surprise, surprise! everything is just a theory

How people use the word "theory" when it comes to science shows how badly we teach them about the scientific method.

physics on glass

Want to make a scientist groan? Listen to a lecture about cutting edge research in his or her area of expertise, then say the five dreaded words: “it’s all just a theory.” From creationists to people who seem to believe that if it hasn’t been done yet, it must be impossible, habitual abusers of this phrase wield it to dismiss and demean vast swaths of modern science with a haughty sneer. In the process, they keep showing just how little grasp of the scientific method they have and impress only those who don’t know that even such basic tenets as how germs make us sick or the flow of time, are all “just theories.” In science, a theory is something that seems to be confirmed time and time again, no matter how many times we test it or how many people try to replicate it.

When you first sat down in science class and were shown a diagram of the scientific method, you saw a very simplified version of what really goes on when a new discovery is made or a new hypothesis takes form. And since we rarely get another diagram until we’re in a more advanced college class, many people think that if a theory is shown to be true time and time again, it has to graduate into a law, so if it didn’t, it must’ve been an educated hunch and nothing more. In reality, laws usually describe events or rules by which the natural world seems to work while theories try to explain and interpret large bodies of knowledge affecting several distinct disciplines. Evolution could never be a law because it describes processes that affect zoology, genetics and bio-chemistry as well as their numerous subsets. It doesn’t make the concept false. It’s just too complex to be properly expressed in an if-then format.

Pretty much everything we know about nature is a theory and yet, those theories usually don’t let us down. We don’t randomly go off floating into space even though gravity is just a theory. We never fail to age and time has never stopped for no discernable reason, even though the passage of time is also just a theoretical concept. When you come home and turn on your lights, the only reasons why your electrical devices won’t work is your forgetfulness when it comes to paying bills, a defective device or a power outage. And yes, electromagnetism is also just a theory. Finally, when you’re exposed to sick people, would you really be surprised that you’d also get sick because their germs hitched some sort of ride into your body? No? Well, if you think that theories are just random guesses of people in while lab coats, you should be. The idea behind how infectious disease is spread is known as germ theory. Remember that next time you want to use those five dismissive words.

# science // popular science / science education / scientific method / theory


  Show Comments