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A scientific theory is a series of statements about the causal elements for observed phenomena. A critical component of a scientific theory is that it provides explanations and predictions that can be tested.
Usually, theories (in the scientific sense) are large bodies of work that are a composite of the products of many contributors over time and are substantiated by vast bodies of converging evidence. They unify and synchronize the scientific community's view and approach to a particular scientific field. For example, biology has the Theory of Evolution and cell theory, geology has plate tectonic theory, and cosmology has the Big Bang. The development of theories is a key element of the scientific method as they are used to make predictions about the world; if these predictions fail, the theory is revised. Theories are the main goal in science and no explanation can achieve a higher "rank" (contrary to the belief that "theories" become "laws" or "facts" over time).
"Theory" is a Jekyll-and-Hyde term that means different things depending on the context and who is using it. While in everyday speech anything that attempts to provide an explanation for a cause can be dubbed a "theory", a scientific theory has a much more specific meaning. Scientific theory is far more than just a casual conjecture or some Joe's guesswork. A theory in this context is a well-substantiated explanatory framework for a series of facts and observations that is testable and can be used to predict future observations.
Common misconceptions about theories
"Just" a theory
“”Creationists make it sound as though a 'theory' is something you dreamt up after being drunk all night.
Creationist and Intelligent design proponents often like to describe the theory of evolution as just a theory. This relies on equivocating the common usage of the term theory (meaning "idea" or "guess" — more literally speaking, "hypothesis" or "conjecture") with the scientific meaning. Theories are the single highest level of scientific achievement and nothing is just a theory — that would be like saying Bill Gates is just a multibillionaire. Additionally, one might say that the notion of evolution is "just a theory" in the same way that cell theory and gravity (fundamental principles of biology and physics, respectively) are "just theories".
This argument played out with hilarious ramifications in the recent decision of the Florida State Board of Education to teach evolution as a "scientific theory". Apparently, the creationists on the Florida SBOE thought that this was a "compromise" — by making evolution a "scientific theory" at law, they thought, it would weaken the position of evolution. After all, then it would be "just a theory," right? Wrong! This "compromise" actually puts evolution on the exactly right footing — at the highest tier of science — and ensures that students will be taught about what the term "scientific theory" really means, hopefully eventually drawing the sting of the colloquial meaning confusion.
To quickly counter this argument, you can say, "Gravity is just a theory too" or "Creation is just a myth", and they will be forced to turn to some other argument.
Theories and laws
Another common misconception is that a theory is the step you go through while on your way to a law of science. Scientific laws and theories are two very different things and, despite what it may seem, one never becomes the other. Scientific laws are factual observations usually derived from mathematical modeling; they merely distill empirical results into concise verbal or mathematical statements that express a fundamental principle of science — for example, gravity attracts, force equals mass times acceleration and so on. Theories are the causal explanations behind what creates these laws and observations of nature. So one way to think of it is: the law of gravity is that objects at 1G fall at 9m/s/s in a vacuum, while the theory of gravity is that anything with mass has a gravitational pull based on how much mass it has.
Theories also combine laws into a framework that is greater than the sum of its parts. In genetics, many different laws describe how genes interact in different combinations to influence heredity — work done principally by Gregor Mendel. Genetic theory combines these laws into a unified framework that can be used as an explanation and to make predictions. Evolutionary theory then combines genetic theory, the theory of natural selection and other theories with the various laws with which they are associated into a complex framework that forms the basis of much research in the field of biology.
Even superb theories, or laws, can be superseded by more successful ones. For instance, Newton's "law" of gravitation is superb at predicting the path of a spacecraft among the outer planets of the Solar System, but it breaks down when large masses are involved, such as that of the Sun. The precession of the aphelion of Mercury can only be explained by Einstein's general relativity, which is a refinement of Newton's law taking into account the slight bending of spacetime near the Sun.
Clearly, if a theory has been falsified it no longer fulfills the definitions at the start of the article. It may well still be a "theory" in the sense of the common usage, but in scientific terms it has become a superseded theory. For example, geocentrism was a theory, as was the concept of four elements (earth, fire, wind and water) and Lamarckian evolution which turned out to be less than accurate. These have been disproved conclusively enough (although some will beg to differ).
Because of the ability for good theories to make predictions, even if they are shown to be false (or more specifically, inaccurate in certain conditions) they can still be used to make predictions that are useful approximations. Newtonian mechanics may well be total nonsense in the light of 20th century physics pioneered by Einstein, but no one uses special relativity to work out the momentum of an automobile. And while quantum mechanics may, in principle, be completely replaced by something else, nothing is going to change the fact that the Schrödinger Equation predicts the spectroscopic features of the hydrogen atom perfectly. Even some of the more "silly" theories of old may have some use because of how they work, the classic example being that of a flat Earth. While everyone knows that the Earth isn't flat, someone building a shed in their garden doesn't need to allow for the curvature of the Earth.
Science's understanding of the Universe is indeed subject to change — otherwise it would be incapable of making any use of new technology and would be pointless. While people often say that this means all current scientific knowledge is "wrong", this is far from the right way of describing it. If a theory produces good results, it is right, but when it doesn't, it's best described as inaccurate. Theories will usually evolve from a less accurate to a more accurate version of reality. One of the major misconceptions is that when theories change the change is massive and total. When discussing the "Relativity of Wrong", Isaac Asimov quipped that someone "living in a mental world of absolute rights and wrongs, may be imagining that because all theories are wrong, the earth may be thought spherical now, but cubical next century, and a hollow icosahedron the next, and a doughnut shape the one after." But this is clearly not the case, and applies as much to the microscopic, nuanced worlds of atomic theory and theoretical physics as it does to more obvious examples such as the shape of the Earth.
Many people believe that Einstein came along and made all of Newton's theories redundant (some will also say that quantum theory usurped relativity and that string theory in turn usurped quantum theory and so on). This is not the case, as even the largest changes to our understanding are relatively small. Theories are changed by small steps and new ones will usually consist of the old one with a bit added. For example, one can formally show that Newton's laws are an approximation to special relativity that applies when velocities are small compared to the speed of light. A "Theory of Everything" that combines quantum mechanics and gravity will still resemble quantum mechanics. The Schrödinger Equation, Hartree-Fock theory, spin dynamics and particle-wave duality, and other fundamental components of quantum mechanics will all still be there, as useful and accurate as ever.
Is there a difference between theory and hypothesis?
One common misconception is that scientific theories are derived from hypotheses that have met with confirming experimental evidence — in the sense that there is a "hierarchy of science" starting with the hypothesis, which is promoted to theory, and eventually becomes natural law.
This is in fact wrong, as theories are completely separate from hypotheses — a hypothesis does not "become" a theory, and if experimental evidence contradicts a theory it isn't somehow downgraded into a hypothesis.
So, what's so special about a theory? Forgetting the standard colloquial misnomer, a scientific theory is:
- A fully working model
- Supported not just by evidence, but by the preponderance of evidence
- Accepted as being valid
- Makes accurate, testable predictions
- Is falsifiable from observation
A hypothesis however, being a different animal altogether, tends to be much less comprehensive. Akin to a back-of-the-envelope calculation, a hypothesis is basically guess or conjecture about how something might work.
A so-called working hypothesis is something with good enough supporting evidence that an individual will accept it as true for the sake of furthering their research.
Note that the term "working" denotes that this is the hypothesis you are currently working under — as in, "testing out" in the most basic sense — not that the hypothesis itself "works" (per se).
Take the following example: if you suddenly feel a vibration in your pocket, your working hypothesis likely is: that it's your phone receiving a text or a call.
By reaching into your pocket to check your phone — an act motivated entirely by your working hypothesis (which is: "it's your phone vibrating") — you test said working hypothesis against observation.
If, for example, you were to discover (to your surprise) that your phone wasn't even on you, your working hypothesis would then have been falsified. Whatever it was that vibrated, it sure couldn't have been a phone that wasn't even on you at the time.
Another example of a working hypothesis is: you're lounging at home, when suddenly — you feel a hunger pang. So, you walk to the kitchen and open the fridge
like some manner of hungry, hungry hippo.
But why the kitchen? Well, because it's your working hypothesis that "if there's food in your house, the kitchen is is the best place to start looking". And just like before — either your working hypothesis is confirmed (by the presence of food in your fridge — where you hypothesised it would be), or the working hypothesis is falsified (if it turns out the fridge was physically devoid of edibles). In the latter case, spinning a new working hypothesis is warranted — "maybe there's food in the cupboard?". And so on.
Importantly, a hypothesis is a testable statement, and — unlike a theory — it can (and might well) be proven "right" or "wrong" without this warranting an iota of change to established science.
So what's the connection between theory and hypothesis? Well, it is the constant spinning of multiple testable hypotheses that can lead the way forward to the organizing of rigorous scientific experimentation, and many of the involved factors — ideas, concepts, experiments, evidence and so on — work together to form the soil which scientific theories may one emerge from, this time using the scientific method.
- Theories Guide, Wikipedia on Theories
- 5 Ws, Wikipedia on Who, What, Where, When, Why, How
- Introduction to the Scientific Method, an important site
- ISCID.org William A. Dembski on providing details about the mechanism of ID
- The Measure of Design Touchstone magazine, July/August 2004. Paul Nelson: "... the biggest challenge facing the ID community is to develop a full-fledged theory of biological design."
- Reply to Shanks and Joplin Michael Behe, "Reply to Shanks and Joplin", Reports of the National Center for Science Education, volume 21 number 3-4 (May-August 2001), page 15 ID "says nothing directly about how biological design was produced ... or other such questions"
- Just a Theory, SMBC Theater
- If You Want a Good Story, Look to Darwinian Evolution, Not Intelligent Design by David Klinghoffer of the Discovery Institute
- Remarks made to the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), 1980
- The Discovery Institute is pissed off about this.
- Panda's Thumb, along with all of science, is pretty happy though.
- Isaac Asimov — The Relativity of Wrong
- While this might seem a decent (and even practical) model at first, the fact is that it's not just misleading, but open to abuse — forming the equivocal basis for the fallacious "Just a theory!" gambit.
- The one caveat being that — in the specific case of competitive comparison between theory and hypothesis — it is indeed correct to understand a valid theory as "epistemologically superior" to a valid hypothesis (Ceteris paribus). Outside of this context, however, conflating "theory" with "hypothesis" at all is unhelpful and confusing at best.
- ...that "theory" means something like "guess".
- Read: it was your scumbag, wolf-crying, thigh-vibrating brain! Bamboozled again...