Welcome back to “Doggerel,” where I discuss words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.
Today’s entry is a word that’s commonly misunderstood on forums and comment threads about science. In colloquial language, “theory” implies guesswork. “It works in theory, but not in practice” is a phrase used to describe an idea that sounds reasonable, but doesn’t work, speaking of theories as if they were restricted to thought experiments. Often in fiction, “pragmatic” characters will criticize a dreamer or intellectual’s plan asserting “this is no time to test your theories!” or similar arguments. This definition of “theory” is more consistent with what a skeptic would call a hypothesis, not a theory.
“I have a theory…”
This is getting ahead of oneself, most of the time. If you’ve developed an explanation for why something happens or happened, but haven’t tested it, you have a hypothesis. In a way, a hypothesis is equivalent to a colloquial “working theory” if you’re investigating something. If you are a detective and the evidence you’ve gathered so far points to a suspect, you might continue investigating under a “working theory,” looking for evidence and counter-evidence. If you find the murder weapon traces back to a different suspect or that your suspect has a solid alibi, you dismiss the initial hypothesis and form a new one based on that new evidence.
To extend the detective metaphor, the scientific community is equivalent to a jury composed of other detectives. They will examine the crime lab’s test results and try to replicate those results themselves. They will try to devise reasonable alternative hypotheses to cast doubt on yours. They will look at the crime scene for things you might have missed. They will criticize any mistakes you made. Your hypothesis only becomes a theory if it survives this scrutiny.
The pragmatic difference between a hypothesis and a theory is the difference between an investigation and a conviction. When you have a hypothesis, it’s cause for investigation. Only when the scientific community reaches a general agreement, it becomes a conviction, and we have good reason to act on it. Of course, all convictions can be potentially overturned and all tests can be verified. Evidence tampering will be exposed if new tests fail to achieve the same results. Investigation of new hypotheses might discover evidence contrary to the old theory. Of course, challenging old theories isn’t easy, which brings us to another misuse of the word.
“It’s just a theory.”
A common simple form of this objection comes from a misunderstanding of the difference between facts and explanations. Individual observations and test results are facts. A theory is an explanation for those facts and a predictor for future facts. Without attempts to form hypotheses and theories, simple collection of facts can be likened to stamp collecting. For example, we observe a wide variety of similarities and differences between living organisms. Facts without a theory are just trivia. With a theory, we can explain how those facts came to be and make predictions about what will happen or what new evidence we can expect to find if the theory is accurate. The theory of evolution was created to make sense of those disconnected biological facts by explaining how different traits become prevalent, why some are conserved, why some die out. It gives us some predictive ability about how a species might respond to a change of environment as well as inform us what fossils we might dig up and where we’d find them. It tells us what features we might find in an organism’s DNA before we look.
Dismissing an idea as “just a theory” is much the same problem as the first example, but reversed: Where a layperson proposing a hypothesis often underestimates the amount of testing and scrutiny needed for it to become accepted as a theory, many people will underestimate the amount of scrutiny existing theories have already come under. Science is a skeptical, adversarial enterprise. Scientists who endorse one hypothesis are motivated to find fallacies, contradictions, and counter-evidence in competing hypotheses. People with new ideas are strongly motivated to question established theories so they can demonstrate new nuances with their own expanded version or even overthrow big theories if they can produce a more accurate one with greater explanatory and predictive power. The scientific community is a battleground where all ideas can and will be challenged. Science is built on the principle of falsification: Try to tear everything down by finding counter-evidence or flawed logic. The only ideas of lasting worth are the ones that remain standing while under assault.
Advice to my opponents: First, coming up with new ideas is a good thing. Skeptics don’t criticize your ideas because they’re new. We criticize them because they’re ideas. When anyone expresses a testable claim about the world, they should be prepared for that. Skeptics generally think people should be critical of their own ideas so that obvious mistakes are less likely to take up someone else’s time. The world is a messily complex place, and everyone has different levels and fields of knowledge. If you get what you think is a new idea, chances are good that someone else might have already thought of it. Many “new” ideas skeptics criticize are actually quite old and have been previously analyzed and found to be flawed in many ways. Try to be forgiving if some skeptics get frustrated when you present certain ideas, because a lot of us have been through a lot of repetition. Try to look past emotions and insults and look at the meat of the criticism. You might learn something new, either about the idea in question, alternative ideas, or questions you might need to think about. There’s nothing wrong about being mistaken, only with keeping yourself attached once a mistake has been found.
If you’re questioning a theory backed by scientific consensus, be humble in doing so. Try to learn as much as you can about the theory from the people who believe in its accuracy. All too often, skeptics are faced with laypeople who simply repeat false assertions or misunderstandings, and it gets frustrated. When scientists devise a hypothesis that conflicts with consensus, they try to read up on relevant research that’s already been done. All their work can be for naught if they repeat a historical mistake out of ignorance. Try to follow the spirit of that example by learning as much as you can about the consensus theory. Ask for reading material and examples of the theory in action. Ask if the skeptics are willing to walk you through a basic thought experiment so you can test your understanding.
If you spot an apparent flaw after all this, ask if you might be misunderstanding or missing something. There might be a nuance or counter-intuitive aspect of the theory you aren’t aware of, or simply didn’t come up in the examples. Many scientists have gone over the theory before, so it’s unlikely you’re the first to ask the question. Chances are someone has an answer, so pay close attention to explanations in the responses. Again, try to be forgiving if skeptics get frustrated. We have often dealt with people who simply repeat alleged “gotcha” questions or assertions and ignore responses. Sometimes we end up composing lists of ready responses to these types of things. Don’t mistake frustration for a sign of victory. Read responses carefully and stick to the issue at hand. Try looking for the answer from other sources as well. Not all skeptics are experts in the field, though may strive to stay informed on the big picture. Even among experts, sometimes the answer is a humble “I don’t know.”