Why the Scientific Method Matters to Forensic Investigations

There’s a reason schools teach students the scientific method early and often. It’s a fundamental tool for understanding and exploring the natural world, and it develops critical thinking skills. Most people don’t think about the steps after they’ve turned in their papier-mâché volcanoes, but they’re indispensable to forensic engineers seeking conclusions about the cause and extent of property loss.

The scientific method is a tried and true method of examining evidence to arrive at a conclusion that’s unbiased and supported by facts. In short, it eliminates assumptions made by policyholders, contractors, and even experts; that means you get a report that’s both accurate and defensible for better claims resolution. 

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The scientific method removes the risk of investigators disregarding evidence that doesn’t conform to their initial prediction.

In case it’s been a while since your last science lab, here’s how using the scientific method applies to your claim. 

Ask a Question/Identify a Problem

The claim begins when a policyholder reports property damage. To settle a claim with confidence, you must answer questions like: “Is what I see considered damage, or is it normal wear and tear? If what I see is damage, what caused it? When was it caused? What is the extent of the damage?” When you engage a forensic expert, these questions make up the scope of work, or what you want the expert to answer so that you can resolve the claim.

Forensic engineers can answer questions about residential, commercial, and industrial properties, including structures, electronics, and machinery. The central questions in the scope of work should be accompanied by details about the property to guide the assessment. For example, if a policyholder reports that a contractor told them they have hail damage to their roof covering and they want a replacement, the questions are simple: “Is the roof covering damaged?” and, if so, “What is the cause and extent of damage to the roof covering?”

Know the processes that keep an assessment running smoothly. Find out What to Expect From a Forensic Engineer.

Construct Multiple Hypotheses

The expert uses the information provided in the assignment, witness interviews, onsite observations, their experience and expertise, and the body of scientific knowledge to create testable explanations (hypotheses) about the cause of loss. The body of scientific knowledge comprises all facts that have already been discovered or scientificatlly proven. For each hypothesis, the steps of the scientific method are repeated until one hypothesis is best supported by evidence.

Selecting a hypothesis via the scientific method doesn’t leave room for shortcuts. An engineer may hypothesize that blemishes in the roof shingles were caused by hail based on the contractor’s report and because the policyholders noted that several neighborhood roof coverings were replaced due to hail damage. However, it’s the expert’s duty to evaluate other hypotheses, too, and to gather sufficient facts and data to evaluate which hypothesis is best supported by the evidence.  

This is the physical inspection and evidence gathering portion of the property assessment. A reliable expert documents each step as they seek evidence that confirms or refutes their predictions. In instances of product failure, this may require the expert to recreate the circumstances they hypothesize caused the failure. 

Roof Damage

A hypothesis requires research and documenting evidence and onsite observations. A new hypothesis is needed if the data doesn’t support the expert’s initial one.

Test the Hypothesis Against the Collected Data

In the instance of the reportedly hail-damaged roof, the engineer may find damage to only eaves and ridges. These aren’t consistent with hail strikes because they’re on easily accessible areas only, clustered together, and not on any other collaterals such as fences and gutters. The evidence doesn’t support hail damage, so it’s time to evaluate an alternative hypothesis.

For one example of how Donan engineers collect onsite data, read Evaluating Roof Structural Integrity After a Snowstorm.

Analyze the Data and Form a Conclusion

Ultimately, the conclusion must be supported by data, evidence, and the body of scientific knowledge. This often involves testing multiple hypotheses until one is scientifically and reliably confirmed. 

Hammer Mark

Combined with other observations and data, deep, round dents with crushed granules may imply human-caused rather than hail-related damage.

Given the evidence in our example, the engineer can compare their observations on the roof to the documented size and direction of hail from weather reports on the date of loss and the body of scientific knowledge. The data and characteristics of damage support the hypothesis that the indentations on the roof are human caused rather than the result of hail. The expert has formulated an unbiased conclusion using a reliable method. They can clearly express how and why and defend the conclusion if it’s challenged.

To find out how the experts differentiate between hail damage and other common causes of loss to a roof, check out 5 Things That Could Look Like Hail But Aren’t.

Communicate the Conclusions

Most important for your claim is the documentation provided by the inspecting expert. Cause and extent reports should present information in a way that’s easy to understand and relay to your policyholders. If the claim needs to be revisited, even years later, the investigation can be reevaluated and, using the scientific method, reach the same conclusions.

You deserve more than a guess to settle your claims; a scientifically based conclusion communicated through accurate, consistent reporting allows you to take confident next steps. Donan is part of Alpine Intel’s family of brands committed to answering your tough property questions. To experience how an expert adhering to the scientific method can help you remove the guesswork from claim resolution, submit an assignment today.