What are scientists trying to prove?

29 Sep

Nothing.

I have often complained about bad science journalism. Of all the sins of bad science reporting,  none irks me more than the phrase “scientists are trying to prove.” I think this apparently harmless phrases actually captures a lot of the public  misunderstanding of science.

Sure, it’s true that scientists generate hypotheses and that they often favor one hypothesis over another. But good science is concerned with testing hypotheses and honestly reporting the results. The best way to test a hypothesis is to devise an experiment that has the possibility of disproving it. If the hypothesis survives the test, then our confidence in it increases. A good scientist also tries to guard against bias, this is why double blind procedures, when possible, are appropriate. As physicist Richard Feynman famously wrote:

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”

A closely allied practice is for journalists to report on incomplete research and hype results that haven’t even been obtained yet.

 

One Response to “What are scientists trying to prove?”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. peakmemory - September 30, 2014

    […] Yesterday, I blogged about the misuse of the word “proof” by science journalists. Wouldn’t you know it, later, I came across this blog post, which tells us: […]

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