Why a 'scientific fact' isn't quite what they taught you in school

by Dorian Minors

March 9, 2016

Analects  |  Newsletter


Psychology is a type of science. Well, it is if it’s done properly, anyway. It’s a way to make our guesses about how the mind works into ‘facts’. A way of understanding the mind, just as science more broadly is about understanding the world we…

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Psychology is a type of science. Well, it is if it’s done properly, anyway. It’s a way to make our guesses about how the mind works into ‘facts’. A way of understanding the mind, just as science more broadly is about understanding the world we live in. Science relies on the ‘scientific method’, the process of taking a guess or a hunch about how the world works and making it into a ‘fact’ (although as you’ll learn, a scientific fact isn’t quite what they taught you in school). You see something happen, you guess that it works a certain way, and then you test that guess with some kind of experiment. The crucial climax of the scientific method lies here, at the outcome of the experiment. Because, if the experiment goes against your guess, then your guess is no good. You could be Alfred Einstein but as soon as one (valid) experiment proves your assumption incorrect you better guess again.

So why is the scientific method so important?

Well, the brain is a mess of shortcuts. Biases and glitches remaining from tens of thousands of years of complicated evolution and a single, overarching purpose - to automate as many of your bodies processes as possible. It works hard to free up as much space as possible to focus on other stuff since selfish ‘ole you keeps going and doing new things. So we follow the scientific method because our guesses about the world tend to be coloured by these biases. In particular, the notorious confirmation bias. Confirmation bias will force our perception of the world into a box of our making, ignoring or altering the information we learn to conform to our expectations and hopes. If our guesses are tested impartially through some kind of experiment, we can combat this. However, that isn’t the end of the story. You’ve probably heard the term ‘peer-reviewed journal’, a term that refers to another essential part of the scientific method. You submit the results of the experiment to a community of scientists (peers) who review your work and make sure it’s kosher. It’s then anticipated that these peers, once they’ve accepted your experiment (and thus your guess) will redo the experiment time and time again to check and check and check.

Why a scientific fact quite isn’t what you think

Now, if you were reading this piece critically, you might be wondering when this guess becomes a fact and there, as the Bard would say, is the rub. In science, you call your guess a ‘hypothesis’. When you’ve tested your hypothesis, others have reviewed it, and then others have tested it for themselves you come out with a scientific ‘fact’. The difficulty is that you can never really prove most guesses right. Let’s say my guess is that all cats in the world are grey. All you have to do is bring me one brown cat and my guess is proven wrong. To canvass all the cats in the world to show that they’re all grey would be terribly difficult. And you could never say with certainty that all the cats that will be born in the future will also be grey.

You could try saying that all the cats in the world aren’t grey. But what does this tell us about how the world works? Not a lot. That’s why negative hypotheses or null hypotheses aren’t very common. They tend not to really add value to our understanding of the world. So, if you test something over and over, and it seems consistent with your guess, you can assume that it’s correct, but you’ll never be able to say definitively that it is true. The language we use in psychology is that we ‘fail to reject’ the hypothesis. Confusing huh? A scientific fact is just an assumption that no one has proven wrong.

So I guess that old saying ‘to assume is to make an ass out of u and me’ is probably an affront to all the scientists out there. Sorry…

Want to beat those biases but don’t have the time to run an experiment? Meditate, the science guesses that it’ll help. Or read out the ‘inkblot’ test, and how despite being a classic psychology trope, it’s actually not very scientific at all. Turning scholarship into wisdom without the usual noise and clutter, we dig up the dirt on psychological theories you can use. Become an armchair psychologist with The Dirt Psychology.

Ideologies you choose at btrmt.

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