Harold Camping is in the news because he predicted the end of the world, beginning with earthquakes on May 26, 2011. I credit him for stating a testable hypothesis. Stating testable hypotheses is an important part of the scientific method, which has brought humanity a great amount of knowledge and progress. The idea is to test a theory or belief by stating an hypothesis that can be accepted or rejected based on evidence that one can collect. Religions rarely state testable hypotheses; scientists state them as a matter of course. It can be very disappointing for a scientist to find evidence against a strongly held belief, e.g., that cold-behaving mothers are the cause of autism in children. But human disappointment does not slow appreciably the march of science — unsupported theories are tossed aside, and new (or revised) theories take their place.
Humans can benefit from hypothesis testing in their personal lives. Cognitive-behavior therapy often includes personal hypothesis testing. Fro instance, a depressed client might test the self-defeating belief that “I never do anything right” or that “I’m too old to change.” An anxious client might test the belief that ”if I don’t check the stove six times, the house will burn down.” Can you see ways to test each of these beliefs?
I used to believe that if I dived into water I would drown. I tested that hypothesis by gradually doing behaviors closer and closer to diving into water. Then I started diving in again and again– I didn’t drown or cone close to drowning, and I lost that belief.
What important beliefs of yours have you ever intentionally tested by collecting evidence? What was the result?
John Malouff, PhD, JD, Associate Professor of Psychology