Baloney Detection 101 – Scientific Theory

A scientific theory, as opposed to the everyday use of the word “theory,” is more than just a guess, and it isn’t, as Isaac Asimov once quipped, something you came up with while drunk.

It’s a set of ideas that weaves facts together into a single overall description and detailed explanation for a given set of phenomena.

All scientific theories are provisional, never proven with complete metaphysical certainty, and are sometimes demonstrably factual, but it’s important to tell a theory from the facts it describes.

The scientific use of a theory gives no a priori indication of its actual level of certainty, but any given set of ideas might be so well established by repeated testing as to be confirmed beyond all rational doubt. There are the theories of genetic inheritance, general and special relativity, quantum mechanics, number theory in mathematics, music theory in music, stress theory in engineering, the germ theory of disease, atomic theory, heliocentric theory, the global Earth theory, plate tectonics theory, and of course, that boogieman of creationists, evolution.

Booga-Booga! Eeevilution!

And not everyone’s doubt is rational, with various sorts of science denialists given to labeling any set of theories they have a bug up their posteriors about as “just theory, not fact,'” playing on the everyday use of both the words ‘theory,’ and ‘fact.’

A theory is not a hypothesis; the latter is just a part of a theory,a proposed explanation with a given set of predictions within a theory’s framework. That’s what you’d expect to see, or not see, if that part of the theory is to be tested.

Theories aren’t facts; they explain and describe facts. And facts are not certainties, outside of formal logic and maths. Never confuse those.

Facts in science are never absolute, due to science’s provisional nature. It can never be known absolutely that some data which might disconfirm any particular fact will never rear its ugly head at any arbitrary point in the future.

Theories are not ‘promoted’ to laws, they being two different sorts of beasts – laws merely define things, give a mathematical structure to a phenomenon we can use in applying it, while a theory describes and explains how it works.

Theories usually start as models, which offer testable hypotheses for experiment or other observation; there’s the comparative method in mostly historical sciences: geology, cliodynamics, cosmology, astronomy, paleontology, and archaeology to name a few.

No, you don’t have to do experiments in a lab to do science. Otherwise, no crime ever committed could be solved using evidence left at the scene where it happened, and detectives would be permanently out of work as a profession.

Science isn’t just for the nerds in lab coats and pocket-protectors.

Most science today is done as a community effort, evolving over time, and all involved in a study contribute to the overall theory being investigated and hypotheses tested; the idea of the lone researcher working in his basement lab, the sole author of his ideas, is a quaint notion, however popular it may be.

Even broader than a theory is an overarching concept called a paradigm, often composed of many theories. M-theory in cosmology might be a good example of a paradigm, as a candidate for a “theory of everything” composed of many subsets that individually describe and explain some aspect of reality.

The term paradigm was coined or popularized by philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn and he used it in an early attempt to describe the internal process by which science changes, though it is now more often used in the sciences to refer to a conceptual tool, as a mode of thinking or general working approach to theories and frameworks of theories.

Good theories are never supported by only one piece of evidence, but through multiple, often thousands, millions, or more independent lines of data spread throughout many fields of research, which is why the demand science denialists make of, “show me just one piece of evidence that proves the theory true,” is nothing more than an empty rhetorical stunt, and an illegitimate shifting of the burden of proof.

The burden of proof rests with those making unsupported claims and asserting questionable facts, not advocates of well established and previously demonstrated findings.

Ultimately, no theory can be proven to be timelessly, absolutely true by finite data.

That’s because it sometimes only takes one reliable and properly documented observation to falsify one or more hypotheses of that theory.

In science, there are no absolute truths, so sometimes, that one reliable observation is all it takes to bring down a previously, but erroneously accepted idea, or to subsume it into an overall new theory with a more narrow but still valid domain of application.

That’s why such ideas as phlogiston, the luminiferous ether, and phrenology are no longer accepted as viable theories in science.

And with the junking of ideas that don’t work, and science’s ability to correct its course to an ever more accurate view of the world, who needs absolute truth?

(Last Update: 2019/2/26, 13:50)

One thought on “Baloney Detection 101 – Scientific Theory

  1. I liked your blog, but I’d argue with Kuhn that the scientific paradigm is quite superfluous. If two (or more) theories can successfully be put together so that their explanatory and predictive power has been expanded, and it contains no contradictions or anything that has yet to falsify it, then it itself would simply become the new theory (of whatever). So if you somehow successfully combined General Relativity with Quantum Mechanics, you wouldn’t call it the-paradigm-of-general-relativity-and-quantum physics…. Scientists would simply call it Quantum Gravity Theory, or The-End-Of-The-World-Because-We-Can-Predict-What-You’re-Going-To-Do-Next-LOL. I’d go so far as to say that theories have, throughout the history of science, gobbled up smaller theories as they expand their explanatory power… paradigm is a fun word though, that’s why they use them in Final Fantasy XIII.

    Peace 😛

    (Now why wouldn’t you call it the-paradigm-of-general-relativity-and-quantum physics? Well its because they would no longer be the independent theories they once were. One of them, or more likely both of them, would need to be altered from their current state in order for them to be combined into a single framework for making predictions about both the very large and the very small.)

    Like

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