The Facts About Theories

By Adam D.A. Manning (@AdamManning)

“Evolution is just a theory”, we sometimes hear, disapprovingly muttered.

“Climate change, it’s just a theory”, it is said, as if that was enough to stop the flood of evidence about our changing climate.

Calling something “just a theory” is often used as an easy way to belittle science. Referring to theories in this way makes it sound as though they are flimsy nonsense, easily rebutted and not to be taken seriously. Is that really the case?

Inevitably when discussing the meaning of words, it can be easy to descend into wordplay. The definition of a word changes over time and ultimately depends on the way it is used. At any point in time, one word may also have several different usages and the differences between them may be rather subtle.

In the scientific context in which we are interested, “theory” has quite a precise usage. “Theories”, the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote, “are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts” (1). An established scientific theory will have been rigorously scrutinized and will form part of the body of knowledge. It will be a concept that is generally accepted and recognized.

That said, there is nothing immutable or invulnerable about a scientific theory. Einstein’s theory of gravitation has replaced Newton’s (although Newton’s is still good for most practical purposes). Indeed, even facts are not certainties either, but both make up elements of our knowledge of the world through science.

To say “it’s just a theory” about evolution, gravity or climate change is misinformed and lazy. To deride theories in this way is a much used and thoughtless denigration of science that often conceals an attack on a naturalistic outlook on the world, as if scientific knowledge is arbitrary and of little value.

This attitude is regularly accompanied by either a misleadingly innocent disregard or a surprising unawareness of the profound influence and power science has in our lives; from the practical, such as the technology we routinely use, or the medicine we take, to the astonishing and wondrous, in providing us with our understanding of the universe, from the most microscopic to the grand view of all that we can observe. Far from being “just a theory”, scientific theories are instead hard-fought-for knowledge, without which modern society would be impossible and our lives immeasurably poorer, both physically and mentally.

(1) Stephen Jay Gould, Evolution as Fact and Theory, 1981.

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4 Responses to The Facts About Theories

  1. I think everyone reading this knows this already. We need good one-liner rebuttals; one such is “It’s a theory like germ theory is a theory”.

    Other suggestions?

    • Andrew Mereness says:

      That popped into my mind as well. It has to be something concrete, that a person who snoozed through high school and works at the tire shop (not to dis a good mechanic), and sees themselves as surrounded by angels and spirits can grasp in their hand. The earth’s too big. We can only understand it conceptually. Relativity’s too fast. I’ve heard it said that if someone says they understand quantum mechanics, they don’t understand quantum mechanics. Something that can be touched or seen. Static electricity?

  2. David Glover says:

    Sadly, I suspect too many people wouldn’t get the germ theory reference.

    The challenge is to come up with a rebuttal that forces them to think.

    So many people operate in realms that are essentially dealing with human-created fictions (convenient and useful though some may be) as though they’re objectively ‘real’: anything to do with laws, finance, politics, sports and religion among them.

    Of course these things do have real effects on people, but many people literally don’t get the sharp difference between, say, gravity and the obligation to repay a debt.

    Rather than going straight for a biggie, comparing the reliability of Newton’s laws at predicting a solar eclipse with the power of prayer, maybe we need to start smaller to prod them a little.

    “Scientific theories explain the world – the universe – as it actually works: why water runs downhill and not up. Why you can rely on a light switch to work. Unlike, say, traffic laws, which we made up so we didn’t run into one another.”

    Perhaps by juxtaposing basic, immutable, well-known phenomena that we understand through science (compasses point north, water freezes and boils, balls bounce, brakes stop cars/trucks/bikes) with equally well-known things that are arbitrary human creations (to do with laws, rules of sports, finance, elections) we can help people ‘get’ the fundamental difference between these domains. So a scientific theory is absolutely not the same thing as a political/financial/sociological/legal/artistic/theological theory.

    Unfortunately all of these non-reality-based fields do exist, and they do speak in terms of ‘theories’. And, of course, they have real effects on people.

    So: because science is about the practical, immutable world-as-it-is, that’s what its theories strive to explain and harness. We call them ‘theories’ because we are humble enough to know our understanding can never be perfect or complete. And we know we can’t change the reality.

    Many fields talk about things as though they are as real as gravity – jobs, exports, exchange rates, languages, laws, artistic merit etc. But of course they ain’t.

    I think many (most?) people are blind to this simple distinction. If we can help them see it, who knows?

    Hope this is useful

  3. David Glover says:

    Just had another thought: maybe highlighting the fact that science-based theories are what keep planes in the sky, enable cars to go around corners, allow our phones and medical treatments to work etc etc (choose relevant examples).

    Compare this with predictions in interest rates, share prices, music popularity, votes…

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