Proving vs disproving

I went for a walk with Jovana, my wife, on this crisp October night. There are leaves and all, which is truly poetic and makes one want to listen to the “Four Seasons” by Tchaikovsky. I may not have mentioned this before, but Jovana is a hematologist. She often tells me stories about her work at the hospital. Some of our discourses are more interesting than others, but the bottom line is that the daily decisions Jovana has to make are on a different level in terms of responsibility compared to my line of work (some people might even posit that I am somewhat irresponsible in anything I do, but that’s ok…). I will admit that earlier today Jovana had told me something that really resonated with me and made me think. Do you know what is the most commonly missed fracture in an emergency room? Here is the answer: “the second one”. This suggests that even professionals can have a tendency to stop searching for abnormalities or problems after ONE is identified. This also speaks to the challenges they face in trying to correctly process the available evidence with the righteous intent to come up with a correct diagnosis. It is common to selectively seek evidence that confirms his/her instinct and then stop without considering whatever’s left over. This problem underscores a deeper fault in our reasoning, namely our inclination to reach conclusions that are not based on reconciling ALL pieces of evidence. As long as the resulting picture accounts for our prejudices, we tend to make our judgment, which is in haste…

This discussion made me think of a parallel with a dangerous way we might reach conclusions in science. I suppose this is a reminder to all students. After all, they are the gatekeepers to the most precious part of the research enterprise: collection and analysis of the primary data. I recall Olah and his memorable injunction some 20 years ago when he said “you can never prove a mechanism of a reaction, you can only disprove it”. This is a profound statement (it is also fundamentally correct as it reflects the fact that our techniques constantly evolve and we will only see and appreciate more details, not less) because it highlights that scientists are naturally good at disproving things. We really are. To take this mantra one step further, I submit that our preferred way of doing science should consist of rigorously disproving our gut reactions and conclusions. Why? It’s because we are good at proving things wrong and also because we will not fall into the dangerous trap of having the conclusion ready before the available evidence supports it.

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