10 Scientific Ideas That Scientists Wish You Would Stop Misusing
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Many ideas have left the world of science and made their way into everyday language — and unfortunately, they are almost always used incorrectly. We asked a group of scientists to tell us which scientific terms they believe are the most widely misunderstood. Here are ten of them.
Physicist Sean Carroll says:
I would say that "proof" is the most widely misunderstood concept in all of science. It has a technical definition (a logical demonstration that certain conclusions follow from certain assumptions) that is strongly at odds with how it is used in casual conversation, which is closer to simply "strong evidence for something." There is a mismatch between how scientists talk and what people hear because scientists tend to have the stronger definition in mind. And by that definition, science never proves anything! So when we are asked "What is your proof that we evolved from other species?" or "Can you really prove that climate change is caused by human activity?" we tend to hem and haw rather than simply saying "Of course we can." The fact that science never really proves anything, but simply creates more and more reliable and comprehensive theories of the world that nevertheless are always subject to update and improvement, is one of the key aspects of why science is so successful.
Astrophysicist Dave Goldberg has a theory about the word theory:
Members of the general public (along with people with an ideological axe to grind) hear the word "theory" and equate it with "idea" or "supposition." We know better. Scientific theories are entire systems of testable ideas which are potentially refutable either by the evidence at hand or an experiment that somebody could perform. The best theories (in which I include special relativity, quantum mechanics, and evolution) have withstood a hundred years or more of challenges, either from people who want to prove themselves smarter than Einstein, or from people who don't like metaphysical challenges to their world view. Finally, theories are malleable, but not infinitely so. Theories can be found to be incomplete or wrong in some particular detail without the entire edifice being torn down. Evolution has, itself, adapted a lot over the years, but not so much that it wouldn't still be recognize it. The problem with the phrase "just a theory," is that it implies a real scientific theory is a small thing, and it isn't.
3. Quantum Uncertainty and Quantum Weirdness
Goldberg adds that there's another idea that has been misinterpreted even more perniciously than "theory." It's when people appropriate concepts from physics for new agey or spiritual purposes:
This misconception is an exploitation of quantum mechanics by a certain breed spiritualists and self-helpers, and epitomized by the abomination, [the movie] What the Bleep Do We Know? Quantum mechanics, famously, has measurement at its core. An observer measuring position or momentum or energy causes the "wavefunction to collapse," non-deterministically. (Indeed, I did one of my first columns on "How smart do you need to collapse a wavefunction?") But just because the universe isn't deterministic doesn't mean that you are the one controlling it. It is remarkable (and frankly, alarming) the degree to which quantum uncertainty and quantum weirdness get inextricably bound up in certain circles with the idea of a soul, or humans controlling the universe, or some other pseudoscience. In the end, we are made of quantum particles (protons, neutrons, electrons) and are part of the quantum universe. That is cool, of course, but only in the sense that all of physics is cool.