Thursday, January 5, 2012

I Have a Theory!

... that someday little boys and little girls
all over this great nation will
understand SCIENCE!!!
The way we use the word "theory" is tripping up a lot of people, leading them to loosen their grip on reality while embracing utter gibberish.  Among non-scientists, virtually every single person that I have ever met (and couples too) had a very deeply held and very regrettably false notion about what a theory is.  Even some scientists I've known were a little vague on the concept.  Maybe it's Science that doesn't  actually know what the word means.  Well, that's one theory.

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.

Another one is "attitude."  Most of us associate this word with something that a teenager carries around with him wherever he goes, generously sharing it with the world.  In aerospace, it means the orientation of a satellite or craft relative to a fixed reference such as the earth's axis, the horizon or another vehicle.  How hard is it to believe that sometimes words have technical meanings that are unrelated to their common usage?

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
The Atomic Theory of Matter.  Why do chemicals combine to form new substances only in specific ratios?  Why can "elemental" substances always be returned to their original state even after being used repeatedly by multiple processes?  Why can those elements never be turned into other elements through chemical processes?  Why can soap bubbles and oil films be stretched only so thin before they break, even under perfect conditions?  Why do tiny particles suspended in liquid appear to be jostled and jiggled as if under constant bombardment by an unseen crowd?  These observations and many more lead to the discovery that all matter consists exclusively of atoms of various species.  In the last three decades, we have even been able to see individual atoms using advanced imaging technology.  Scientists call the discovery and its subsequent advances "the Atomic Theory of Matter."  It is arguably responsible, ultimately, for every modern convenience you enjoy.  Every manufactured item and piece of technology you own works because of atoms and our exquisitely detailed understanding of how they work.  Would you say it is "just a theory" or that it is possibly not correct?

Tuberculosis bacteria.
Photo:  Janice Hanley Carr,
Public Health Information Library
The Microbial Theory of Disease.  Before it was discovered that bacteria, viruses and other microbes were responsible for infectious diseases, you had a life expectancy of just 47 years, IF you even lived past two years of age, which 50% of children did not.  This discovery lead to changes in the way we eat, drink, bathe and treat illnesses. And those changes have made your life the long and pleasant stay on this planet that it is.  You can even watch microbes in the very act of causing disease using a microscope.  Do you think this discovery is perhaps only one possible explanation among many?  Or that the microbial theory could someday be overturned or repealed by some more popular "theory?"

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.

-   -   - 

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.



  1. Science cannot prove a hypothesis right, because there is always a possible argument that 'the fairies did it', or similar, to demolish any hypothesis. However, what science can do is prove a hypothesis to be 'not wrong yet'. If scientists show consistently that a hypothesis is 'not wrong yet' then we can start to assume it must be right.

    To me a theory is a set of related hypotheses that nobody has been able to disprove for a long time, and that we therefore assume is right. I stress the word 'assume', for two reasons. First, there are some theories that scientists have proved wrong after some time and further observation. A current example is string theory.

    Second, theories are abstract human constructs, being only the best possible explanations for what we observe. The uncertainty principle shows how observing something can actually change what is happening. So, what is the truth; what is actually happening, or our observation of what is happening, and therefore possibly affecting what is happening?

    I therefore never tell my students that science can prove anything right. I tell them that science can prove things wrong, or not wrong yet. The not-wrong-yet scientific ideas, or theories, we therefore assume are right, form the foundation on which science understanding is built and progresses. These science ideas have affected nearly everything we humans currently touch or do, so it is a good idea to have some understanding of those ideas.

  2. I’m delighted that my friend Ray, with whom I promise I am NOT in collusion, has made this comment. It perfectly illustrates my point better than I could have wished, that even science teachers struggle with this concept to the point of even making up their own theories about what a theory is (in Ray’s case, a collection of not-yet-falsified hypotheses).

    Obviously, this definition fulfils none of the requirements of a theory, and describes none of the examples.

    The idea of not-yet-wrong seems to imply that Nature might at any moment change its mind, which is of course absurd.

    We deal with the problem of being able only to conclusively disprove hypotheses rather than prove them by the way working scientists formulate the hypothesis. If for example you want to know whether magnetic fields can split a degenerate state in an atom, you don’t say “I hypothesise that magnetic fields split states,” because you’d never be able to prove that it was so. Instead, you say, “I hypothesize that magnetic fields NEVER split degenerate states” and design an experiment that will ONLY work if that statement were true. Then when the experiment fails and split states are clearly seen in the spectrograph, you can accept the truth of magnetic state splitting.

    I am also amused by Ray’s layman’s understanding of Heisenberg and observation, going along with the New Agers’ belief that human observations has an effect on reality.

    This is not so: Quantum Mechanical states are collapsed by “interactions,” not “observations.” This probably originated with a mistranslation from the German.

    This means that in almost all cases, states are always continually collapsed and there is no quantum ambiguity except when particles have been kept isolated in a vacuum so as not to interact with any other particles. It is not consciousness, awareness, intelligence, or any human involvement whatsoever that causes states to collapse. It is only the fact of an interaction with another particle.

    In the end, scientists cut through the Gordian Knot of all that “what is reality” philosophising with the simple understanding that the only thing individuals really share at the end of the day is the objective reality in which we all find ourselves. Only a group consensus of consistent non-subjective (and preferably mechanised, automated) data can show us glimpses of that one objective reality, and that is precisely what Science does, by and by.

    I hope that the next generation will not ALL be mislead in this way.

  3. John is totally correct in this discussion (including the part involving the Uncertainty Principle: intelligent observation was never part of the basic game - nature, through natural interactions, "observes" itself constantly.) My only reservation is in the use of the word "truth" or "true" in conversations like this. I have no working definition of that word.

  4. Thank you so much, Unknown. Fortunately, practicing scientists DO have a working definition of Truth. It's knowledge that a) works, b) explains things, and c) predicts things accurately. You might even find this definition works pretty well in life, too.