By Kristen Panthagani, PhD
If there was one single scientific concept I could teach everyone in the country right now it would be this: what is an unfalsifiable hypothesis, and why do they confuse everyone.
This concept alone explains a lot of the confusion and conspiracy theories around the COVID pandemic… why many still insist that Bill Gates was involved in planning the pandemic or that there are microchips in vaccines.
What is a hypothesis?
Before we get to unfalsifiable hypotheses, let’s start with what a hypothesis is. In very simple terms, a hypothesis is a tentative explanation that needs to be tested. It’s an idea formed on the available evidence that is maybe true, but still needs to be explored and verified. For example, at the beginning of the pandemic, many had the hypothesis that hydroxychloroquine is an effective treatment for COVID.
Hypotheses are the jumping off points of scientific experiments. They define what question we want to test. And that brings us to one of the most important qualities of a valid scientific hypothesis: they must actually be testable. Or said another way, they must be falsifiable.
What is a falsifiable hypothesis?
What does it mean for a hypothesis to be falsifiable? It means that we can actually design an experiment to test if it’s wrong (false). For a hypothesis to be falsifiable, we must be able to design a test that provides us with one of three possible outcomes:
1. the results support the hypothesis,* or
2. the results are inconclusive, or
3. the results reject the hypothesis.
When the results reject our hypothesis, it tells us our hypothesis is wrong, and we move on.
*If we want to be nitpicky, instead of saying the results ‘support’ our hypothesis we should really say ‘the results fail to disprove our hypothesis.’ But, that’s beyond the scope of what you need to know for this post.
That is the hallmark of a falsifiable hypothesis: you can find out when you’re wrong. So then, what is an unfalsifiable hypothesis? It is a hypothesis that is impossible to disprove. And it is not impossible to disprove because it’s correct, it’s impossible to disprove because there is no way to conclusively test it. For unfalsifiable hypotheses, every test you run will come up with not three, but two possible outcomes:
1. the results support the hypothesis or
2. the results are inconclusive.
‘Results reject the hypothesis‘ is missing. No amount of testing will ever lead to data that conclusively rejects the hypothesis, even if the hypothesis is completely wrong.
For unfalsifiable hypotheses that happen to be true (i.e. love exists), this is not a huge issue, because it’s usually pretty obvious that they’re right, despite their unfalsifiability. The problem arises for unfalsifiable hypotheses that are more tenuous claims.
In these cases, people may deeply believe they’re right, in part, because it is impossible to find conclusive evidence that they’re wrong. Every time they try to test if their claim is true, they only find inconclusive evidence. And again, this is not because the hypothesis is correct, it’s because the hypothesis is set up in a way where a definitive “no that’s wrong” is impossible to find. A great example is the hypothesis that there are microchips in the vaccines. You could say ‘well just look in one and see if it’s there!’ And somebody checks and finds no microchip. End of story? Well no.. someone could argue ‘well the microchips are just too small to detect!’ or ‘They will know to take it out of the vials before they are scanned!’ Excuses are made so that the negative results are no longer negative results, but instead are inconclusive. Thus every possible result from any test we do can be deemed inconclusive by those who believe the hypothesis is correct. This makes the hypothesis, for the sake of the people who believe in it, unfalsifiable. This is why conspiracy theories are so hard to debunk… many of them are unfalsifiable hypotheses.
Why do these trap people so effectively? Two reasons. First, for a believer of the hypothesis, all they see is inconclusive data (which they can usually make fit their narrative). They never see any data disproving it, so it makes it easy for them to believe they’re right. And second, because it’s impossible to conclusively disprove it, we can’t go and… conclusively disprove it. This makes it easy for people to stay trapped in an unfalsifiable hypothesis they want to believe in, even when it’s 100% wrong.
So how do you know if you’ve been trapped into believing an unfalsifiable hypothesis? Ask yourself… how would I know if this was false? What evidence would come forward that would convince me? If the answer is ‘well, I’m waiting for the results of this study to decide‘ or ‘I’m waiting for the outcome of this particular event to know,’ then that suggests you’re not trapped in an unfalsifiable hypothesis, as you are open to actual evidence showing you that you’re wrong. (But, only if you do actually change your mind if that evidence fails to support your hypothesis, rather than finding an excuse why that event or evidence doesn’t actually disprove it.)
But, if the answer relies not on specific events or outcomes but primarily on the opinion of other believers, then you may be trapped in an unfalsifiable hypothesis, because that isn’t evidence… it’s just group think.