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Forget what you’ve read, science can’t prove a thing

Do scientists have a language problem? Do policy makers have hearing issues? It would certainly seem so. Of late there have been frequent lamentations about scientists' failure to make their case to the…

Scientists need to do a better job of communicating with non-scientists. Brewbooks/Flickr

Do scientists have a language problem? Do policy makers have hearing issues?

It would certainly seem so. Of late there have been frequent lamentations about scientists' failure to make their case to the public on hot-button issues, or of policy makers to listen to their input.

Often scientists and the public are, in fact, communicating, but they’re talking right past one another. So what’s going on?

Words, words, words

It’s imperative scientists do a better job communicating the meaning of the words they choose.

I don’t mean jargon: I mean basic words that mean one thing in scientific circles and another to the wider public.

Let’s take the climate change debate, and focus on a few specific words in context.

1) Theory: “Climate change is just a theory

In science effectively all ideas are “just” theories.

Scientists often use concepts from the philosophy of science to make some semantic distinctions between laws, theories, hypotheses, and the like.

So when a scientist talks about a “law” of nature, he or she is referring only to a standard observation (given some strict parameters), not an absolute requirement.

A basic principle in science is that any law, theory, or otherwise can be disproven if new facts or evidence are presented.

If it cannot be somehow disproven by an experiment, then it is not scientific.

Take, for example, the Universal Law of Gravitation.

This “law” describes the motion of heavenly bodies, and how we stay firmly planted on the ground.

But this “law” is in fact not always right – it just captures what we usually observe.

In this case, we are ultimately referring to the “theory” of gravity – a theory supported by a huge body of evidence, but still just a theory.

The same is the case for human-induced climate change.

2) Proof: “We can’t prove humans are causing climate change.”

When people ask for proof, they generally just mean “evidence". Scientists may have lots of “evidence”, but will never claim to have “proof,” because proof does not exist in science.

Proof has a technical meaning that only applies in mathematics.

All we can do in science is collect evidence – lots of it – much the way we do in testing gravitational theory.

So long as the evidence is consistent with the theory, we consider the theory validated. But it will never be proven.

A critic or sceptic may view a scientist’s hedging on the issue of “proof” as a sign of weakness – really it’s just a sign the scientist’s meaning of the word is different to the general public’s.

3) Uncertainty: “Even proponents of human-induced climate change admit uncertainty.”

This use of “uncertainty” is perhaps the stickiest issue. In the public mind, uncertainty suggests someone is confused or otherwise not fully in command of the material.

But in science, uncertainty is always present…because nothing can be proven.

Is this a bad thing? No.

A scientist cannot and will not say there is absolute certainty that you won’t fly off into space due to a quirk of gravitational theory, quantum mechanics, or the like.

He or she would simply say that such an occurrence is extraordinarily unlikely – so unlikely that it wouldn’t, on average, happen even once during the age of the known universe. Even though that’s really unlikely there remains uncertainty.

In the climate change debate the uncertainty is much larger than in this example, but it is fundamentally no different to the scientist’s mind.

A winning formula

The burden for fixing this communication problem falls most heavily on the scientist. We need to better educate the public about the meaning of our words, and of the basic principles of science. We fail when we assume that everyone thinks or argues the way that we do.

This is a huge challenge in an age of 24-7 news channels that are looking for three-word soundbites.

No-one wants to diminish the accuracy of our statements. But even accommodating the modern media cycle is possible.

So how about this?

In science …

  • Everything’s a theory.

  • Proof doesn’t exist.

  • Nothing is certain.

Join the conversation

12 Comments sorted by

  1. Andrew Dunne

    logged in via Twitter

    I think you may have fallen into a common trap that many people communicating science do: "if only we educate the public better they will understand". The majority of people (scientists included) only understand something as it relates to them, so it is not about educating them about the ways of science, rather it is up to the scientists to relate their work in a way that is has meaning to people. Only then will you have a good conversation.

  2. Rod Lamberts

    Deputy Director, Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science at Australian National University

    A fair warning by Andrew Dunne, though I didn't see Michael as directly advocating the 'deficit model' of (science) communication philosophy - which I agree is deeply flawed.

    I think it's good to remind those inside and outside of the sciences that there are language hurdles when having conversations, and that attempting to identify them upfront is a useful step. Specialists in any field (science or other) can forget that their standard language of expertise is in fact jargon-rich and possibly…

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  3. Jason

    logged in via Twitter

    I agree with Andrew re: educating public. That form of thinking went out decades ago. But there is no reason why we can't incoporate those 3 simple facts - or something similar - into our conversation with the public - whoever they may be. In fact one of the big barriers I have in the public engagement sphere re: emerging technologies is that a large number of people don't understand how science works and that affects their ability to have an informed conversation. I am often having to take a step back and try to explain how science works, which apart from supplying context, allows the discussion to move forward.
    Jason Major, TechNyou

    1. Michael J. Biercuk

      Senior Lecturer in the School of Physics at University of Sydney

      In reply to Jason

      Indeed, this isn't just about forcing the public to adopt the scientist's meaning of words. Rather, it's to make clear that when the public may stumble on a scientific discussion that the words may not mean precisely what they expect. Then crafting a message that is useful to the public is the next step.

  4. Barry Calderbank

    logged in via Facebook

    The problem with the climate change debate is not so much the climate scientists but other people with another agenda who cherry pick the available science to suit their arguments. And, as the public debate has progressed, if you could call it progress, it has become more and more dominated by those at the extremes. The media is not interested in a climate scientist who'd talk in the measured manner outlined by Michael. No, the media is excluding them and, instead, giving the stage to those who…

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  5. Graeme Hanigan

    logged in via Facebook

    A good discussion and yes communicating science is difficult.
    The public tend to think of science as the search for truth, when its really about minimising doubt.

  6. Anthony Muscio

    logged in via Facebook

    I differ from many of the posters here in so far I do believe the public needs to understand science more and incorporate it into their wisdom. History shows how the scientific method is our most effective path towards truth, and the tentative nature of that truth. The fact is we give far too much credit to schools of thought that are corrupt from faith based beliefs to the extreme relativism that suggests there are as many truths as people to imagine them. Ok, this sharing of wisdom may not work for the current debates - but we must start on this path or remain in the dark ages from which only a few have emerged. A simple survey of the learned or wise amongst us shows how scientific methods must be valued above that of opinion and politics which are usually tested against other opinion and politics, rather than evidence.

  7. Jan Tilden

    Science communicator

    Great article. What to do about it? Barry Calderbank is right about cherry-pickers with agendas. Some of these people are past-masters at exploiting to their own advantage people's misunderstanding of how science works.

  8. Mark Harrigan

    PhD Physicist

    Thanks - great article - loved it. Although I agree with Anthony Muscio - we do need to find ways to increase public understanding of just what science is and how wondrous and valuable it can be.

    As I've posted elsewhere on the "brand" of science -

    Science, like any human endeavour, has its flaws. It is far from perfect - perhaps even a poor way of attaining knowledge of the truth of the world around us and how it works- but it's a so much better way than every other alternative around.

    Surely there is great value in attempting to understand how the real world around us works. So we can attempt to improve the lot of our fellow citizens as well as to act as better stewards and custodians of the planet that we live on. We can only fulfil that stewardship through knowledge, social justice and sustained intellectual reasoning.
    Science is at the core of all three of these - it's a great "brand" and should be celebrated.

  9. Dominic Hyde

    Snr Lecturer, Philosophy, University of Queensland

    I agree that "Scientists often use concepts from the philosophy of science to make some semantic distinctions between laws, theories, hypotheses, and the like" but I worry that these concepts have again been wrongly described (though in a good cause).

    The general standard for using these terms does not allow that all scientific ideas "are just theories". This confuses 'theory' with 'conjecture', I think.

    Of course, one can define terms how one likes but, looking across the literature, the clearest…

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  10. Dominic Hyde

    Snr Lecturer, Philosophy, University of Queensland

    So, just following on from my previous post: on the above understanding of terms 'hypothesis', 'law, and 'theory', these terms categorise scientific claims as to their *structure* (e.g. general or not, a complex web of laws, or not, etc.).

    Their frequent use to describe the *epistemic status* of a scientific claim (e.g. whether the claim is purely conjectural with no support, highly confirmed or even "proven") is better (and, I would suggest, more properly) done by explicitly saying whether the claims are pure conjecture or have evidential support.

    When Reagan said evolution was "just a theory" he meant it was unproven conjecture. You rightly point out that in this sense of "theory", all is theory. So the term lapses into banality. What he meant to say was that the (complex) theory of evolution is conjecture (even unsubstantiated conjecture) … to which the response is: Conjecture sure (all is conjecture here, as you point out); unsubstantiated conjecture - False.