Ask A Scientist

I heard the word “hypothesis” on the show Dinosaur Train, what does it mean?

Asked by: John McIntyre
School: Glenwood Elementary School; Vestal School Distric
Grade: Kindergarten
Teacher: Mrs. Koch
Hobbies/Interests: Playing hockey and soccer, playing with cars, reading and listening to books, and playing on the computer. 
Career Interest: Police officer or mechanic

Answer from Douglas W. Green, EdD

Adjunct Lecturer, Binghamton University

Department: Graduate School of Education
Former principal at Woodrow Wilson Elementary in Binghamton, NY
Research area: Leadership, Learning Theory, & Social Media
Interests/hobbies: Playing my banjo, biking, golf and reading
Family: Daughter Lena, age 27, who is an animator for Nickelodeon in New York City.

Web page address: http://www.drdouggreen.com
     

When I want to know what a word means, I start with a trip to the dictionary. Even though my physical dictionaries were lost in our recent flood, the Internet allows for easy access to several different dictionaries. I even have one on my cell phone. After checking several, here is a definition we can start with. A hypothesis (the plural form is hypotheses) is a proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence that is used as a starting point for further investigation. If you would like something a bit simpler, you can think of it as a guess. 

While this word has a scientific sound, we all make hypotheses in our daily lives. In the world of science, one needs to make a hypothesis or an educated guess, prior to designing an experiment that can either prove it or disprove it. 

In the world of medicine, a scientist may form a hypothesis that a new drug might cure a disease. In this case, the medical community would have to find a group of people with the disease to try the drug, and another group to take a placebo. A placebo is a pill that does not contain the drug. After the two groups take the drug and the placebo, the scientist should be able to tell if the drug helped cure the disease. In some cases, a hypothesis cannot be easily tested. If you were a scientist prior to the days of Copernicus, it would be hard to come up with an experiment to prove that the Earth was not the center of the universe. For this hypothesis, you would have to wait for Galileo to look through his telescope to prove that not everything revolved around the Earth.

When you are trying to explain something, feel free to come up with your own hypothesis. But before you believe that your hypothesis is true, you should try to come up with some way to test it. The last thing you want to do is make up a hypothesis and then act as if it is true if you don’t have to. People who believe their hypotheses are true without testing them are likely to make a lot of mistakes. The important thing is to know when you are making a hypothesis, and when you are believe it to be true without putting it to a test.

Dr. Doug Green blogs at DrDougGreen.Com for educators and parents who don’t have as much time to read and surf as he does. 

Last Updated: 9/18/13