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An observational science is a science where it is not possible to construct controlled experiments in the area under study. For example, in childhood sexual abuse, it is not possible to create or manipulate abuse in order to observe what happens. Other examples of necessarily observational sciences include epidemiology, and much of the social sciences.
Other fields of scientific study can have observational as well as experimental aspects.
To substitute for the inability to directly construct experiments as part of the scientific method, two main strategies are used.
- First, multivariate statistical techniques allow the approximation of experimental control with statistical control.
- Secondly, experimental observations of previously-unobserved phenomena can be used to suggest new hypotheses and test existing ones. This can be seen as making use of pre-existing "natural experiments".
In the social sciences, sociology and economics are generally held to be examples of observational sciences, because of the impracticability (not to mention dubious ethical status) of manipulating whole societies or economies for experimental purposes.
Sometimes fields of study can change from being observational to being experimental: for example,