Talk:Scientific theory

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This Philosophy of science related article has been awarded BRONZE status for quality. It's getting there, but could be better with improvement. See RationalWiki:Article rating for more information.

Editorial notes


I have changed the title "Theories cannot be wrong" to "Theories can be presently falsified or unfalsified" which is less elegant, but, I think, more accurate.--Bobbing up and down 15:33, 7 September 2007 (CDT)

Definition of theory[edit]

In the Dover trail when Michael Behe was presented with the definition of "theory" from US National Academy of Sciences: “Theory: In science, a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses.”, he insisted on a broader definition. I am not sure how close our own definition is to that of the US National Academy of Sciences:. Do we need to review this?--Bobbing up 07:05, 17 November 2007 (EST)

I've tried to broaden the topic by making a distinction between "small" theories that deal with relatively limited portions of a scientific field and "large" theories that serve to combine many small theories and laws into a body of evidence and laws into a viewpoint (paradigm) that unites and guides understanding and research within an entire scientific field. PoorEd 13:29, 25 February 2008 (EST)
Eh, PoorEd, I believe it's just called a "hypothesis" then. To quote some scientist I can't find on Google:

"The difference between a hypothesis and a theory is a hypothesis is a lake and a theory is an ocean. But in my time I've seen some mighty big lakes and some awfully small oceans."

--Star of David.png Radioactive afikomen Please ignore all my awful pre-2014 comments. 13:35, 25 February 2008 (EST)
Sorry RA, you're out of you're depth here. There are accepted theories that are used to understand limited portions of a field, and larger, all-encompassing theories that unite an entire field. Do a bit of reading in the philosophy of science. PoorEd 13:44, 25 February 2008 (EST)
I accept that. No need to be so snooty about it. --Star of David.png Radioactive afikomen Please ignore all my awful pre-2014 comments. 13:46, 25 February 2008 (EST)
Yeah, play nice kids. What's that template that says "someone's about to mention Hitler"?-αmεσ (tailor) 13:49, 25 February 2008 (EST)
Sorry, RA, I didn't mean to sound snooty. BTW, while I was typing this AmesG jumped in and conflicted me right out of the picture. Damn Hitler-loving fascist!PoorEd 13:50, 25 February 2008 (EST)
Heh. That's okay. The phrases "out of your depth" and "do a bit of reading" rubbed me the wrong way—I am quite aware of my limited understanding of most scientific subjects, but it felt like you were brushing me off as beneath you. That probably wasn't your intention, but that's what it felt like. --Star of David.png Radioactive afikomen Please ignore all my awful pre-2014 comments. 13:57, 25 February 2008 (EST)
To give you an idea of the complexity of the meaning of the word "theory" in science, I seem to remember that one critic found that T. Kuhn used the term something like 17 different ways. PoorEd 13:53, 25 February 2008 (EST)

Misconceptions section[edit]

We need to decide whether the headers in that section should reflect the (mistaken) misconceptions that we then debunk, or the (correct) response to those misconceptions. It looks as thought that's been flip-flopping over the history of the article. Since the section is titled "Misconceptions" I was trying to implement the former option. But as long as we're consistent it probably doesn't matter.--Bayesyikes 14:22, 25 February 2008 (EST)

Good point. I suggest we use headers that are statements of fact or subject rather than of misconceptions (which is, I think, misleading). PoorEd 14:25, 25 February 2008 (EST)

Cover Story (plz don't archive kthx)[edit]

This is short but I think it's an important article to have in the rotation. Also, it's really good so far, and only getting better.-αmεσ (tailor) 13:44, 25 February 2008 (EST)

Yes, it is indeed brief, but it's solid. DogP 21:23, 2 April 2008 (EDT)
I'd still suggest taking out the idea that falsified theories are neverthless considered scientific theories. Part of the problem is that the word "theory" has different meanings even among scientists, depending on the context. Falsified theories are only theories in a historical sesnse, not in the sense of a "working" theory that is still useful within a particular scientific field. Rational Edfaith 13:52, 3 April 2008 (EDT)
And what exactly does "even falsified theories remain theories of the first variety listed above" refer to? "A well-substantiated explanation for a series of facts and observations"? If so, that is incorrect. Falsified theories have been demoted to the status of "just a theory". Rational Edfaith 13:56, 3 April 2008 (EDT)
I think the "Falsified theories" bit confuses the meaning of "scientific theory" with the common usage of "hunch" or "speculation".--Bobbing up 14:10, 3 April 2008 (EDT)
As there hasn't been much progress, I've removed the nomination for now. It could certainly do with some work. ArmondikoVgnostic 13:34, 2 December 2008 (EST)

Are falsified theories still theories?[edit]

The article has been going back and forth on this. I'd suggest that a falsified theory is no longer a scientific theory. It used to be. It can be referred to as the "such and such" theory when speaking of the history of science, but as far as the scientific community is concerned, it is no longer a valid theory. I had an argument with R Schlafly about this on CP's Geocentric Theory talk page (under "Both Theories Correct?) where he insisted that scientists still use the geocentric theory whenever they calculate a rocket trajectory using the Earth as the relative center of reference. I don't believe a scientist today would refer to a geocentric theory unless they were talking about the history of science. PoorEd 18:25, 15 March 2008 (EDT)

I'd say they're still theories in a certain sense, just not very useful ones - just like a dead elephant is still an elephant in most respects, but not good for much of anything (unless you happen to like elephant steak). Perhaps it would be most correct to say that a refuted theory is indeed changed from a "scientific theory" to a "historic theory" or something like that. --AKjeldsenGodspeed! 18:34, 15 March 2008 (EDT)
Right. Just need a better word for it I guess.PoorEd 21:53, 16 March 2008 (EDT)

We initially define "theory" thusly:

  • A well-substantiated explanation for a series of facts and observations. Theories are the main goal in science and no explanation can achieve a higher "rank."
  • A complex suite of theories (see above) and scientific laws (see below) built up over time that unify the scientific community's view and approach to a particular scientific field. Biology has the theory of evolution, Geology has plate tectonic theory and Cosmology has the Big Bang.

Does a "Falsified Theory" fit either of these descriptions? If it does then there is no problem. If it does not, then we either need to amend the initial definition or change the phrase: "Falsified theories are still theories."--Bobbing up 12:53, 21 April 2008 (EDT)

Ok, I'll edit the article to cover this point.--Bobbing up 05:41, 23 April 2008 (EDT)
Thanks. Rational Edevidence

Theories are different from Laws[edit]

Sure these two paragraphs now condradict each other. The first saying that it's a misconception that a theory can turn into a law, while the second says "In reality, laws are merely theories which are ranked superb", implying that in fact, a theory can change into a law. Unless of course, there is no difference between theory and law, which certainly isn't implied by either the theory or the law articles. ArmondikoVgnostic 15:04, 27 September 2008 (EDT)

Yes, the is certainly a contradiction: We have:Scientific laws and theories are two very different things and one never becomes the other. Scientific laws are factual observations usually derived from mathematical modeling. and we also have: In reality, laws are merely theories which are ranked superb in a hierarchy which includes useful and tentative theories. Something has to give.--Bobbing up 16:27, 27 September 2008 (EDT)
Well, in my experience there's certainly a difference between a law and a theory. A law is closer to a (almost?) perfectly true mathematical expression, like Kepler's laws of planetary motion, while theories are more descriptive of why the laws work like that. Surely, the second paragraph is probably meant to address the "evolution as fact" concept, but in this context it makes little to no sense. ArmondikoVgnostic 16:32, 28 September 2008 (EDT)
Ah, I see it's been altered to make a little more sense now. Much, much, much better. ArmondikoVgnostic 16:33, 28 September 2008 (EDT)

Cicero quotation[edit]

The quotation from Cicero brings up the issue of the 6 W's with respect to a "theory" of design. I thought that it would be clear, but if it isn't, perhaps it would best to put this in a context with some explanation. TomS TDotO 14:25, 22 November 2009 (UTC)

There's the "5 Ws" external link which helps. It may work better if those were mentioned further up the article, but I wouldn't want to risk defining a theory based on those factors. I think it's self explanitory as it is that creationism explains "who" and "when" (well, strictly it presupposes "who" and "when") and makes no attempt at the others. Scarlet A.pngmoral 14:41, 22 November 2009 (UTC)

Cut from ELs[edit]

This needs a lot of help. The article is long, and seems to be peppered with stuff about Johnson. So what is the relevant quote, and why don't we just quote him somewhere appropriate? ħumanUser talk:Human 15:18, 9 February 2010 (UTC)

OK, so now at least it's done right. Next question: What does the quote add to the article - who is this guy and why should we care what he says about ID, especially in an article on scientific theories? Perhaps the quote would fit better in our ID article? If we can figure out why it matters... ħumanUser talk:Human 15:24, 10 February 2010 (UTC)
I'm surprised we haven't got an article on Philip Johnson actually. He's one of the early leaders of the ID 'movement', and is a big part of the Discovery Institute I think. --Worm(t | c) 15:33, 10 February 2010 (UTC)
That would be great if we could wikilink his name. That would resolve all my whining. ħumanUser talk:Human 17:03, 10 February 2010 (UTC)
OK. BTW, his first name is "Phillip" (with two P's) - "Philip" (with one P) Johnson is a famous architect. BTW, I want to thank you for keeping me on my toes. TomS TDotO (talk) 17:31, 10 February 2010 (UTC)
In the article you linked to it is spelled with one L not two. But I see that they are wrong.
Also, I meant wikilink it to an article on him on RW, not to wikipedia. ħumanUser talk:Human 18:06, 10 February 2010 (UTC)
And it turns out we have one. That's why linking to wp like that is a bad idea. ħumanUser talk:Human 18:08, 10 February 2010 (UTC)

Current state of Intelligent Design "Theory"[edit]

ID at the moment seems to be stated as "an item shows 'design' if it demonstrates a value for 'complex sepcified information'. 'Irreducible complexity' is a special case of CSI. The 'theory' specifically cuts off when design is found, and does not permit investigating the designer. It does concede that the designer MAY be human , another physical entity or natural force , or supernatural and that supernatural is not science. The theory does not seem to be falsifiable except case by case. Complex specified Information has a strange definition where terms have been invented. Hamster (talk) 16:57, 10 February 2010 (UTC)

Current state is that regardles if we call it "theory" or science (as it is called in RW) it is a fact that it won over what was called science still a half century ago. Creationism is now taught in the universities physics departments under a name of "Big Bang theory", and nobody dares to oppose it if one counts on scientific career (that's why Jim is a black sheep with no future in science). Perpetual motion machnes are now "theoretically" possible. A physics professor in my university says "It is so beautiful that it can't be wrong". That the expansion of universe is an illusion is a minor defect. Other minor defects regarding its math and physics count about half dozen. But Leibniz already said that "One suffices to create Everything of nothing!" didn't he? JimJast (talk) 14:20, 4 May 2011 (UTC)

Creationism makes testable Predictions[edit]

I brought this point up on the Falsifiability page as well: Creationism makes testable predictions like the world should only appear less than 10,000 years old, there should be evidence from a recent global flood, speciation is impossible, ect. Granted the only prediction I.D. makes is the existence of "Irreducibly Complex" body and cell parts. Creationism and I.D. are not science because all these predictions have been tested and are false. Reasonable (talk) 12:52, 15 September 2011 (UTC)

We can be generous to the young earth variety of creationism, and point out that it makes predictions which are falsifiable (we know that, because they are falsified). An argument could be made that as a practical matter, these predictions are not treated as falsifiable because none of the falsifications are accepted, but I will let that be. Other varieties of creationism, such as Old Earth Creationism and Intelligent design seem to be too vague as to draw any consequences (falsifiable or otherwise, predictions or not) from them. In particular, the ID variety seems to be designed so as to avoid any substantive, positive content. In reference to IC as a prediction of ID, (1) there is no connection made between ID and IC, the most of any claim being only that evolutionary biology cannot account for IC and thus, by default, that it must have taken ID; (2) ID was not a prediction of ID, but was only brought up in the context of ID after the invention of ID; (3) I'm not sure that IC has been given a clear enough formulation as to allow its presence or absence to be determined. TomS TDotO (talk) 16:26, 15 September 2011 (UTC)
The main trouble with irreducible complexity is that it's a bit like a reverse Russel's Teapot. You can say "X is irreducibly complex, therefore intelligent design" but the trouble then is that someone can come along later and say "actually, it's not irreducibly complex because we've found the right evolutionary pathway". I'm not sure where that stands with respect to falsifiability, precisely. There's certainly something very wrong with it as it amounts to saying that because you don't have to the imagination to solve a problem that the problem is unsolvable. I wouldn't want to call it a falsifiable prediction, though, mainly because of the attitude of ID advocates towards it. ADK...I'll hear your lowbrow! 09:05, 16 September 2011 (UTC)

Perhaps quotable[edit]

Science & Spaghetti Monsters: Understanding the Nature of Scientific Knowledge & Research. Cømяade FυzzчCαтPøтαтø (talk/stalk) 14:56, 2 December 2015 (UTC)

'It's only a theory'[edit]

Would you sit under a one-ton(ne) block suspended from the ceiling with a fraying rope (citation - any number of cartoon images), arguing that gravity is only a theory? Anna Livia (talk) 18:20, 20 January 2020 (UTC)