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"Theory" Lost in the Crowd

12/02/07

  07:56:08 pm, by Nimble   , 392 words  
Categories: Thoughts, Science

"Theory" Lost in the Crowd

We've been drilling it into people over and over again: "it's just a theory" is wrong when we say Theory of Evolution because Theory in scientific terms means well-proven hypothesis, not just some random guess, and that's true for things like evolution and Atomic Theory and the like.

However, "Theory" is used time and again for things that are not well-proven hypotheses...

For example, recapitulation theory: the "theory" that embryos go through all previous evolutionary stages as they grow. It never reaches the height of well-proven hypothesis. String theory has never been proven out in the lab or in nature. We have pilot wave theory and cosmological perturbation theory and bubble theory...

It's true that many of these things that are called theories ought to still be called hypothesis. The RNA World Hypothesis is still often called RNA World Theory instead. It's sloppy, true, but popular to do so.

However, what are we going to do about it?

We can stomp our feet, telling scientists and popular press to use "hypothesis" properly and continue to complain about the general public equating "scientific theory" and "random guess" based on the layman's version of the world "theory"...

...or we can come up with another term where capital-T theories can live, which does NOT mean "a guess" in colloquial terms, and leave Theory to mean what it occasionally seems to mean: an organized, workable hypothesis that has been explored and is seen as a useful tool.

So what term do we use for the Theories that deserve promotion to the next level? That's a tough one. I like the word "Account", personally, but it, too, could run into colloquial meanings of the term. Still, "The Account of Evolution" and "The Atomic Account" don't sound too bad. It's hard to find a good word that doesn't already have multiple meanings or is somehow value-laden, like "The Good News of Evolution" or the like :)

What should we do? There's too much intrusion on the word Theory, and if scientific and journalistic endeavours make a habit of not applying it properly and consistently, protests about the word "Theory" aren't going to mean much. Besides, I think it unlikely that, for example, string theorists would like for String Theory to be "downgraded" back to Hypothesis. In a practical way, we truly need somewhere else for "real" Theories to go.

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