What causes global warming? Human activities? Maybe – it hasn't been proven. About 99% of studies say global warming is human-caused, and the other 1% say it simply just happens. Maybe the 1% against human-caused warming are based on some true insight that the other studies are lacking. Or, alternatively, maybe the 99% has superior statistical models than the others. Maybe, on either side, the studies have been conducted by those who are influenced by their political party; perhaps they have some sort of agenda.
Or maybe that's just how science works.
I'm a scientist – a spoiled one. I study sleep and how it benefits the brain and body. Most of my studies say, yes, sleep is really good for you. Get lots of sleep every night. Take naps, too. Naps are good. Late-night Netflix binges are bad.
And as a human, you like sleep, so you totally believe me. You know sleep is good for you because you hate getting out of bed. You'll internalize my findings and drop the guilt that you feel after taking lunch break naps. You'll tell your boyfriend that you can't make it to breakfast with his parents because scientists say morning REM is really important for creativity. And you know what, you do get really artsy on Pintrest after you sleep in, so it seems like they're onto something.
I'm spoiled because I don't have to work hard to make you believe my findings – they're intuitive. No one is debating whether or not sleep is good for you because it feels good.
But here's the kicker. As a scientist, I'll never actually prove that sleep is good. In fact, I'll never be able to prove anything.
That's right – I'll spend hundreds of (underpaid) hours per year designing, implementing, and overseeing studies, and in the end, my data will only "suggest" things. They may even "strongly support previous findings." But they will prove nothing.
Why? The first rule of science is never say "prove," because, statistically, there's no way 100% of my studies will show that sleep is a good thing. "Prove" doesn't exist in our vocabulary. We have to dance around the word to make our colleagues happy.
And that's what the media and politicians use to fool you.
Any hotly debated topic gets criticized heavily and publicly. As a member of the general public, you are taken advantage of because you don't know the first rule of science.
Let's take, for example, controversial findings on vaccination or GMOs. Some statistics are announced on the news, and what's the first thing the commentators break out? "Listen, scientists haven't really proven anything. Only 98% of the studies…" Boom. Now your internal I've-been-betrayed alarm starts going off.
"Those god damn scientists… they haven't proven shit. How dare they try to convince me of this when they're not 100% sure?"
Well, now that you know "proving" isn't actually a thing, you can silence your alarm and make more educated judgments based on the information provided. Scientists aren't trying to fool you – we simply won't and can't break our rule. Just because we can't prove things, it does not mean our studies are wrong or invalid. This lack-of-proof argument is artificial, and now you know better. Pass it on.