March 3, 2010

Scientific Misconceptions, Part 2

by Heather Falconer

The New York Times has printed an interesting article today on the nature of trust regarding scientists and their research. The timing couldn’t be better for us at Visionlearning, as it segues beautifully into the second misconception of scientific practice we’d like to address. Misconception #2 is really two, very closely related, misconceptions combined into one.

Misconception #2 – 2 ½: The purpose of scientific inquiry is to prove that a scientific hypothesis is correct, and that a scientific problem is something you solve.

As the Times’ article highlights, public trust of the scientific community has taken a downward spiral in the last eight or so months. This distrust, it is safe to assume, comes partly as a result of the widely-held idea that science is black and white, with no shades of gray. There is either a right or wrong answer, one way to test a hypothesis, and that this one test is meant to prove that a hypothesis is correct.

Unfortunately, science is far more complicated, and the way the general public often thinks it works does not coincide with the reality. Just like everyday life, there are always exceptions to rules and different ways of looking at things. Good research involves approaching a ‘problem’ from many different angles, exploring each one thoroughly. Hypotheses are simply starting points for finding answers – not statements to be proven true.

The public has put their trust in the experts to tell them the “truth” about climate change, but our current way of thinking doesn’t allow for more than one “truth” to exist at the same time. Mainly, we are missing all the gray areas in between. For example, we hear that sheets of ice in the Arctic and Antarctic are melting and dropping off into the sea – which works with our idea of global “warming”. But then we hear that Britain has had uncharacteristically cold winters with heavy snow falls and ice – which seems to contradict the idea that the earth is warming up. What is missed in between is the understanding that changes in the earth’s atmosphere influence weather patterns and that temperature increases relate to overall yearly fluctuations, not any given season at one time.

Without a proper understanding of how science is conducted, is it any wonder that government leaders and the general public have grown frustrated? The big challenge, now, is how to close the gap between perception and reality.

For more information on understanding hypotheses and the scientific method, see our teaching and learning modules Ideas in Science, Uncertainty, Error, and Confidence, and The Scientific Method.

Heather Falconer

Written by

Heather Falconer holds undergraduate degrees in Graphic Arts and Environmental Science, as well as an MFA in Writing and an MLitt in Literature. She is currently completing her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition, with an emphasis on rhetoric in/and/of science. Heather has worked internationally in academic publishing as both an author and editor, and has taught a wide range of topics – from research writing to marine biology – in the public and private educational sectors.