How do you prove a conjecture is false?

First posted to Quora on Friday, 7 September 2018

That depends on the nature of the statement.

If you have a universal statement, which is to say a statement that all of the things in some category share some property, you merely have to provide a counter-example.

So if you wanted to disprove the statement, “all prime numbers are odd” you’d merely have to point out that 2 is even and the statement cannot be true.

Disproving an existential statement is usually more work. These statements say that there is at least one thing that has a particular property. To disprove an existential statement, you need a general argument that that property can never happen.

So to prove that the statement “There is a pair of even integers whose sum is odd” is false, you must prove that the sum of any two even integers must be even.

Those are the cases “all” and “some.” The cases “none” and “some are not” are similar.

To disprove a statement like “None of the items in set A have property B” you simply have to find one that does. If you want to show a statement like “Some of the items in set A do not have property B” is false you need a general argument that everything in A has property B.

In any case, disproving a statement is equivalent to proving its negation.


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