|... that someday little boys and little girls|
all over this great nation will
Is it possible for a word to have one common definition that everyone knows, and also have a completely different meaning within some specialized field? Impossible! Never in the totally logical English language could something as confusing as that ever happen.
Think of the word "bouquet," meaning sort of a big wad of flowers. If you are a wine connoisseur, you also use the word to mean a profile of aromas belonging to a type of wine, which has nothing whatsoever to do with flower arrangements. Or, what about the word "mouse?" It used to only mean a small and pesky animal, or perhaps an overly-timid person. There ought to be a law that states the IT industry must come up with its own names for things rather than stealing words that already mean something else. Also, consider the word "thong." On second thought, let's not.
Here's one: Dog. Normally, it means a four-legged device for converting all that annoying excess cash in your house into valuable noise and poop. But in manufacturing, a dog is a device used for turning a piece of metal that is mounted between centers rather than clamped in the chuck of a lathe. In Australia, a dog is also a component used in rigging for attaching lift chains or slings to a load.
Let's look at the word "theory." It is commonly used to mean almost any thought or hunch that occurs to someone on the spur of the moment.
"We're not lost, I have a theory on how to get there."
"I have a theory that the new guy is behind all this."
"In theory the two of us should be able to move your piano, no problems."
"Well, that should have worked in theory, but don't worry - I can fix it. Um, do you have any piano glue?"
"That didn't work. Let's try a new theory."
"What's your theory on how the roof of my car got this large piano-shaped dent in it?"
We also use the word to describe the whacked-out fantasies that mentally-ill people often indulge in: "Conspiracy Theories."
Do you see the pattern? We normally use the word "theory" to mean ideas which have a high coefficient of Bogosity and which are almost certainly NOT TRUE.
But how does Science use the word "theory?" Let's answer that by looking at a few examples.
|A Scanning Tunneling Microscope|
image of individual carbon atoms
|Tuberculosis bacteria. |
Photo: Janice Hanley Carr,
Public Health Information Library
The Theory of Powered Flight. Before the Wright Bros. you might have been forgiven for saying this was "just a theory." You would have been more correct though to call it the hypothesis of flight, because "theory" is only used in science after an idea has been proven. Scientists don't use airplanes to argue for or against the theory of flight, they use the theory of flight to build better and better airplanes. Do you believe in airplanes? Do you believe that they can really fly? Or is it "just a theory?"
Electromagnetic Theory. In the 19th century, people discovered that electrical currents create magnetic fields, and alternating magnetic fields can make electrical currents. Eventually it was proved that light itself is electromagnetic in nature, comprising a vast spectrum of wavelengths from x-rays to visible light to radio waves hundreds of miles long. Every piece of electrical and electronic technology you own today owes its existence to Electromagnetic Theory. This theory was not formulated in the mind of some philosopher, but was discovered experimentally over about eight decades. And now, your cell phone works today because Electromagnetic Theory is actually true. Otherwise, your phone could not possibly work. Is the existence of your smartphone "just a theory?" Or must there be some underlying truth in Electromagnetism that enables technology to do what it does - use electrical power to process and display information and to connect using the electromagnetic spectrum?
You may have noticed that Science uses the word "theory" in way that is very different from the word's common usage. In science, "theory" means a) observed facts that have been confirmed repeatedly and precisely, and; b) the underlying truth that unifies a large body of evidence; and, c) the system or means of correctly interpreting measurements, and of making exact predictions.
A theory is more than a model, because as long as a model re-creates observations, it doesn't matter what the model does or looks like on the inside. But a theory needs to closely resemble if not exactly describe reality in its inner workings. Only then can a theory fulfill one of its major requirements, which is to make predictions of the existence of phenomena that had previously not been observed or considered. The predictions must be quantitative (how big, how fast, how heavy, how accurate, how many) and the phenomena must have a natural cause.
One common misconception is that theories are frangible, temporary constructs. This arises from the common usage of the word, being a mere thought, hunch or expendable idea. But it is simply not so. Scientific theories take time, often decades to become established, and once established, they are with us forever. Theories may become refined as science progresses and sometimes circumscribed by limits as those limits become understood. However, once true, always true. All the experiments that confirmed a theory as correct cannot have their results altered retroactively.
Contrary to popularized accounts, Newtonian physics was not "overturned" by the discoveries of modern physics, namely Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. Sorry, it just never happened. What really happened was that QM and Relativity confirmed everything about Newtonian physics, and then placed practical and fundamental limits around it. Within those limits, which include the realms of virtually all everyday experience, Newton's Laws of motion and their implications are for all intents and purposes still totally correct.
The Atomic Theory of Matter was fully confirmed when we discovered the inner-workings of the nucleus. We then discovered that it was limited to temperatures and pressures significantly lower than, say, the interior of a sun where atoms break down and exchange important pieces of themselves. But it's still true: absolutely everything we normally interact with is made up of atoms, and atoms still function in the manner described by Atomic Theory.
Another misconception is that you can never really prove that a theory is true. Again, wrong. You are probably thinking of "hypothesis," which is a kind of precursor to a theory, but is usually very limited in scope whereas theories are very far-reaching. And while it is technically true that a hypothesis can only be rejected with certainty, in practice there are ways around that. Experienced researchers know how to formulate a hypothesis in a way that answers the relevant question.
The theories discussed above are more than mere hunches that can't really be proven for certain, but are examples of profound truths that have been discovered through discipline, hard work and inspired genius. So before reading the advanced science manual, be sure to first master the vocabulary primer.
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People today will swallow all sorts of patent nonsense without blinking, but view anything called a scientific theory with uncharacteristic skepticism. I think I know why. Nobody, you see, has ever called Ass-trology "just a theory." Silliness like that which is completely made up, 100% randomly generated horseshit with no basis in reality whatsoever is presented not as a theory, but as certain knowledge. Shakespeare was wrong: a rose by any other name would have to be marked down significantly at the supermarket. Branding is important because gullible people believe in brands.
Scientific theories are not, as people assume, merely pulled out of someone's you-know-what. They are discoveries that are thoroughly investigated, tested, pulled apart, analysed literally under a microscope for any flaw, inconsistency, inaccuracy, unexplained blip, or artifact of the methodology. And only when the basic facts of the situation are established beyond any doubt is a scientific discovery crowned with the title of Theory.
In the field of science, that word is applied to mean more than a discovery, more than a model of reality, more than a unifying system. In short, "theory" means The Truth.