“Just a Theory”

A theory in science is very different from the use of the word in daily life. Colloquially, a theory is an unsubstantiated claim about why something happens, little more than a guess or an idea.  In science, this kind of speculation does not reach the status of theory, but is instead called a hypothesis.A scientific theory is actually quite the opposite of its common counterpart. A scientific theory is the most reliable and rigorous form of scientific knowledge.
A scientific theory starts out as a hypothesis, simply a possible explanation for why a phenomenon occurs. To be elevated to a theory, a hypothesis must be consistent with previous experimental results, make testable, repeatable predictions, and be able to be proven false through experimentation. As more data is gathered, a theory can be modified or rejected if it does not fit observations. Because of the rigorous requirements to become a theory and the relative ease with which one can be shown to be false, accepted theories are some of the most powerful and comprehensive results of scientific inquiry.
What about scientific laws? Laws are fundamentally different from theories. A law is descriptive; it describes what happens in nature, and is sometimes stated as an equation. However, a law does not attempt to explain why things happen. Theories are wider in scope, and may contain several laws within them in order to explain observations.
Calling something “just a theory” in science is misleading. Being called a theory is not disparaging; a successful theory has withstood the trials of the scientific method, and stands proudly as the closest thing to proven that anything in science ever can be. So when someone tries to refute a scientific claim by saying it’s “just a theory,” remember that if anything that strengthens your argument, and be sure to explain to them why that is.
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2 thoughts on ““Just a Theory”

  1. You are so right that theories are some of the most powerful pieces of knowledge. However, I have to say I can see where someone is coming from when they say “it’s just a theory.” Although it may not be disproved yet, many theories in science (especially astronomy) are fabricated on the daily to provide outside the box approaches to scientific questions. All I am saying is that one day it may be a theory, but the next day it may be a ludicrous idea of the past that someone has just disproved.

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  2. Hey Kevin!
    I thought your description of theories vs. hypotheses was fascinating. Do you know if the scientific definition of a theory was changed and now is more solid? Throughout history, there were many theories that ended up being disproven, from the geocentric theory to the heliocentric theory and Ptolemy’s system of planetary orbits. Even a theory so fundamental as Evolution, lacks some vital evidence, that I would argue, deprive it from being a theory, the highest honor a scientific idea can have. I think that since in the past, theories have been superseded, we should take more caution in what we label theories.

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