understand the scientific method and be able to compare empirical knowledge, or empirical data, to another to theoretical knowledge or theoretical data.
The scientific method
Scientists gain scientific knowledge by employing the scientific method. The first step in this method is the hypothesis (an educated guess).
Hypothesis: If I flip a quarter 100 times, heads will appear 50 times.
In the case of the quarter flipping, the hypothesis can also be a theoretical answer. Each quarter has two sides. When flipped, one side must land on top and the other side must land on the bottom. With 100 flips, and 2 possibilities, then each side of the quarter has a theoretical probability of coming up 50 times.
The scientist designs an experiment to test the hypothesis. Without testing the hypothesis, it is just an educated guess or a theory.
Experiment design: Flip the same quarter 100 times. Write down the results after each flip. The same person must flip the same quarter in the same room and in the same session, so the time of day does not change significantly.
Next, the scientist performs the experiment. The scientist may do the experiment more than once.
H T H H H T H T T H H H H T T T H T H T H T H H H T T T H T H H T T H T H T T T H H H H T T H H H T T H H H T T H H H T T T T T H T H T H T H H H T T T T H T H H H T H T H H T T H H H T T H H H T H H – Results: Heads: 52, Tails: 48
The scientist analyzes the data next. This data is the empirical data for the experiment. This data was obtained by doing an experiment, observing the results, and you had to use your senses (eyes) to get this empirical data.
For this experiment, the theoretical answer is 50 tails and 50 heads. The empirical answer, provided by actually doing the experiment, shows that heads came up 52 times and tails came up 48 times.
So, reiterated, empirical data is obtained by experiments and observations and you need to use your senses to get this data. Theoretical data can be made up in your head by reasoning it out.
Gwen Nicodemus went to school at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo and left with a degree in Physical Science and Computer Science. After working as an engineer for a decade, she decided to stay at home and homeschool her two children, and she also teaches science and math classes in a local homeschooling cooperative. Gwen keeps her brain active by writing unit studies and little books. Check out the great free resources, including unit studies, videos, tutorials, and little books at http://UnitStudiesByGwen.com