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10 Scientific Ideas That Scientists Wish You Would Stop Misusing


Stashed in: Science Too, That Wasn't the Point

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1. Proof

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.

8. Survival of the Fittest

Paleoecologist Jacquelyn Gill says that people misunderstand some of the basic tenets of evolutionary theory:

Topping my list would be "survival of the fittest." First, these are not actually Darwin's own words, and secondly, people have a misconception about what "fittest" means. Relatedly, there's major confusion about evolution in general, including the persistent idea that evolution is progressive and directional (or even deliberate on the part of organisms; people don't get the idea of natural selection), or that all traits must be adaptive (sexual selection is a thing! And so are random mutations!).

Fittest does not mean strongest, or smartest. It simply means an organism that fits best into its environment, which could mean anything from "smallest" or "squishiest" to "most poisonous" or "best able to live without water for weeks at a time." Plus, creatures don't always evolve in a way that we can explain as adaptations. Their evolutionary path may have more to do with random mutations, or traits that other members of their species find attractive.

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