MISCONCEPTION: Science is a collection of facts.
CORRECTION: Because science classes sometimes revolve around dense textbooks, it's easy to think that's all there is to science: facts in a textbook. But that's only part of the picture. Science is a body of knowledge that one can learn about in textbooks, but it is also a process. Science is an exciting and dynamic process for discovering how the world works and building that knowledge into powerful and coherent frameworks. To learn more about the process of science, visit our section on How science works .
MISCONCEPTION: Science is complete.
CORRECTION: Since much of what is taught in introductory science courses is knowledge that was constructed in the 19th and 20th centuries, it's easy to think that science is finished that we've already discovered most of what there is to know about the natural world. This is far from accurate. Science is an ongoing process, and there is much more yet to learn about the world. In fact, in science, making a key discovery often leads to many new questions ripe for investigation. Furthermore, scientists are constantly elaborating, refining, and revising established scientific ideas based on new evidence and perspectives. To learn more about this, visit our page describing how scientific ideas lead to ongoing research .
MISCONCEPTION: There is a single Scientific Method that all scientists follow.
CORRECTION: "The Scientific Method" is often taught in science courses as a simple way to understand the basics of scientific testing. In fact, the Scientific Method represents how scientists usually write up the results of their studies (and how a few investigations are actually done), but it is a grossly oversimplified representation of how scientists generally build knowledge. The process of science is exciting, complex, and unpredictable. It involves many different people, engaged in many different activities, in many different orders. To review a more accurate representation of the process of science, explore our flowchart .
MISCONCEPTION: The process of science is purely analytic and does not involve creativity.
CORRECTION: Perhaps because the Scientific Method presents a linear and rigid representation of the process of science, many people think that doing science involves closely following a series of steps, with no room for creativity and inspiration. In fact, many scientists recognize that creative thinking is one of the most important skills they have whether that creativity is used to come up with an alternative hypothesis, to devise a new way of testing an idea, or to look at old data in a new light. Creativity is critical to science!
MISCONCEPTION: When scientists analyze a problem, they must use either inductive or deductive reasoning.
CORRECTION: Scientists use all sorts of different reasoning modes at different times and sometimes at the same time when analyzing a problem. They also use their creativity to come up with new ideas, explanations, and tests. This isn't an either/or choice between induction and deduction. Scientific analysis often involves jumping back and forth among different modes of reasoning and creative brainstorming! What's important about scientific reasoning is not what all the different modes of reasoning are called, but the fact that the process relies on careful, logical consideration of how evidence supports or does not support an idea, of how different scientific ideas are related to one another, and of what sorts of things we can expect to observe if a particular idea is true. If you are interested in learning about the difference between induction and deduction, visit our FAQ on the topic .
MISCONCEPTION: Experiments are a necessary part of the scientific process. Without an experiment, a study is not rigorous or scientific.
CORRECTION: Perhaps because the Scientific Method and popular portrayals of science emphasize experiments. many people think that science can't be done without an experiment. In fact, there are many ways to test almost any scientific idea; experimentation is only one approach. Some ideas are best tested by setting up a controlled experiment in a lab, some by making detailed observations of the natural world, and some with a combination of strategies. To study detailed examples of how scientific ideas can be tested fairly, with and without experiments, check out our side trip Fair tests: A do-it-yourself guide .
MISCONCEPTION: "Hard" sciences are more rigorous and scientific than "soft" sciences.
CORRECTION: Some scientists and philosophers have tried to draw a line between "hard" sciences (e.g. chemistry and physics) and "soft" ones (e.g. psychology and sociology). The thinking was that hard science used more rigorous, quantitative methods than soft science did and so were more trustworthy. In fact, the rigor of a scientific study has much more to do with the investigator's approach than with the discipline. Many psychology studies, for example, are carefully controlled, rely on large sample sizes, and are highly quantitative. To learn more about how rigorous and fair tests are designed, regardless of discipline, check out our side trip Fair tests: A do-it-yourself guide .
MISCONCEPTION: Scientific ideas are absolute and unchanging.
CORRECTION: Because science textbooks change very little from year to year, it's easy to imagine that scientific ideas don't change at all. It's true that some scientific ideas are so well established and supported by so many lines of evidence, they are unlikely to be completely overturned. However, even these established ideas are subject to modification based on new evidence and perspectives. Furthermore, at the cutting edge of scientific research areas of knowledge that are difficult to represent in introductory textbooks scientific ideas may change rapidly as scientists test out many different possible explanations trying to figure out which are the most accurate. To learn more about this, visit our page describing how science aims to build knowledge .
MISCONCEPTION: Because scientific ideas are tentative and subject to change, they can't be trusted.
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 Science Toolkit .
MISCONCEPTION: Scientists' observations directly tell them how things work (i.e. knowledge is "read off" nature, not built).
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 is critical in science, but scientists often make inferences 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 How science works .
MISCONCEPTION: Science proves ideas.
CORRECTION: Journalists often write about "scientific proof" and some scientists talk about it, but in fact, the concept of proof real, absolute proof is not particularly scientific. Science is based on the principle that any idea, no matter how widely accepted today, could be overturned tomorrow if the evidence warranted it. Science accepts or rejects ideas based on the evidence; it does not prove or disprove them. To learn more about this, visit our page describing how science aims to build knowledge .
MISCONCEPTION: Science can only disprove ideas.
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 supports 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.
MISCONCEPTION: If evidence supports a hypothesis, it is upgraded to a theory. If the theory then garners even more support, it may be upgraded to a law.
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 law 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 the different levels of explanation in science .
MISCONCEPTION: Scientific ideas are judged democratically based on popularity.
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 how science judges ideas. visit our series of pages on the topic in our section on how science works.
MISCONCEPTION: The job of a scientist is to find support for his or her hypotheses.
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.
MISCONCEPTION: Scientists are judged on the basis of how many correct hypotheses they propose (i.e. good scientists are the ones who are "right" most often).
CORRECTION: The scientific community does value individuals who have good intuition and think up creative explanations that turn out to be correct but it also 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 argument 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.
MISCONCEPTION: Investigations that don't reach a firm conclusion are useless and unpublishable.
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, most 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 peer review .
MISCONCEPTION: Scientists are completely objective in their evaluation of scientific ideas and evidence.
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 Scientific scrutiny in our section on the social side of science.
MISCONCEPTION: Science is pure. Scientists work without considering the applications of their ideas.
CORRECTION: It's true that some scientific research is performed without any attention to its applications, but this is certainly not true of all science. Many scientists choose specific areas of research (e.g. malaria genetics) because of the practical ramifications new knowledge in these areas might have. And often, basic research that is performed without any aim toward potential applications later winds up being extremely useful. To learn about some of the many applications of scientific knowledge visit What has science done for you lately?Misunderstandings of the limits of science
MISCONCEPTION: Science contradicts the existence of God.
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 natural phenomena and explanations, it cannot support or contradict the existence of supernatural entities like God. To learn more, visit our side trip Science and religion: Reconcilable differences .