Tuesday, July 20, 2010
This is a first for me.
I am writing this episode of “Definitions” on request from a follower who recognized the very common misuse, misunderstanding, and sometimes intentional twisting of the meaning of the word “Theory”.
We are not talking about the colloquial “theory” as in “I have a few different theories about that” (educated guesses) or in the humanities as in “philosophical theories” (ideas) or political “theories” as in social “theory” or Marxist “theory” (ideologies), but empirical theory.
This is a major point to note. Scientific theories are decided by a completely different standard of evidence than the others and they are not to be conflated at the risk of, well, being completely wrong.
If you say, “It’s only a theory” about scientific theories, you would only reveal how little you understand what scientific theories really are.
Scientific theories are models for explaining the facts of reality. An important thing to remember is that for every theory there is a corresponding fact.
For example; The Theory of Gravity.
It is a fact that things fall when they are dropped under certain conditions. The theory of gravity explains that phenomenon.
The Theory of Evolution.
Evolution happened. Speciation occurs.
We know this.
The theory of evolution explains this natural fact.
They all begin as hypotheses but after being put through the rigors of the scientific method, they emerge as the highest form of science.
They are defined by the very standard of evidence that spawned them.
They are testable. As in you can verify the theory by experiment.
The test results are repeatable. As in they conform to the details of the theory every time.
These test results are predictable. As in you can predict the outcome of the experiments unfailingly
They are observable. As in they are back up by observable evidence and not hypothetical ideas.
The last and most critical thing to remember is that they NEVER FAIL.
They can not fail even once without failing to be a “theory”. Reality is constant, so too must the explanations for reality.
The moment that new evidence comes to light that does not conform to the tested theory, it ceases to be a theory and it must be tweaked to accommodate the explanation of the new evidence. If it cannot accommodate the new information, then the theory is happily thrown out the window and the scientists return to the drawing board.
This falsification is no less joyous than the verification of a theory. Each time something is proven false, scientists can cross off one more possibility and can say that they have learned one more thing about the universe.
A great example is Darwin’s original theory of evolution.
It was wrong.
Or, at the very least, not completely right.
He had no idea about how the allele was passed on from generation to generation. Natural selection was all well and good but Darwin could not explain the source of the heritable variations which would be acted on by it.
He felt that parents passed on those traits during their lifetimes.
Clearly advances in cellular biology and the discovery of DNA have brought us to a more accurate vision of evolutionary processes. But the fact remains that Darwin was wrong about how the traits were passed on. But the model itself was solid.
It still produced everything that was predicted, but now with a much more solid explanation as to why.
No one railed against the change; it was celebrated as a major breakthrough in science.
That is intellectual honesty, and the scientific method forces every scientific theory through that same grinder.
Scientists discovered new evidence. So they went back and tweaked the theory so that it was a more accurate reflection of the fact of evolution and so that it was backed by even more evidence.
Now it stands inviolate and verified in the face of all current scientific evidence and knowledge.
As does every theory.
If new evidence arises, then maybe that will change (although it is more likely a slight tweak of the theory that will be in order, rather than a wholesale change) but for now all known science backs up all accepted theories.
A theory is the highest form of science.
If you can remember that, then a lot of the “debate”, misuse, and misunderstanding will be stricken from the mouths of those who would spread them.
And never fails.
When people say "it is only a theory" what they are usually trying to do is discredit the theory in question by making it sound like fly by night guesswork, or an hypothesis to which we would be silly to attach any real informational authority.
So now that you know what a "Theory" really is, I hope that you all will know how to answer when next you hear "only a theory".
So is anything in science “Only a theory”?
Sorry Creationists (the usual culprits), but the answer is....