In what may be the stupidest attempt at research using the Internet in history, I decided earlier today to google around and try and find the origins of the phrase “scientifically proven”. Yes, I hear you guffawing.
What I found instead were scientifically proven aromatherapy remedies, hangover remedies, fitness remedies, alternative “medicines”, anti-vaccination testimonies, baldness remedies, cosmetics, “junk” (i.e. boob, vag, and schlong) enhancers, and a BBC story on the hue of Jesus’ skin. I can has masochism?
What’s very interesting about the seeming effectiveness of this phrase is how badly it would work if it were used analogously in other contexts. For example, imagine a tele-preacher peddling his “theologically proven” magical healing water. Or a self-help guru peddling his “philosophically proven” ten step program to ultimate happiness. People wouldn’t know what to make of it. Since when can theologians or philosophers be said to “prove” things, even if, as is the case with science, the word is slightly misappropriated? In no sense of the word do philosophers or theologians prove things. People wouldn’t buy that. They’re suspicious of it.
But science? No, people know that science “proves” things. It does things. It builds things. It comes to conclusions which on the whole seem to be not only right, but useful and enlightening, and practical too. And obvious, in many ways. And it is, in my opinion, hard to pin that belief on, for instance, the leftover wide-eyed technocracy of the Cold War era. Because it’s been around for quite awhile.
So on the one hand it’s kind of gratifying that people have this implicit trust in science. On the other, it’s kind of nauseating at how easily this trust is abused and misused by charlatans. It’s amusing, for instance, that creationists want to take over science, not abolish it (though such a takeover will work to the betterment of both of those goals). It’s not amusing that they’re willing to lie and cheat and do a whole host of other seemingly sinful things to accomplish that.
Of course the real downside to this whole thing is that it breeds an unfounded disillusionment and skepticism of everything and anything scientific. It’s homeopathic, in a way. The more marketeers and salesmen dilute the meaning of science, the more the public’s aversion to science increases. It’s proven difficult, I think, to get people to understand what science really is, and what it really is not.
So is science really about “proving” things? I think I’ll leave the answer to someone much more qualified than me. Here’s a quote from R. A. Fisher, who’s importance to statistics, biology, and pretty much all of science is hard to overestimate. He does, I think, answer the question:
Every [scientific] experiment may be said to exist only in order to give the facts a chance of disproving the null hypothesis.
In other words, we can never say for certain whether a hypothesis is completely correct. We can only say whether or not it is likely to be true given the data we do have.