Absolute truth

Understanding the stats

Q: My teacher says there’s no such thing as ‘truth’ in science. So why do we bother?

A: Think for a second about how you’d prove something to be true. You could say, for example, that all swans are white – but you can’t prove that’s true because it’s impossible for you to observe every single swan. However, just one observation of a black swan would prove that you were wrong. It’s much easier to prove something is untrue than to prove it’s true.

Accordingly, the scientific method works by trying to falsify a statement. When a scientist puts forward a theory, the rest of the scientific community try to disprove it. It’s only those theories that survive the onslaught – the ones that can’t (yet) be proven wrong – that we stick with. That doesn’t mean that one day a new piece of evidence won’t come along to disprove it, but you trust it for now. For example, we think that dropping a brick will mean it falls to the ground, but we can never prove that it wouldn’t one day float off. So far, though, the theory that it will fall has withstood all attempts at falsification.

Further reading

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Number Crunching’ in June 2013.

Statistics and maths
Number Crunching
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development