What An Experimental Control Is And Why It’s So Important

Good scientists will use an experimental control to try and control for unexpected influences on the results of an experiment. Photo: Shutterstock

An experimental control is used in scientific experiments to minimize the effect of variables which are not the interest of the study. The control can be an object, population, or any other variable which a scientist would like to “control.”

You may have heard of an experimental control, but what is it? Why is an experimental control important? The function of an experimental control is to hold constant the variables that an experimenter isn’t interested in measuring.

This helps scientists ensure that there have been no deviations in the environment of the experiment that could end up influencing the outcome of the experiment, besides the variable they are investigating. Let’s take a closer look at what this means.

You may have ended up here to understand why a control is important in an experiment. A control is important for an experiment because it allows the experiment to minimize the changes in all other variables except the one being tested.

To start with, it is important to define some terminology.

Terminology Of A Scientific Experiment

Types of Experimental ControlExplaination
NegativeThe negative control variable is a variable or group where no response is expected
PositiveA positive control is a group or variable that receives a treatment with a known positive result
RandomizationA randomized controlled seeks to reduce bias when testing a new treatment
Blind experimentsIn blind experiments, the variable or group does not know the full amount of information about the trial to not skew results
Double-blind experimentsA double-blind group is where all parties do not know which individual is receiving the experimental treatment

Hypothesis

Scientists use the scientific method to ask questions and come to conclusions about the nature of the world. After making an observation about some sort of phenomena they would like to investigate, a scientist asks what the cause of that phenomena could be. The scientist creates a hypothesis, a proposed explanation that answers the question they asked. A hypothesis doesn’t need to be correct, it just has to be testable.

The hypothesis is a prediction about what will happen during the experiment, and if the hypothesis is correct then the results of the experiment should align with the scientist’s prediction. If the results of the experiment do not align with the hypothesis, then a good scientist will take this data into consideration and form a new hypothesis that can better explain the phenomenon in question.

Independent and Dependent Variables

In order to form an effective hypothesis and do meaningful research, the researcher must define the experiment’s independent and dependent variables. The independent variable is the variable which the experimenter either manipulates or controls in an experiment to test the effects of this manipulation on the dependent variable. A dependent variable is a variable being measured to see if the manipulation has any effect.

Independent variables are manipulated by experimenters, while dependent variables are observed by experimenters. Photo: goodrichscience.com

For instance, if a researcher wanted to see how temperature impacts the behavior of a certain gas, the temperature they adjust would be the independent variable and the behavior of the gas the dependent variable.

Control Groups and Experimental Groups

There will frequently be two groups under observation in an experiment, the experimental group, and the control group. The control group is used to establish a baseline that the behavior of the experimental group can be compared to. If two groups of people were receiving an experimental treatment for a medical condition, one would be given the actual treatment (the experimental group) and one would typically be given a placebo or sugar pill (the control group).

Without an experimental control group, it is difficult to determine the effects of the independent variable on the dependent variable in an experiment. This is because there can always be outside factors that are influencing the behavior of the experimental group. The function of a control group is to act as a point of comparison, by attempting to ensure that the variable under examination (the impact of the medicine) is the thing responsible for creating the results of an experiment. The control group is holding other possible variables constant, such as the act of seeing a doctor and taking a pill, so only the medicine itself is being tested.

Why Are Experimental Controls So Important?

Experimental controls allow scientists to eliminate varying amounts of uncertainty in their experiments. Whenever a researcher does an experiment and wants to ensure that only the variable they are interested in changing is changing, they need to utilize experimental controls.

Experimental controls have been dubbed “controls” precisely because they allow researchers to control the variables they think might have an impact on the results of the study. If a researcher believes that some outside variable could influence the results of their research, they’ll use a control group to try and hold that thing constant and measure any possible influence it has on the results. It is important to note that there may be many different controls for an experiment, and the more complex a phenomena under investigation is, the more controls it is likely to have.

Not only do controls establish a baseline that the results of an experiment can be compared to, they also allow researchers to correct for possible errors. If something goes wrong in the experiment, a scientist can check on the controls of the experiment to see if the error had to do with the controls. If so, they can correct for this next time the experiment is done.

A Practical Example

Let’s take a look at a concrete example of an experimental control. If an experimenter wanted to determine how different soil types impacted the germination period of seeds, they could set up four different pots. Each pot would be filled with a different soil type, planted with seeds, then watered and exposed to sunlight. Measurements would be taken regarding how long it took for the seeds to sprout in the different soil types.

A control group may often be deprived of certain things, like active ingredients in medicinal trials, or water, in this case, to try and establish what exactly influenced the dependent variable. Photo: khanacademy.org

A control for this experiment might be to fill more pots with just the different types of soil and no seeds or to set aside some seeds in a pot with no soil. The goal is to try and determine that it isn’t something else other than the soil, like the nature of the seeds themselves, the amount of sun they were exposed to, or how much water they are given, that affected how quickly the seeds sprouted. The more variables a researcher controlled for, the surer they could be that it was the type of soil having an impact on the germination period.

 Not All Experiments Are Controlled

While experimental controls are important, it is also important to remember that not all experiments are controlled. In the real world, there are going to be limitations on what variables a researcher can control for, and scientists often try to record as much data as they can during an experiment so they can compare factors and variables with one another to see if any variables they didn’t control for might have influenced the outcome. It’s still possible to draw useful data from experiments that don’t have controls, but it is much more difficult to draw meaningful conclusions based on uncontrolled data.

Though it is often impossible in the real world to control for every possible variable, experimental controls are an invaluable part of the scientific process and the more controls an experiment has the better off it is.

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