Word Abuse #1 – “It’s just a theory!”

Discussion in 'Science and Technology' started by Star, Jun 7, 2012.

  1. Star
    Offline

    Star Gold Member

    Joined:
    Apr 5, 2009
    Messages:
    2,510
    Thanks Received:
    594
    Trophy Points:
    155
    Ratings:
    +1,016
    ✄snip>

    You see, in its conventional, every day use the word “theory” means little more than an educated guess based on observations (or arm chair logic in the case of political pundits, but that’s not a road we’re going to go down).
    However, in scientific circles the word has quite a different meaning. You see, the everyday usage of “theory” has an equivalent in science: the word “hypothesis”. Theory, however, is a much more robust term. In order to understand what it means, we must first look at another word, one that is often used as the polar opposite of a theory: fact.

    To illustrate the point, I’m going to discuss a real world example – the theory of evolution. Folks who dislike the theory (usually because they misunderstand or don’t want to understand it) will often say: “It’s a theory, not a fact!” In reality, these people are both wrong and right. The theory of evolution is indeed a theory (it’s in the name, after all), but it is also a fact.

    “But how could this be?!” You may exclaim, shaking your fist at the computer screen, cursing the gods of vocabulary as you do so. Before you punch a hole in your monitor (boy words get you pretty excited don’t they?), let me explain. A fact is something that has been observed and is, in general, held to be true. Gravity is a fact – you could test it by jumping off your roof, although I wouldn’t recommend it. Evolution is a fact – it has been observed and verified many times, through many independent lines of evidence. It is a fact the the Earth is round (technically an oblong spheroid, but let’s not be too picky) and that the Sun is the center of the solar system.

    In short, facts describe what is; they are generally held truths about the world. A theory, on the other hand, explains a the facts. It’s rather like what police do when they come to a crime scene – they gather facts about the crime, better known as evidence, and then try to construct a coherent explanation (a theory) as to what occurred and how. In scientific terms, a theory is based upon robust evidence and is peer reviewed by experts in the field. A theory must be falsifiable. In other words, new evidence can overturn a theory if it is robust enough. Such an event does not often happen these days, as most theories are flexible enough to incorporate new data that may seem on the surface to be a devastating blow, but when deeper insight is obtained from further study often a slight modification of an existing theory is all that is needed to explain an apparent inconsistency.

    A theory also has a range of validity. When Einstein formulated his Theory of Relativity, that didn’t mean that physicists simply tossed out Newton’s Laws of Motion (they’re called laws for a reason!). Newtonian physics is useful for large objects moving at relatively slow speeds (i.e. not a significant fraction of light speed). As an object approaches light speed, Newton’s equations basically become too difficult to use, and Einstein’s theory kicks in. As objects become super small, both Einstein and Newton step aside and Quantum Theory comes into play.
    Whew! Take a deep breath…the science is done. Should have given better warning. My bad.


    Let me give a brief recap. Theory as it is conventionally used corresponds to the scientific usage of the word hypothesis. A hypothesis is, in a basic sense, an educated guess based upon observations. A theory, on the other hand, is a robust explanation of a natural phenomena, based on established facts. A theory explains these facts. In order to be a theory, an idea has to have certain characteristics. It must be supported by independent lines of evidence, that is to say, by the facts. A theory must be falsifiable – it must be able to be overturned or modified to explain new evidence. A theory has a range of validity – it only explains a certain set of facts, and outside of those facts it may have little explanatory power.

    As you can see, the actual meaning of the word “theory” is much more complex than its conventional usage. Given that it was originally a science term, that shouldn’t surprise anyone. Now that you know the correct, science-y usage of the word, you too can feel that vein in your forehead throb in pure rage when someone dares abuse it!


    ✄snip>
     
    • Thank You! Thank You! x 1
  2. manifold
    Offline

    manifold Diamond Member

    Joined:
    Feb 19, 2008
    Messages:
    48,682
    Thanks Received:
    7,223
    Trophy Points:
    1,830
    Location:
    your dreams
    Ratings:
    +20,685
    ^It's just an opinion.
     
  3. PredFan
    Online

    PredFan Gold Member

    Joined:
    Oct 13, 2011
    Messages:
    29,190
    Thanks Received:
    4,422
    Trophy Points:
    290
    Location:
    In Liberal minds, rent free.
    Ratings:
    +11,615
    <reaches for popcorn>
     
  4. Star
    Offline

    Star Gold Member

    Joined:
    Apr 5, 2009
    Messages:
    2,510
    Thanks Received:
    594
    Trophy Points:
    155
    Ratings:
    +1,016

    &#9988;snip>

    Researchers have shown three factors which are common in individuals who speak out against evolution in America. First, they tend to be deeply religious. Second, they are often Republican voters. Third, anti-evolutionists tend to be less educated than the general public. These three factors overwhelmingly point towards someone who prefers Intelligent Design or Creationism to evolution.

    The number of Americans who do not believe in evolution is 42 percent nationally. The number of American scientists who do not believe in evolution is 0.8 percent.

    How about the homosexual gene, discovered in the early 2000s?Americans discount this gene 68 percent of the time. Scientists only discount the gene at 1.3 percent.

    Let’s examine climate change. Americans who claim climate change is a hoax clock in at 66 percent of the population. Scientists clock in at only 0.3 percent.

    For each of these fields, the scientists have an overwhelming majority who agree with the science. The general public, by contrast, disagrees with the scientists.

    Social scientists have examined the disconnect between scientists and American citizens. Their research returns one key factor in the disconnect – education. The scientists are educated in the latest discoveries, can examine the work, and can reproduce the findings in their laboratories.

    The people, by contrast, are told by their church leaders, their politicians, the media choices they make, their friends and family repeatedly that the science is wrong. They are told complete misinformation through these trusted sources of information time and time again. The misinformation displaces the realities of the world around them. They are essentially brainwashed into believing lies, rather than realities.


    &#9988;snip>
     

Share This Page