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The ‘scientifically proven’ subterfuge.

February 16, 2012
A claim of scientific proof might seem impressive, but it’s really a red flag!

How to recognize this tactic

Scammers and deniers use two forms of this tactic:

  • they claim that their idea/discovery/product is valid because it has been ‘scientifically proven’
  • they refuse to accept someone else’s claim unless it can be ‘scientifically proven’

History shows us clearly that science does not provide certainty. It does not provide proof. It only provides the consensus of experts, based on the organized accumulation and scrutiny of evidence.

Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, American historians, 2010

Why do people use this tactic?

People use this tactic as a ploy to make them appear scientifically credible or to discredit their opponents.

What’s wrong with this tactic?

The tactic is based on the mistaken belief that scientific conclusions are absolutely certain – that  scientific models must be 100% correct to be valid.

But science cannot ‘prove’ anything with absolute certainty. All empirical evidence has some margin of error – the smaller the better. It’s always possible that new evidence, or new interpretations of the evidence will mean that previously held models must be modified.

Claims of  ‘scientifically proven’ are often based on a single study, which may be of dubious quality. Scientists do not regard any model as reliable unless it is supported by multiple independent lines of evidence, and even then, they acknowledge that it is not absolutely certain.

Some scientists occasionally use the term ‘scientific proof’, but when they do, they are not using it in the sense of 100% certainty. What they mean is that the model has withstood so much testing that the consensus of scientists in the field is that it is very unlikely to be modified.

What to do when confronted by this tactic

Mention of scientific proof should arouse your suspicions – it’s a term that’s mostly used by those who don’t understand how science really works, and this could indicate that their position does not have any scientific evidence to support it.

When a ‘scientifically-proven’ claim is made:

  • Consider the reliability of those making the claim. Could they be biased or have an agenda?
  • Since scientific claims must be falsifiable, look at the claim and decide whether it satisfies this criterion.
  • Ask yourself whether it’s likely that the claim has been tested scientifically. (Think about what sort of test could have been used).
  • If possible, ask to see the evidence and confidence levels. Is the claim based on only one or two studies?
  • Do an online check of any studies that have been cited. Have they been through a peer-review process? Were they published in legitimate scientific journals?
  • Check online to find out whether there are systematic reviews of this claim or similar claims. For claims about health, try the Cochrane Library.

When a demand is made for scientific proof of your claim:

  • If possible, ask what evidence would be needed to demonstrate proof and what level of confidence is required for proof to be demonstrated.
  • If possible, give references to evidence that supports your position. The Blogroll and Links in the right-hand column of this post give some places to find studies.

Variations and related tactics

  • Claiming or demanding that something is ‘100% safe’.
  • Expecting impossibly accurate or comprehensive results from scientists.

Examples

  • The website of the Galileo Movement, a climate change denier organisation, uses both forms of this tactic:

Real-world science – Basics needed to prove human causation of warming
To prove human production of carbon dioxide caused global warming, the following would need to be observed:

- Sustained unusually high global atmospheric temperatures;
– Ongoing rising global atmospheric temperatures;
– Clear evidence that carbon dioxide raises Earth’s global atmospheric temperature;
– Clear evidence that human production of carbon dioxide controls global atmospheric CO2 levels;
– Clear evidence that warmer temperatures are catastrophic.

For each of these there is no scientific proof. Yet there is much real-world scientific proof showing they are not occurring.

 The Galileo Movement demands 100% certainty. This is Not Science!

  • The website for Scalar Energy Pendants makes a ‘scientifically proven’ claim that has no scientific support:

Life Energy Pendants, or Scalar Bio Energy Pendants, have been scientifically proven to repair damaged cells and promote the production of healthier cells that can withstand more than normal cells.

    No references are given. The description of  so-called “scalar energy” does not fit with any accepted scientific knowledge. This is Not Science!

Scalar energy has existed alongside other forms of energy, like nuclear and EMF, since the beginning of time. Scalar energy has the special property of being positively charged and able to repel most EMF energy, and neutralize the rest that gets through. We get our Scalar Energy from hardened volcanic rocks at certain sites in Japan where Scalar Energy is abundant. Scalar Energy can be charged into objects, and it’s most powerful near the heart or along major arteries (that’s why you see many scalar bracelets and anklets) where the energy can be delivered directly into the bloodstream and get straight to work.

  • In December 2010, a headline on the NaturalNews.com website claimed “Principle of astrology proven to be scientific: planetary position imprints biological clocks of mammals.”  In support of this claim, the author cited a paper published in Nature Neuroscience, a respected, peer-reviewed scientific journal. The article claimed that the paper:

    … unintentionally provides scientific support for the fundamental principle of astrology — namely, that the position of the planets at your time of birth influences your personality.

    In reality, the  paper provides no such support. The study found that the behaviour of mice was affected by the length of daylight in the season when they were born and had no reference to positions of planets. The experiments were conducted with artificial lighting and repeated at different times of the year with similar results. The NaturalNews article misrepresented the findings, This is Not Science!

  • A 2008 paper, “Scientific Certainty Argumentation Methods (SCAMs): Science and the Politics of Doubt“, examines some real-world disputes and argues that calls for scientific proof “may reflect not just a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of science, but a clever and surprisingly effective political-economic tactic—“Scientific Certainty” Argumentation Methods, or SCAMs.” Vested interests use the uncertainty inherent in science to defeat or delay action which threatens them, and this happens more often than has been recognised in the past.

Add to the list of examples by leaving a comment.


The Oreskes and Conway quote is from Merchants of Doubt, Bloomsbury Press, New York, p268

This is one of ScienceOrNot’s Science red flags. See them all here.

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