Why do some, if not all, scientific papers use inconclusive language/words like “could”, “may”, “suggests”, “indicates” ?


Purposefully “vague” or “inconclusive” language like the following examples are frequently used in studies:

“Our study indicates that”

“The findings suggest”

“We postulate to…”

“may stop germs”

Why is this? Is it simply because they literally can’t conclude anything 100%? I read the following quote on a different thread, and perhaps this could somehow lead me to an answer, ” Science cannot prove; it can only disprove”?

Many thanks!

In: Other

These statements aren’t vague, they are deliberate to not imply a level of confidence that is not warranted. In particular these studies may have found a correlation, and so they cannot have a high level of confidence that their hypothesised causal link is valid. “Our study indicates…” is much stronger than “we postulate…”. The former implies that the results support the statement, the latter does not.

Because individual scientific papers just prove a correlation, not a causation. Until a theory or idea has been proven by many papers and studies, each of them peer-reviewed, it remains just that: a theory.

Because scientists don’t deal in absolutes, that’s not how science works. A hypothesis for an experiment is just an educated guess. Having that hypothesis proven experimentally doesn’t make the underlying assumption universally true, it just means that the assumption is probably worth investigating further.

Even when a hypothesis is proven many, many times over, at *best* it becomes a theory, which is the most concrete thing in science. It means “guys, we’re like, *super* sure of this concept based on this mountain of experimental evidence, but we could still discover something tomorrow that proves the whole thing invalid”

Yes, you can not conclude anything with absolute certainty which is why they use the vauge language. It could be that their data is wrong somehow, especially if you only look at a single paper. A lot of the time they will actually provide probabilities but this does again assume that they have done everything correct. It is not uncommon for papers to include errors which would give the wrong result.

And while it is true that science can not prove anything, only disprove it, this does not give an accurate image of what is actually going on. If you come up with a scientific theory then by definition there should be a way of disproving that theory. Any theory which can not be disproven is not considered scientific. So you end up with a number of theories which can not all be true which you can test. If you are able to disprove most of them and are only left with one theory you still do not know if that theory is correct or if you just failed to come up with the actual correct theory. In addition to this you do not know for sure if the experiments you have come up with to disprove the theories have actually come up with the correct result or if you performed them wrong or you by chance got the wrong result. So while we can not explicitly prove a theory we can show with quite high confidence that all other possible theories we can come up with are wrong.

That’s usually because a paper is presenting “evidence” of something, not a “proof” of something. What we accept as “truths” in science are often just accumulations of “evidence that indicates X”.

Enough evidence and we can start saying “ok this thing seems to be true”. Then when further research is based on that previous research, and the new research also seems to work out, then that’s further evidence that the previous research it was based on is probably good. 🙂

And so on. Research is validated by real world experiment and application.

Einstein wrote papers that “indicated” the presence of things like time dilation and gravity waves. He didn’t “prove” them as such – experiments we can do, based on his equations, are the actual proof that he was correct.

It is considered bad form for a research paper to say “we conclusively show X” in most cases. There are exceptions, depending on the subject.

All of which is exactly why science is so amazing. It’s thousands of people, all around the world, agreeing to be humble, to propose things and submit their personal, beloved theories to their peers for examination, out of a desire for *truth above personal opinion in all things*. I think that’s pretty amazing. 🙂

And that’s why, if you read any single paper or research article, you take it with a grain of salt, until it has been peer-reviewed – because then you know that other researchers have tried their best to poke holes in it.

And even then, always keep in mind that new research could come along, and add some more valuable insight that could challenge your assumptions. We still know relatively little about most subjects!

For example, until recently we thought that all the matter and energy in the universe was just what we could detect with our telescopes. Then we discovered stuff that we couldn’t actually see, but somehow had a gravitational pull – that’s “dark matter” and we now know there is far, far more of it than anything we can actually see in the universe.

So, in a very real sense, even if we knew everything about the universe we could see and touch, we would actually still only know a tiny percent of everything out there!

That’s the amazing thing about science – it is always changing, always new things being discovered – which is why you can only mostly say “this seems to indicate that”, because tomorrow you could either be proven correct or completely wrong.

It is a kind of humility, knowing that we only have a small boat, in the vast sea of knowledge that stretches out around us…

Ed: Which is to say, there seems to be every indication that’s the case, but there could be other explanations for the phenomena that are either complimentary or contradictory. 🙂

Never say never. Literally! You don’t know if something is ‘never’ or ‘always’ true.

You don’t know if your new apple pealing device peals ‘every type of apple’, because you would have to test every type of apple in the world to make sure this is true.

Like the apples, you can’t say something is ‘true’ even after research. Like your quote: you can only prove things are not true (and even that is not nearly always conclusive).

Me rolling a “6” twenty times in a row with my red dice suggest that it may be piped. Or I just got VERY VERY VERY lucky.

But there is also a chance that it’s the table I rolled it on that’s wrong.

Still I can say that my null hypothesis that my dice is normal is strongly improbable. Therefore my research indicates that my dice could be heavily piped.

The short answer is scientists are humble people who understand that they could potentially be wrong because they know that new data has proven so many things wrong in the past.

Longer answer – We thought the earth was flat. That nearly made sense at a time when we traveled very short distances in comparison to the large radius of the earth. At the time, it was the most plausible theory we had. As we uncovered more data, we realised we were wrong. Scientists never claim they are absolutely correct unless they have conclusive proof of causality because new data can prove their theories wrong. Evidence is not the same as conclusive proof and scientists understand that better than most people.