Prof. Disbrow explains why you can’t just blow off scientific theories.
Pfft! That’s just a theory…
Maybe you haven’t noticed, but during the last few decades, a large number of Americans have become decidedly anti-science. This is ironic, given that the technology science has created (the Internet, telephones, etc.) is the very thing that enables them to spread their anti-science views far and wide.
Still, like Bill Nye (“The Science Guy”) I’m optimistic that this trend can be reversed by increased education and persistence. I also think a lot of the problem is simply due to a lack of understanding of the more basic concepts of science. For example, the concept of “a theory,” is widely misunderstood by the general public when it’s used in the context of science.
For example, most people would equate the use of the word “theory” in “The Theory of Gravity” with its use in the sentence, “It’s my theory that the folks on ‘LOST’ are in Hell.” (Spoiler: It was only the viewers of ‘LOST’ that were in Hell. [Yes. I am still bitter.]) So, what’s the difference?
Well, when I speculate on ‘LOST,’ my “theory” is really just a guess. Sure, there was some evidence informing my guess, but given how poorly the show was plotted and written in the last few seasons, a monkey with a bag of Scrabble chits had an equal chance of guessing what was going on.
A scientific theory on the other hand, is very different. According to Wikipedia, a scientific theory is: “A well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that is acquired through the scientific method, and repeatedly confirmed through observation and experimentation.”
That’s a long sentence, so let’s break it down.
“…some aspect of the natural world…” Science deals with the natural world. It has nothing to say about the supernatural, religion, faith or anything like that. Anyone pitching you science as an explanation for these things <cough>Chopra</cough>, is selling you something.
“…well-substantiated explanation…” That means there’s real, hard evidence supporting the explanation, and lots of it. Note that this doesn’t mean that the explanation has to make sense. The universe is under no obligation to make sense to us humans. Quantum theory, for example, is mind-numbingly bizarre.
As an aside, Richard Feynman, who earned a Nobel Prize for his work in quantum electrodynamics once said, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” He wasn’t bragging, he was commenting on how weird the quantum world is.
That said, quantum theory is one of the most successful theories ever devised. (It drives your smart phone, computer and other stuff you can’t live without.)
“…repeatedly confirmed through observation and experimentation.” Repeated observation and experimentation are the heart of the scientific method. You observe something, then you come up with a tentative explanation. (This explanation is called a “hypothesis” in scientific parlance, or an “educated guess” by the man in the street. This is what most folks think of when they incorrectly use the word “theory” to dismiss things like the theory of evolution.)
Then, you devise and run an experiment to confirm your explanation. If the experiment doesn’t pan out, then you have to revise or discard your explanation and try again. If the experiment works the way you thought it would, then that adds to the evidence that the explanation is correct. You do this over and over and over. More importantly, you ask others to do the same and corroborate or refute your results. As the results come in, you refine the explanation to better fit the facts as revealed by experimentation. This strengthens the theory and increases its chances of acceptance by the scientific community.
At this point, you’re probably expecting a couple of paragraphs where I defend the theory of evolution from those folks that don’t believe in it.
Well, first of all, you don’t “believe in” a scientific theory. You either accept the research and its results or you disprove them and collect your Nobel Prize. Reality doesn’t need defending.
So, a scientific theory is a tested and verified explanation of some aspect of the natural world. It’s not a guess. It’s not wishful thinking. And, most importantly, it’s not “just” a theory. It’s a scientific theory. Which means it’s the result of years (sometimes decades or centuries) of hard work by hundreds or thousands of people. All of whom just wanted to better understand the world we live in and pass that knowledge on to the rest of us.