Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Proof

There was a very short letter in last week's Science that made me smile. Charles Bennet of Johns Hopkins took issue with a Science headline that proclaimed "Gravity Probe B satellite proves Einstein right." What's the problem? Wrote Bennet,
I find myself frequently repeating to students and the public that science doesn't “prove” theories. Scientific measurements can only disprove theories or be consistent with them.
Indeed. Science editor Colin Norman responded with a two line mea culpa, "... we blew it." I also reprove my students for using the word "prove" in the context of science. I remember one semester when the students kept using it in their homework even after I TWICE explained to them why it's not appropriate. So I explained the problem again and threatened to flunk the next assignment that used the word. That finally broke the habit.

Of course these interesting and valid philosophical points don't stop the editors at Science Daily. Today, they've got a story about experimental evolution in protists with the headline Proving Darwin Right. The research in question will be published in a future issue of Ecology Letters, and it's definitely interesting stuff. But just like all science, it can't possibly prove Darwin right.

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