"Scientifically proven."

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 30 April 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

Okay, there's one phrase that absolutely drives me up a wall. I do my best in all public interactions to stay cool and respectful of differing opinions and approaches to understanding, but when I hear these two little words I instantly Hulk out and start (mentally) smashing things:

"Scientifically proven."

I guarantee that if you hear that spoken to you, then you can immediately dismiss the speaker as a charlatan, a fake, a con, and/or an outright liar. They're trying to sell you something, and they're abusing the respectability of the scientific profession to pull you in.

Science doesn't prove anything. Anything. Every single statement we make about the world around us using the scientific method is provisional. They're based on the current accumulated evidence. All of our models, laws, hypotheses, and full-blown theories can be abruptly and unceremoniously overturned in a blink of an eye if new evidence comes to light.

And if a statement can be shown to be wrong tomorrow, then it can't exactly be "proven" today, can it?

Sure, there are some things we're pretty dang sure about the universe, like, I don't know, evolution of species and conservation of momentum, so it's not like we're losing sleep worrying that we can't make any scientific progress, but the principle holds true.

And there can certainly be accumulated evidence and statements of observation or experiment that are bare facts of our natural experience, but those statements are true or untrue, not proven or unproven, and they're usually much less interesting than you would hope (e.g., "under a limited set of controlled conditions, and subject to experimental uncertainty, we observe a 40% increase in an observed property compared to a control population.")

The scientific method is inherently inferential: today we make reaching statements that are conditioned on the available data and evidence. But tomorrow is, as they say, a new day.

About the Author

Paul Sutter

Paul Sutter

Paul Sutter is COSI's Chief Scientist. He is an astrophysicist and offers a wealth of knowledge about our universe. In addition to his COSI position, Paul Sutter is a Cosmological Researcher and Community Outreach Coordinator at The Ohio State University's Center for Cosmology and AstroParticle Physics (CCAPP).