Monday, July 11, 2005

The nature of a scientific theory

It seems that even educated people can be a little unclear as to the scientific meaning of the word "theory," so let me quote from a basic college science text book (Thompson and Turk, 2005, p 17):
"If a hypothesis explains new observations as they accumulate and is not substantively contradicted, it becomes accepted by more and more people. As the tentative nature of a hypothesis is gradually dispelled, it is elevated to a theory. Theories differ widely in form and content, but all obey four fundamental criteria:
  1. A theory must be based on a series of confirmed ovservations or experimental results
  2. A theory must explain all relevant observations or experimental results
  3. A theory must not contradict any relevant observations or other scientific principles
  4. A theory must be internally consistent. Thus, it must be built in a logical manner so that the conclusions do not contradict any of the original premises.
...Many theories cannot be absolutely proven. For example, even though scientists are just about certain that their image of atomic structure is correct, no one has or ever will watch an individual electron travel in its orbit. Therefore, our interpretation of atomic structure is called atomic theory."
I don't mean to make a personal attack on the commenter to this blog. I respect her right to disagree and to teach her children whatever she wants outside of public school time. However, I just wanted to point out that many non-controversial things (gravity, atomic structure, etc.) are at the same formal status of scientific understanding as evolution. If the hang-up is the word theory, perhaps we ought to provide alternative explanations to those phenomena as well.

Or perhaps, we ought to teach in every science class about the nature of science, the scientific method (observation, hypothesis, results, theory), and that science is more about a way of knowing than merely a collection of facts and theories. Which, not coincidentally, is the subject of my first lecture in class next week.

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