It’s JUST a Theory…

As I am not a scientist by any means, I will generally leave the specifics of scientific discussion to people who are far more qualified.  I must, however, briefly address an idea I encounter often.  How many people reading this have ever been in a discussion about evolution, or the big bang, and heard a person dismissively say “it’s just a theory”.  This is often said with a certain level of smugness, as if theories aren’t to be taken seriously.  How many people reading this have actually, themselves, said something to this effect?  Since this comes up so often in debates with people who are skeptical of science, I figured I would address this point.  It is, after all, a misunderstanding of science that is so basic, even a layman can see the problem.

I Guess it’s a Theory…

The confusion, I suspect, arises from the colloquial use of the term theory.  When a person claims to have a “theory” about something, it is often actually a guess.  It is conjecture, and it could be wildly incorrect.  A random individual, offering up their “theory” about a given thing, is under no obligation to have thought about their idea for more than a single moment.  This, it seems to me, is why the word theory is not taken seriously by some.

So how, if at all, is it different when science uses the word theory?  Simply put, the meaning of the term theory is VERY different from that used above, when it is used in the context of scientific explanations.  The use of the term theory, that is described in the above paragraph, is far more like the word “hypothesis”.  When a scientist gathers enough observations, and sets out to explain a particular phenomena, they begin by forming a hypothesis that they believe explains what is being observed.  This hypothesis is a guess, even if it is often an educated guess.

And so it Begins

With a hypothesis in mind, the process is now only just beginning.  What follows is a very rigorous series of tests and experiments, designed to examine the hypothesis for accuracy.  These tests are designed to verify the hypothesis, and ensure that it accounts for all available data.  If, at any time, the results of an experiment call the hypothesis into question, the hypothesis is either tweaked, or outright discarded.  However, if the hypothesis appears to be confirmed by every test, the results will be forwarded to the next step in the process – peer review.

We have now made observations, formed a hypothesis, and tested this idea over and over again to great success.  One would think we have a pretty solid explanation for the original phenomena, but the real fun is only about to begin.  We must now subject our hypothesis, and our experimental results, to the process of peer review.  This basically means that well-trained experts, in our given field of study, are going to take our idea and do everything in their power to dismantle it.  The hypothesis will be screened with a fine tooth comb, and our experiments will be placed under a microscope.  Every known method of “falsifying” our hypothesis will be attempted.  If, at any time during this process, our hypothesis is exposed to be in error, it is dismissed and we go back to scratch.  If however, the idea survives the firing squad, the hypothesis will be published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

Does Your Theory Pass the Test?

Why is all of this important?  What does this have to do with the word theory?  A scientific Theory has passed every ONE of the above measures, and more.  It has been examined, scrutinized, and taken to task, only to emerge even more confirmed each time.  The title “theory” is EARNED in science.  It is the HIGHEST title that a scientific explanation can achieve.  A scientific theory is based on evidence, and observation.  It’s explanations reliably account for all the information we have, its predictions are confirmed each time they are put to the test.

It is often thought that a scientific explanation is only called a theory when it isn’t “proven”.  Again, this is simply false.  As stated, once an explanation earns the title theory, that’s it.  There is no higher title for it to achieve, and it will never become anything else.  Some seem to operate under the misconception that a theory is a less proven idea, and a scientific law is a fact.  Once more evidence is gathered, a theory will become a law.  This is also not the case.  Scientific laws are simply different from theories altogether.  A theory will always be a theory, and a law will always be a law.  They are not different levels of certainty.  BOTH are considered to be theoretical and BOTH are considered to be “facts”.

It may come as a surprise to some that many ideas, commonly accepted as facts, are ACTUALLY scientific theories.  Gravity, motion, the behavior of atoms, the earth rotating on an axis, the planets orbiting the sun, etc.  All of these “facts” are, in actuality, theories.  Does this make THEM any less true?  No.  It seems to only become an issue when evolution, a theory that is equally supported (if not more so) by evidence, is discussed.

The Million Dollar Question

The only question remaining is that, if theories are established facts, then why do we call them theories?  Why not call them facts?  The answer to this goes to the very core of the scientific process.  Science almost never deals in absolutes.  Any explanation we have can only POSSIBLY be the best explanation available, given what we know.  Science is a discipline of skepticism and intellectual honesty.  It recognizes that our knowledge and understandings can and WILL always improve.  It recognizes that we can only hope to offer explanations that account for all CURRENT data and information.  New data could always be discovered that will force us to revisit our explanations and either refine them, or even discard them.  This is not a failing of science, but rather it’s GREATEST strength.  The discipline of science is ever mindful of our own limitations, and endlessly seeking the next great discovery.

Which of Your Theories Could Use Refinement?

When the topic is evolution, or even the big bang, it is so often said these are just “theories”.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Yes, they are theories, but there is nothing “just” about them.  They stand as the best explanations we have, or COULD have, given the evidence available to us.  Their predictions have been observed, their teachings have been confirmed, their evidence has been examined.  Every attempt at falsification has proven to be in vain.  We know these things to be true with the same degree of certainty that we can know any scientific understanding to be true.  That is to say, it is definitely the case, provided new evidence does not come along to completely refine our understandings.

To make a long story short, it isn’t JUST a theory……

 

Sources:

 

7 responses to “It’s JUST a Theory…

  1. I am glad you have chosen to talk about this very vital topic, often the central dispute behind many other disagreements.

    However, I disagree with a number of your distinctions.

    I thought I would reply, with the following humble criticisms:

    Firstly, you seem to say there are differences between ‘hypothesis’, ‘theory’ and ‘law’, citing the latter two as ‘facts’ (but the next few sentences seems to retract this).

    In short, I think disputing the definition of words is unhelpful. [Nor do you give us the distinction between 'law' and 'theory'.]

    I think the salient distinction between scientific theory and non-scientific theories has been made clear by Karl Popper. Namely, a scientific theory is one that has the possibility of being ‘falisified’ – we can test, or imagine a test where the theory could be shown to be false.

    Also, I think there is a distinction to be made between knowledge of particulars (and we might call these ‘facts’) and universal theories (such as gravity), which Hume showed we are excluded from ‘knowing’ in the same sense.

    I have written more here, and would welcome your criticism:

    http://fieldlines.org/2011/11/23/the-two-euphemisms-of-reason-and-evidence/

    Thanks,

    James Sheils

    • James,

      Thank you for your comment, and I did read your article. I will, in turn, offer a few thoughts of my own in response.

      “In short, I think disputing the definition of words is unhelpful. [Nor do you give us the distinction between 'law' and 'theory'.]”

      There are multiple sources, more eloquent with the distinction than I. The basic distinction, as I have seen it explained by mutliple experts, is that
      “a law describes what nature does under certain conditions, and will predict what will happen as long as those conditions are met. A theory explains how nature works”. Theories are more over-arching explanations, and can often depend upon several laws.

      http://science.kennesaw.edu/~rmatson/3380theory.html

      As for your contention about the dividing factor between scientific theories, and non-scientific ones, I find it to be correct, but inadequate.

      Certainly, scientific theories must be falsifiable. Is this not true of many unscientific “theories” as well? When the word is used colloquially, it is often used to posit an idea that would be falsifiable. The difference is that it is often assigned to an idea or guess that has not been examined for accuracy. If a hypothesis is unfalsifialbe, it is certainly excluded from gaining the status “scientific theory”, but if we do not explain further in drawing the distinction, it sells short just how exclusive the title “theory” is.

      Intelligent design, for example, is not a scientific theory because it is unfalsifiable. My “theory” about who keyed my car is also NOT a scientific theory, even though my idea is very falsifiable.

      Just a few thoughts, and thank you again for your input.

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