"Science proves ideas," and other misinterpretations of the scientific process

The scientific process is the most effective method humans have for learning about the natural world, yet there remain numerous misconceptions about its application, even among scientists.

Over at Understanding Science, a team of UC Berkeley researchers, teachers, designers and web experts has assembled a fantastic list of some common misconceptions about science and how it works. It's a great overview of what science is and what science isn't, and definitely warrants a look (along with the rest of the Understanding Science website — a truly fantastic resource). We've included a few misinterpretations, along with their explanations, below. But you'll want to click through to the full guide.

  • MISCONCEPTION: Science is a collection of facts.

    CORRECTION: Because science classes sometimes revolve around dense textbooks, it's easy to think that's all there is to science: facts in a textbook. But that's only part of the picture. Science is a body of knowledge that one can learn about in textbooks, but it is also a process. Science is an exciting and dynamic process for discovering how the world works and building that knowledge into powerful and coherent frameworks. To learn more about the process of science, visit our section on How science works.

  • MISCONCEPTION: Science is complete.

    CORRECTION: Since much of what is taught in introductory science courses is knowledge that was constructed in the 19th and 20th centuries, it's easy to think that science is finished - that we've already discovered most of what there is to know about the natural world. This is far from accurate. Science is an ongoing process, and there is much more yet to learn about the world. In fact, in science, making a key discovery often leads to many new questions ripe for investigation. Furthermore, scientists are constantly elaborating, refining, and revising established scientific ideas based on new evidence and perspectives. To learn more about this, visit our page describing how scientific ideas lead to ongoing research.

  • MISCONCEPTION: There is a single Scientific Method that all scientists follow.

    CORRECTION: "The Scientific Method" is often taught in science courses as a simple way to understand the basics of scientific testing. In fact, the Scientific Method represents how scientists usually write up the results of their studies (and how a few investigations are actually done), but it is a grossly oversimplified representation of how scientists generally build knowledge. The process of science is exciting, complex, and unpredictable. It involves many different people, engaged in many different activities, in many different orders. To review a more accurate representation of the process of science, explore our flowchart.

  • MISCONCEPTION: Because scientific ideas are tentative and subject to change, they can't be trusted.

    CORRECTION: Especially when it comes to scientific findings about health and medicine, it can sometimes seem as though scientists are always changing their minds. One month the newspaper warns you away from chocolate's saturated fat and sugar; the next month, chocolate companies are bragging about chocolate's antioxidants and lack of trans-fats. There are several reasons for such apparent reversals. First, press coverage tends to draw particular attention to disagreements or ideas that conflict with past views. Second, ideas at the cutting edge of research (e.g., regarding new medical studies) may change rapidly as scientists test out many different possible explanations trying to figure out which are the most accurate. This is a normal and healthy part of the process of science. While it's true that all scientific ideas are subject to change if warranted by the evidence, many scientific ideas (e.g., evolutionary theory, foundational ideas in chemistry) are supported by many lines of evidence, are extremely reliable, and are unlikely to change. To learn more about provisionality in science and its portrayal by the media, visit a section from our Science Toolkit.

  • MISCONCEPTION: Science proves ideas.

    CORRECTION: Journalists often write about "scientific proof" and some scientists talk about it, but in fact, the concept of proof - real, absolute proof - is not particularly scientific. Science is based on the principle that any idea, no matter how widely accepted today, could be overturned tomorrow if the evidence warranted it. Science accepts or rejects ideas based on the evidence; it does not prove or disprove them. To learn more about this, visit our page describing how science aims to build knowledge.

  • MISCONCEPTION: Science can only disprove ideas.

    CORRECTION: This misconception is based on the idea of falsification, philosopher Karl Popper's influential account of scientific justification, which suggests that all science can do is reject, or falsify, hypotheses - that science cannot find evidence that supports one idea over others. Falsification was a popular philosophical doctrine - especially with scientists - but it was soon recognized that falsification wasn't a very complete or accurate picture of how scientific knowledge is built. In science, ideas can never be completely proved or completely disproved. Instead, science accepts or rejects ideas based on supporting and refuting evidence, and may revise those conclusions if warranted by new evidence or perspectives.

Read more at Understanding Science.

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