Many students have misconceptions about what science is and how it works. This section explains and corrects some of the most common misconceptions that students are likely have trouble with. If you are interested in common misconceptions about teaching the nature and process of science, visit our page on that topic.
Misinterpretations of the scientific process | Misunderstandings of the limits of science | Misleading stereotypes of scientists | Vocabulary mix-ups | Roadblocks to learning science
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Misinterpretations of the scientific process
MISCONCEPTION: Science is a collection of facts.
Because science classes sometimes revolve around dense textbooks, it’s easy to think that’s all there is to science: facts in a textbook. But that’s only part of the picture. Science is a body of knowledge that one can learn about in textbooks, but it is also a process. Science is an exciting and dynamic process for discovering how the world works and building that knowledge into powerful and coherent frameworks. To learn more about the process of science, visit our section on How science works.
MISCONCEPTION: Science is complete.
Since much of what is taught in introductory science courses is knowledge that was constructed in the 19th and 20th centuries, it’s easy to think that science is finished — that we’ve already discovered most of what there is to know about the natural world. This is far from accurate. Science is an ongoing process, and there is much more yet to learn about the world. In fact, in science, making a key discovery often leads to many new questions ripe for investigation. Furthermore, scientists are constantly elaborating, refining, and revising established scientific ideas based on new evidence and perspectives. To learn more about this, visit our page describing how scientific ideas lead to ongoing research.
MISCONCEPTION: There is a single Scientific Method that all scientists follow.
“The Scientific Method” is often taught in science courses as a simple way to understand the basics of scientific testing. In fact, the Scientific Method represents how scientists usually write up the results of their studies (and how a few investigations are actually done), but it is a grossly oversimplified representation of how scientists generally build knowledge. The process of science is exciting, complex, and unpredictable. It involves many different people, engaged in many different activities, in many different orders. To review a more accurate representation of the process of science, explore our flowchart.
MISCONCEPTION: The process of science is purely analytic and does not involve creativity.
Perhaps because the Scientific Method presents a linear and rigid representation of the process of science, many people think that doing science involves closely following a series of steps, with no room for creativity and inspiration. In fact, many scientists recognize that creative thinking is one of the most important skills they have — whether that creativity is used to come up with an alternative hypothesis, to devise a new way of testing an idea, or to look at old data in a new light. Creativity is critical to science!
MISCONCEPTION: When scientists analyze a problem, they must use either inductive or deductive reasoning.
Scientists use all sorts of different reasoning modes at different times — and sometimes at the same time — when analyzing a problem. They also use their creativity to come up with new ideas, explanations, and tests. This isn’t an either/or choice between induction and deduction. Scientific analysis often involves jumping back and forth among different modes of reasoning and creative brainstorming! What’s important about scientific reasoning is not what all the different modes of reasoning are called, but the fact that the process relies on careful, logical consideration of how evidence supports or does not support an idea, of how different scientific ideas are related to one another, and of what sorts of things we can expect to observe if a particular idea is true. If you are interested in learning about the difference between induction and deduction, visit our FAQ on the topic.
MISCONCEPTION: Experiments are a necessary part of the scientific process. Without an experiment, a study is not rigorous or scientific.
Perhaps because the Scientific Method and popular portrayals of science emphasize experiments, many people think that science can’t be done without an experiment. In fact, there are many ways to test almost any scientific idea; experimentation is only one approach. Some ideas are best tested by setting up a controlled experiment in a lab, some by making detailed observations of the natural world, and some with a combination of strategies. To study detailed examples of how scientific ideas can be tested fairly, with and without experiments, check out our side trip Fair tests: A do-it-yourself guide.
MISCONCEPTION: "Hard" sciences are more rigorous and scientific than "soft" sciences.
Some scientists and philosophers have tried to draw a line between “hard” sciences (e.g., chemistry and physics) and “soft” ones (e.g., psychology and sociology). The thinking was that hard science used more rigorous, quantitative methods than soft science did and so were more trustworthy. In fact, the rigor of a scientific study has much more to do with the investigator’s approach than with the discipline. Many psychology studies, for example, are carefully controlled, rely on large sample sizes, and are highly quantitative. To learn more about how rigorous and fair tests are designed, regardless of discipline, check out our side trip Fair tests: A do-it-yourself guide.
MISCONCEPTION: Scientific ideas are absolute and unchanging.
Because science textbooks change very little from year to year, it’s easy to imagine that scientific ideas don’t change at all. It’s true that some scientific ideas are so well established and supported by so many lines of evidence, they are unlikely to be completely overturned. However, even these established ideas are subject to modification based on new evidence and perspectives. Furthermore, at the cutting edge of scientific research — areas of knowledge that are difficult to represent in introductory textbooks — scientific ideas may change rapidly as scientists test out many different possible explanations trying to figure out which are the most accurate. To learn more about this, visit our page describing how science aims to build knowledge.
MISCONCEPTION: Because scientific ideas are tentative and subject to change, they can't be trusted.
Especially when it comes to scientific findings about health and medicine, it can sometimes seem as though scientists are always changing their minds. One month the newspaper warns you away from chocolate’s saturated fat and sugar; the next month, chocolate companies are bragging about chocolate’s antioxidants and lack of trans-fats. There are several reasons for such apparent reversals. First, press coverage tends to draw particular attention to disagreements or ideas that conflict with past views. Second, ideas at the cutting edge of research (e.g., regarding new medical studies) may change rapidly as scientists test out many different possible explanations trying to figure out which are the most accurate. This is a normal and healthy part of the process of science. While it’s true that all scientific ideas are subject to change if warranted by the evidence, many scientific ideas (e.g., evolutionary theory, foundational ideas in chemistry) are supported by many lines of evidence, are extremely reliable, and are unlikely to change. To learn more about provisionality in science and its portrayal by the media, visit a section from our Science Toolkit.
MISCONCEPTION: Scientists' observations directly tell them how things work (i.e., knowledge is "read off" nature, not built).
Because science relies on observation and because the process of science is unfamiliar to many, it may seem as though scientists build knowledge directly through observation. Observation is critical in science, but scientists often make inferences about what those observations mean. Observations are part of a complex process that involves coming up with ideas about how the natural world works and seeing if observations back those explanations up. Learning about the inner workings of the natural world is less like reading a book and more like writing a non-fiction book — trying out different ideas, rephrasing, running drafts by other people, and modifying text in order to present the clearest and most accurate explanations for what we observe in the natural world. To learn more about how scientific knowledge is built, visit our section How science works.
MISCONCEPTION: Science proves ideas.
Journalists often write about “scientific proof” and some scientists talk about it, but in fact, the concept of proof — real, absolute proof — is not particularly scientific. Science is based on the principle that any idea, no matter how widely accepted today, could be overturned tomorrow if the evidence warranted it. Science accepts or rejects ideas based on the evidence; it does not prove or disprove them. To learn more about this, visit our page describing how science aims to build knowledge.
MISCONCEPTION: Science can only disprove ideas.
This misconception is based on the idea of falsification, philosopher Karl Popper’s influential account of scientific justification, which suggests that all science can do is reject, or falsify, hypotheses — that science cannot find evidence that supports one idea over others. Falsification was a popular philosophical doctrine — especially with scientists — but it was soon recognized that falsification wasn’t a very complete or accurate picture of how scientific knowledge is built. In science, ideas can never be completely proved or completely disproved. Instead, science accepts or rejects ideas based on supporting and refuting evidence, and may revise those conclusions if warranted by new evidence or perspectives.
MISCONCEPTION: If evidence supports a hypothesis, it is upgraded to a theory. If the theory then garners even more support, it may be upgraded to a law.
This misconception may be reinforced by introductory science courses that treat hypotheses as “things we’re not sure about yet” and that only explore established and accepted theories. In fact, hypotheses, theories, and laws are rather like apples, oranges, and kumquats: one cannot grow into another, no matter how much fertilizer and water are offered. Hypotheses, theories, and laws are all scientific explanations that differ in breadth — not in level of support. Hypotheses are explanations that are limited in scope, applying to fairly narrow range of phenomena. The term law is sometimes used to refer to an idea about how observable phenomena are related — but the term is also used in other ways within science. Theories are deep explanations that apply to a broad range of phenomena and that may integrate many hypotheses and laws. To learn more about this, visit our page on the different levels of explanation in science.
MISCONCEPTION: Scientific ideas are judged democratically based on popularity.
When newspapers make statements like, “most scientists agree that human activity is the culprit behind global warming,” it’s easy to imagine that scientists hold an annual caucus and vote for their favorite hypotheses. But of course, that’s not quite how it works. Scientific ideas are judged not by their popularity, but on the basis of the evidence supporting or contradicting them. A hypothesis or theory comes to be accepted by many scientists (usually over the course of several years — or decades!) once it has garnered many lines of supporting evidence and has stood up to the scrutiny of the scientific community. A hypothesis accepted by “most scientists,” may not be “liked” or have positive repercussions, but it is one that science has judged likely to be accurate based on the evidence. To learn more about how science judges ideas, visit our series of pages on the topic in our section on how science works.
MISCONCEPTION: The job of a scientist is to find support for his or her hypotheses.
This misconception likely stems from introductory science labs, with their emphasis on getting the “right” answer and with congratulations handed out for having the “correct” hypothesis all along. In fact, science gains as much from figuring out which hypotheses are likely to be wrong as it does from figuring out which are supported by the evidence. Scientists may have personal favorite hypotheses, but they strive to consider multiple hypotheses and be unbiased when evaluating them against the evidence. A scientist who finds evidence contradicting a favorite hypothesis may be surprised and probably disappointed, but can rest easy knowing that he or she has made a valuable contribution to science.
MISCONCEPTION: Scientists are judged on the basis of how many correct hypotheses they propose (i.e., good scientists are the ones who are "right" most often).
The scientific community does value individuals who have good intuition and think up creative explanations that turn out to be correct — but it also values scientists who are able to think up creative ways to test a new idea (even if the test ends up contradicting the idea) and who spot the fatal flaw in a particular argument or test. In science, gathering evidence to determine the accuracy of an explanation is just as important as coming up with the explanation that winds up being supported by the evidence.
MISCONCEPTION: Investigations that don't reach a firm conclusion are useless and unpublishable.
Perhaps because the last step of the Scientific Method is usually “draw a conclusion,” it’s easy to imagine that studies that don’t reach a clear conclusion must not be scientific or important. In fact, most scientific studies don’t reach “firm” conclusions. Scientific articles usually end with a discussion of the limitations of the tests performed and the alternative hypotheses that might account for the phenomenon. That’s the nature of scientific knowledge — it’s inherently tentative and could be overturned if new evidence, new interpretations, or a better explanation come along. In science, studies that carefully analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the test performed and of the different alternative explanations are particularly valuable since they encourage others to more thoroughly scrutinize the ideas and evidence and to develop new ways to test the ideas. To learn more about publishing and scrutiny in science, visit our discussion of peer review.
MISCONCEPTION: Scientists are completely objective in their evaluation of scientific ideas and evidence.
Scientists do strive to be unbiased as they consider different scientific ideas, but scientists are people too. They have different personal beliefs and goals — and may favor different hypotheses for different reasons. Individual scientists may not be completely objective, but science can overcome this hurdle through the action of the scientific community, which scrutinizes scientific work and helps balance biases. To learn more, visit Scientific scrutiny in our section on the social side of science.
MISCONCEPTION: Science is pure. Scientists work without considering the applications of their ideas.
It’s true that some scientific research is performed without any attention to its applications, but this is certainly not true of all science. Many scientists choose specific areas of research (e.g., malaria genetics) because of the practical ramifications new knowledge in these areas might have. And often, basic research that is performed without any aim toward potential applications later winds up being extremely useful. To learn about some of the many applications of scientific knowledge visit What has science done for you lately?
Misunderstandings of the limits of science
MISCONCEPTION: Science contradicts the existence of God.
Because of some vocal individuals (both inside and outside of science) stridently declaring their beliefs, it’s easy to get the impression that science and religion are at war. In fact, people of many different faiths and levels of scientific expertise see no contradiction at all between science and religion. Because science deals only with natural phenomena and explanations, it cannot support or contradict the existence of supernatural entities — like God. To learn more, visit our side trip Science and religion: Reconcilable differences.
MISCONCEPTION: Science and technology can solve all our problems.
The feats accomplished through the application of scientific knowledge are truly astounding. Science has helped us eradicate deadly diseases, communicate with people all over the world, and build technologies that make our lives easier everyday. But for all scientific innovations, the costs must be carefully weighed against the benefits. And, of course, there’s no guarantee that solutions for some problems (e.g., finding an HIV vaccine) exist — though science is likely to help us discover them if they do exist. Furthermore, some important human concerns (e.g. some spiritual and aesthetic questions) cannot be addressed by science at all. Science is a marvelous tool for helping us understand the natural world, but it is not a cure-all for whatever problems we encounter.
Misleading stereotypes of scientists
MISCONCEPTION: Science is a solitary pursuit.
When scientists are portrayed in movies and television shows, they are often ensconced in silent laboratories, alone with their bubbling test-tubes. This can make science seem isolating. In fact, many scientists work in busy labs or field stations, surrounded by other scientists and students. Scientists often collaborate on studies with one another, mentor less experienced scientists, and just chat about their work over coffee. Even the rare scientist who works entirely alone depends on interactions with the rest of the scientific community to scrutinize his or her work and get ideas for new studies. Science is a social endeavor. To learn more, visit our section on the Social side of science.
MISCONCEPTION: Science is done by "old, white men."
While it is true that Western science used to be the domain of white males, this is no longer the case. The diversity of the scientific community is expanding rapidly. Science is open to anyone who is curious about the natural world and who wants to take a scientific approach to his or her investigations. To see how science benefits from a diverse community, visit Diversity makes the difference.
MISCONCEPTION: Scientists are atheists.
This is far from true. A 2005 survey of scientists at top research universities found that more than 48% had a religious affiliation and that more than 75% believed that religions convey important truths.1 Some scientists are not religious, but many others subscribe to a specific faith and/or believe in higher powers. Science itself is a secular pursuit, but welcomes participants from all religious faiths. To learn more, visit our side trip Science and religion: Reconcilable differences.
Some misconceptions occur simply because scientific language and everyday language use some of the same words differently.
Facts are statements that we know to be true through direct observation. In everyday usage, facts are a highly valued form of knowledge because we can be so confident in them. Scientific thinking, however, recognizes that, though facts are important, we can only be completely confident about relatively simple statements. For example, it may be a fact that there are three trees in your backyard. However, our knowledge of how all trees are related to one another is not a fact; it is a complex body of knowledge based on many different lines of evidence and reasoning that may change as new evidence is discovered and as old evidence is interpreted in new ways. Though our knowledge of tree relationships is not a fact, it is broadly applicable, useful in many situations, and synthesizes many individual facts into a broader framework. Science values facts but recognizes that many forms of knowledge are more powerful than simple facts.
In everyday language, a law is a rule that must be abided or something that can be relied upon to occur in a particular situation. Scientific laws, on the other hand, are less rigid. They may have exceptions, and, like other scientific knowledge, may be modified or rejected based on new evidence and perspectives. In science, the term law usually refers to a generalization about data and is a compact way of describing what we’d expect to happen in a particular situation. Some laws are non-mechanistic statements about the relationship among observable phenomena. For example, the ideal gas law describes how the pressure, volume, and temperature of a particular amount of gas are related to one another. It does not describe how gases must behave; we know that gases do not precisely conform to the ideal gas law. Other laws deal with phenomena that are not directly observable. For example, the second law of thermodynamics deals with entropy, which is not directly observable in the same way that volume and pressure are. Still other laws offer more mechanistic explanations of phenomena. For example, Mendel’s first law offers a model of how genes are distributed to gametes and offspring that helps us make predictions about the outcomes of genetic crosses. The term law may be used to describe many different forms of scientific knowledge, and whether or not a particular idea is called a law has much to do with its discipline and the time period in which it was first developed.
In everyday language, the word observation generally means something that we’ve seen with our own eyes. In science, the term is used more broadly. Scientific observations can be made directly with our own senses or may be made indirectly through the use of tools like thermometers, pH test kits, Geiger counters, etc. We can’t actually see beta particles, but we can observe them using a Geiger counter. To learn more about the role of observation in science, visit Observation beyond our eyes in our section on how science works.
In everyday language, the word hypothesis usually refers to an educated guess — or an idea that we are quite uncertain about. Scientific hypotheses, however, are much more informed than any guess and are usually based on prior experience, scientific background knowledge, preliminary observations, and logic. In addition, hypotheses are often supported by many different lines of evidence — in which case, scientists are more confident in them than they would be in any mere “guess.” To further complicate matters, science textbooks frequently misuse the term in a slightly different way. They may ask students to make a hypothesis about the outcome of an experiment (e.g., table salt will dissolve in water more quickly than rock salt will). This is simply a prediction or a guess (even if a well-informed one) about the outcome of an experiment. Scientific hypotheses, on the other hand, have explanatory power — they are explanations for phenomena. The idea that table salt dissolves faster than rock salt is not very hypothesis-like because it is not very explanatory. A more scientific (i.e., more explanatory) hypothesis might be “The amount of surface area a substance has affects how quickly it can dissolve. More surface area means a faster rate of dissolution.” This hypothesis has some explanatory power — it gives us an idea of why a particular phenomenon occurs — and it is testable because it generates expectations about what we should observe in different situations. If the hypothesis is accurate, then we’d expect that, for example, sugar processed to a powder should dissolve more quickly than granular sugar. Students could examine rates of dissolution of many different substances in powdered, granular, and pellet form to further test the idea. The statement “Table salt will dissolve in water more quickly than rock salt” is not a hypothesis, but an expectation generated by a hypothesis. Textbooks and science labs can lead to confusions about the difference between a hypothesis and an expectation regarding the outcome of a scientific test. To learn more about scientific hypotheses, visit Science at multiple levels in our section on how science works.
In everyday language, the word theory is often used to mean a hunch with little evidential support. Scientific theories, on the other hand, are broad explanations for a wide range of phenomena. They are concise (i.e., generally don’t have a long list of exceptions and special rules), coherent, systematic, and can be used to make predictions about many different sorts of situations. A theory is most acceptable to the scientific community when it is strongly supported by many different lines of evidence — but even theories may be modified or overturned if warranted by new evidence and perspectives. To learn more about scientific theories, visit Science at multiple levels in our section on how science works.
The word falsifiable isn’t used much in everyday language, but when it is, it is often applied to ideas that have been shown to be untrue. When that’s the case — when an idea has been shown to be false — a scientist would say that it has been falsified. A falsifiable idea, on the other hand, is one for which there is a conceivable test that might produce evidence proving the idea false. Scientists and others influenced by the ideas of the philosopher Karl Popper sometimes assert that only falsifiable ideas are scientific. However, we now recognize that science cannot once-and-for-all prove any idea to be false (or true for that matter). Furthermore, it’s clear that evidence can play a role in supporting particular ideas over others — not just in ruling some ideas out, as implied by the falsifiability criterion. When a scientist says falsifiable, he or she probably actually means something like testable, the term we use in this website to avoid confusion. A testable idea is one about which we could gather evidence to help determine whether or not the idea is accurate.
In everyday language, uncertainty suggests the state of being unsure of something. Scientists, however, usually use the word when referring to measurements. The uncertainty of a measurement (not to be confused with the inherent provisionality of all scientific ideas!) is the range of values within which the true value is likely to fall. In science, uncertainty is not a bad thing; it’s simply a fact of life. Every measurement has some uncertainty. If you measure the length of a pen with a standard ruler, you won’t be able to tell whether its length is 5.880 inches, 5.875 inches, or 5.870 inches. A ruler with more precision will help narrow that range, but cannot eliminate uncertainty entirely. For more on a related idea, see our discussion of error below.
In everyday language, an error is simply a mistake, but in science, error has a precise statistical meaning. An error is the difference between a measurement and the true value, often resulting from taking a sample. For example, imagine that you want to know if corn plants produce more massive ears when grown with a new fertilizer, and so you weigh ears of corn from those plants. You take the mass of your sample of 50 ears of corn and calculate an average. That average is a good estimate of what you are really interested in: the average mass of all ears of corn that could be grown with this fertilizer. Your estimate is not a mistake — but it does have an error (in the statistical sense of the word) since your estimate is not the true value. Sampling error of the sort described above is inherent whenever a smaller sample is taken to represent a larger entity. Another sort of error results from systematic biases in measurement (e.g., if your scale were calibrated improperly, all of your measurements would be off). Systematic error biases measurements in a particular direction and can be more difficult to quantify than sampling error.
In everyday language, prediction generally refers to something that a fortune teller makes about the future. In science, the term prediction generally means “what we would expect to happen or what we would expect to observe if this idea were accurate.” Sometimes, these scientific predictions have nothing at all to do with the future. For example, scientists have hypothesized that a huge asteroid struck the Earth 4.5 billion years ago, flinging off debris that formed the moon. If this idea were true, we would predict that the moon today would have a similar composition to that of the Earth’s crust 4.5 billion years ago — a prediction which does seem to be accurate. This hypothesis deals with the deep history of our solar system and yet it involves predictions — in the scientific sense of the word. Ironically, scientific predictions often have to do with past events. In this website, we’ve tried to reduce confusion by using the words expect and expectation instead of predict and prediction. To learn more, visit Predicting the past in our section on the core of science.
When we, in everyday language, say that we believe in something, we may mean many things — that we support a cause, that we have faith in an idea, or that we think something is accurate. The word belief is often associated with ideas about which we have strong convictions, regardless of the evidence for or against them. This can generate confusion when a scientist claims to “believe in” a scientific hypothesis or theory. In fact, the scientist probably means that he or she “accepts” the idea — in other words, that he or she thinks the scientific idea is the most accurate available based on a critical evaluation of the evidence. Scientific ideas should always be accepted or rejected based on the evidence for or against them — not based on faith, dogma, or personal conviction.
Roadblocks to learning science
In school, many students get the wrong impression of science. While not technically misconceptions, these overgeneralizations are almost always inaccurate — and can make it more difficult for the students who hold them to learn science.
MISCONCEPTION: Science is boring.
Memorizing facts from a textbook can be boring — but science is much more than the knowledge that makes its way into school books. Science is an ongoing and unfinished process of discovery. Some scientists travel all over the world for their research. Others set up experiments that no one has ever tried before. And all scientists are engaged in a thrilling quest — to learn something brand new about the natural world. Some parts of scientific training or investigations may be tedious, but science itself is exciting! To see how a scientific perspective can make the world a more exciting and intriguing place, visit our side trip Think science.
MISCONCEPTION: Science isn't important in my life.
It’s easy to think that what scientists do in far-off laboratories and field stations has little relevance to your everyday life — after all, not many of us deal with super colliders or arctic plankton on a regular basis — but take another look around you. All the technologies, medical advances, and knowledge that improve our lives everyday are partly the result of scientific research. Furthermore, the choices you make when you vote in elections and support particular causes can influence the course of science. Science is deeply interwoven with our everyday lives. To see how society influences science, visit Science and society. To learn more about how scientific advances affect your life, visit What has science done for you lately?
MISCONCEPTION: I am not good at science.
Some students find science class difficult — but this doesn’t translate to not being good at science. First of all, school science can be very different from real science. The background knowledge that one learns in school is important for practicing scientists, but it is only part of the picture. Scientific research also involves creative problem-solving, communicating with others, logical reasoning, and many other skills that might or might not be a part of every science class. Second, science encompasses a remarkably broad set of activities. So maybe you don’t care much for the periodic table — but that doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t be great at observing wild chimpanzee behavior, building computer models of tectonic plate movement, or giving talks about psychology experiments at scientific meetings. Often when a student claims to “not be good at science,” it really just means that he or she hasn’t yet found a part of science that clicks with his or her interests and talents.
1Ecklund, E.H., and C.P. Scheitle. 2007. Religion among academic scientists: Distinctions, disciplines, and demographics. Social Problems 54(2):289-307.
- Unfortunately, many textbooks promulgate misconceptions about the nature and process of science. Use this list to review your textbook, and then discuss any misrepresentations with students.
- You can highlight misconceptions about science that are promulgated in the media by starting a bulletin board that highlights examples of misconceptions found in the popular press — for example, misuses of the word theory, implications that scientists always use “the scientific method,” or that experimental science is more rigorous than non-experimental science.
- Use word lists to combat misconceptions about science that stem from vocabulary mix-ups. Find out how in this article distributed with permission from Science Scope.