August 2, 2009

Misunderstanding Science in Some Unlikely Places

water drops

Misunderstanding science is a widespread problem, especially in the United States. Those of us who live here run into it again and again. Those of us tasked with teaching science often find it beyond frustrating, and yet, we persevere in the hope that we can make a difference. Thus, it is especially disheartening when we see influential freethinkers spreading misunderstandings about science.

John Shook, the Vice President and Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Inquiry Transnational, wrote a recent post in which he advocated for skepticism by spreading a common misconception about science that we are used to hearing from the faith-based community. Shook has a philosophy background rather than a scientific background, but I'd still hope such a prominent freethinker would be more careful.

Just what was Shook's error? After correctly highlighting the role of skepticism in the science, Shook writes,

There's too much loose talk about science proving theories. Actually, scientists spend most of their time trying to experimentally prove hypotheses false, especially their own hypotheses. Inability to prove one's hypotheses false after many kinds of trials against all available evidence, and getting confirmation of such trials by other researchers, is actually the path to reasonably establishing a hypothesis.

Actually, scientists spend most of their time testing hypotheses, not trying to prove or disprove anything. I understand what Shook is trying to accomplish here. By suggesting that scientists seek to prove their own hypotheses false, he is trying to dispel claims of bias. But this is not the most accurate way to explain the scientific method.

As scientists, we do not approach our work with grand designs about proving or disproving anything. "Proof" is a term one may encounter in philosophy or mathematics, but it is not one you will find scientists using much. We derive hypotheses carefully from the available scientific literature and test them, not solely through experimentation but with a host of research methods. We talk in terms of probabilities, significance levels, and effect sizes, not proof. When we find support for a hypothesis, we conduct more rigorous tests and publish the results to encourage others to do the same.

Now, this may seem like a minor quibble. Perhaps it is. The reason I raise it is that I see it feeding right into the constant tendency of the anti-science crowd to talk about proof. To the degree that "proof" plays any role in science, it would be way down the road at a point that most individual sciences would never see in their own research.

Another surprising error that has more to do with atheism than science:

With rival definitions of atheism now flourishing, I regard skepticism as the simplest broad category for including all disbelievers. You may prefer the label of "agnostic" while others are content with "atheist", but we are all skeptics towards the supernatural and paranormal.

Conflating atheism and skepticism is neither accurate nor helpful. One can be an atheist for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with skepticism. Atheism does not speak on the subject of the entire supernatural and paranormal. One can be an atheist while believing in UFOs, ghosts, alternative medicine, and a host of other absurdities. An atheist is someone who does not believe in gods. That's it.