The Scientific Method Doesn’t Prove Truth

Yesterday I ranted about the tendency of individuals to use unspecific and subjective statements in political discourse. Today I want to rant about a similar tendency, the tendency of individuals to claim that something is scientifically proven (with the implication being that it has been scientifically proven true).

The scientific model involves a continuous cycle of making observations, thinking of interesting questions, formulating hypotheses, developing testable predictions, testing those predictions, and modifying the hypotheses based on the test results. If a test demonstrates that a hypothesis is false, the hypothesis can either be rejected or modified so that the cycle can continue.

The important thing to know about this cycle is that it never proves truth. A hypothesis might continue to be treated as true so long as no experiment shows that it’s false. But just because a lot of experiments have failed to show that a hypothesis is false, doesn’t prove that the hypothesis is true. A hypothesis might survive a million tests but that doesn’t mean it has been proven true. The 1,000,001st test could demonstrate that the hypothesis is incorrect, in which case it might be rejected entirely or modified based on the new information learned from the test and subjected to more tests.

Saying that something has been scientifically proven (true) doesn’t mean that that thing is true. It means that it hasn’t yet been proven false. While the difference between the two statements may appear to be subtle, it is important. The first statement makes a position appear unassailable, which is probably why so many people like to claim that their position is based on scientific truth. The second statement acknowledges the possibility that the basis of the position could be incorrect, which leaves the door open to changing positions based on new knowledge.

2 thoughts on “The Scientific Method Doesn’t Prove Truth”

  1. It’s long been said that the Scientific Method does not result in replacing a falsehood with a truth. It’s replacing a falsehood with a more subtle falsehood.

    1. One of my friends is fond of saying that the scientific method continuously establishes new models that enable more accurate predictions.

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