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 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.
CORRECTION: Because science relies on observation and because the process of science is unfamiliar to many, it may seem as though scientists build knowledge directly through observation. Observation critical in science, but scientists often make about what those observations mean. Observations are part of a complex process that involves coming up with ideas about how the natural world works and seeing if observations back those explanations up. Learning about the inner workings of the natural world is less like reading a book and more like writing a non-fiction book trying out different ideas, rephrasing, running drafts by other people, and modifying text in order to present the clearest and most accurate explanations for what we observe in the natural world. To learn more about how scientific knowledge is built, visit our section .
CORRECTION: Scientists do strive to be unbiased as they consider different scientific ideas, but scientists are people too. They have different personal beliefs and goals and may favor different hypotheses for different reasons. Individual scientists may not be completely objective, but science can overcome this hurdle through the action of the scientific community, which scrutinizes scientific work and helps balance biases. To learn more, visit in our section on the social side of science.
CORRECTION: Perhaps because the last step of the Scientific Method is usually "draw a conclusion," it's easy to imagine that studies that don't reach a clear conclusion must not be scientific or important. In fact, scientific studies don't reach "firm" conclusions. Scientific articles usually end with a discussion of the limitations of the tests performed and the alternative hypotheses that might account for the phenomenon. That's the nature of scientific knowledge it's inherently tentative and could be overturned if new evidence, new interpretations, or a better explanation come along. In science, studies that carefully analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the test performed and of the different alternative explanations are particularly valuable since they encourage others to more thoroughly scrutinize the ideas and evidence and to develop new ways to test the ideas. To learn more about publishing and scrutiny in science, visit our discussion of .
CORRECTION: The scientific community value individuals who have good intuition and think up creative explanations that turn out to be correct but it values scientists who are able to think up creative ways to test a new idea (even if the test ends up contradicting the idea) and who spot the fatal flaw in a particular or test. In science, gathering evidence to determine the accuracy of an explanation is just as important as coming up with the explanation that winds up being supported by the evidence.
CORRECTION: Because of some vocal individuals (both inside and outside of science) stridently declaring their beliefs, it's easy to get the impression that science and religion are at war. In fact, people of many different faiths and levels of scientific expertise see no contradiction at all between science and religion. Because science deals only with phenomena and explanations, it cannot support or contradict the existence of entities like God. To learn more, visit our side trip .
CORRECTION: When newspapers make statements like, "most scientists agree that human activity is the culprit behind global warming," it's easy to imagine that scientists hold an annual caucus and vote for their favorite hypotheses. But of course, that's not quite how it works. Scientific ideas are judged not by their popularity, but on the basis of the evidence supporting or contradicting them. A hypothesis or theory comes to be accepted by many scientists (usually over the course of several years or decades!) once it has garnered many lines of supporting evidence and has stood up to the scrutiny of the scientific community. A hypothesis accepted by "most scientists," may not be "liked" or have positive repercussions, but it is one that science has judged likely to be accurate based on the evidence. To learn more about , visit our series of pages on the topic in our section on how science works.
CORRECTION: This misconception likely stems from introductory science labs, with their emphasis on getting the "right" answer and with congratulations handed out for having the "correct" hypothesis all along. In fact, science gains as much from figuring out which hypotheses are likely to be wrong as it does from figuring out which are supported by the evidence. Scientists may have personal favorite hypotheses, but they strive to consider multiple hypotheses and be unbiased when evaluating them against the evidence. A scientist who finds evidence contradicting a favorite hypothesis may be surprised and probably disappointed, but can rest easy knowing that he or she has made a valuable contribution to science.
CORRECTION: This misconception may be reinforced by introductory science courses that treat hypotheses as "things we're not sure about yet" and that only explore established and accepted theories. In fact, hypotheses, theories, and laws are rather like apples, oranges, and kumquats: one cannot grow into another, no matter how much fertilizer and water are offered. Hypotheses, theories, and laws are all scientific explanations that differ in breadth not in level of support. Hypotheses are explanations that are limited in scope, applying to fairly narrow range of phenomena. The term is sometimes used to refer to an idea about how observable phenomena are related but the term is also used in other ways within science. Theories are deep explanations that apply to a broad range of phenomena and that may integrate many hypotheses and laws. To learn more about this, visit our page on .
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 .
Fact: are statements that we know to be true through direct . In everyday usage, facts are a highly valued form of knowledge because we can be so confident in them. Scientific thinking, however, recognizes that, though facts are important, we can only be completely confident about relatively simple statements. For example, it may be a fact that there are three trees in your backyard. However, our knowledge of how all trees are related to one another is not a fact; it is a complex body of knowledge based on many different and reasoning that may change as new is discovered and as old evidence is interpreted in new ways. Though our knowledge of tree relationships is not a fact, it is broadly applicable, useful in many situations, and synthesizes many individual facts into a broader framework. values facts but recognizes that many forms of knowledge are more powerful than simple facts.