When a Theory is NOT
"just a theory"
One of the most prevalent public misconceptions about Modern Science is that scientific theories are “just theories.” In common public usage, the term “theory” means a possible explanation. In science, the comparable term is “hypothesis,” not “theory.”
A scientific theory is a hypothesis that has been verified and confirmed by multiple groups of researchers in many different ways and has been accepted by the scientific community to be valid. In terms of science, a “theory” is not a “possible explanation,” but a “valid explanation.”
Scientific theories can be divided into two categories:
1. Well-established scientific theory
2. Generally accepted scientific theory
An example of a well-established scientific theory would be that one carbon (C) atom and four hydrogen (H) atoms make up one molecule of methane gas (CH4). This is the natural gas we use for cooking at home, for generating electricity in electrical power plants, and for use in various chemical manufacturing operations. If this theory was incorrect, then all of the science and technology that is associated with methane gas would not be possible. There are confirmations upon conformations that one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms make up one molecule of methane gas. This type of scientific theory is essentially an accurate statement of fact.
An example of a generally accepted scientific theory would be The Big Bang Theory, which states that the current form of the known universe started with an explosion or similar event about 14 billion years ago. This theory is generally accepted by scientific experts in this particular area of study. However, we still do not know what caused it. There is still not enough accumulated information, different layers of confirmations and a concrete understanding of the primary cause/causes of the phenomenon. Therefore, at this point in time, The Big Bang Theory should not be regarded as a well-established and well-understood “fact of nature” type scientific theory.
I am not trying to say that there are doubts about The Big Bang Theory. While I do have training in the sciences, my specialty is not Astrophysics, and I am not in a position to analyze the data that led the scientists to accept The Big Bang Theory. Although I have a general idea of this theory, it would take many years of further education and training before I could even begin to verify some of the theories of Astrophysics.
I accept The Big Bang Theory because experts on the subject have analyzed the evidence and found the theory to be credible. I also know that if, with time and more sophisticated instrumentation, they find conclusive evidence that the start of the universe was quite different, then they would be bound by The Modern Scientific Method to accept the new findings and discard or modify The Big Bang Theory. Since no such evidence exists at this point in time, The Big Bang Theory remains an accepted scientific theory of Modern Science.
My point here is this: Some scientific theories (the well-established scientific theories) are, in essence, facts of nature; both well-established scientific theories and generally accepted scientific theories are based on extensive evidence and are the best explanations of natural events we have at present; and none of the theories of Modern Science are “just guesses.”
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In common public usage, the term “theory” means a possible explanation. In science, a “theory” means a hypothesis that has been accepted by the scientific community to be valid. To add to the confusion, some scientists and science writers often use the term “new scientific theory,” instead of “new scientific hypothesis.” This is not helpful for the average person’s understanding of science. This creates a false image that new unproven scientific hypotheses are in the same category as well-established scientific theories.
The communication methods and terminology system used by the scientific community should be improved. There is virtually no difference between a well-established scientific theory and an actual fact of nature. For well-established scientific theories that are essentially accurate facts of nature, use of the term “theory” does not convey the right message to the general public. A new nomenclature and terminology system should be developed by the scientific community. Perhaps a conference can be organized to establish better terminology for well-established scientific theories, generally accepted scientific theories and hypotheses that better differentiate the three, and at the same time convey the correct perception of the terms to the public.
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While I do have some concerns about the communication and knowledge distribution methods of our scientific researchers and professionals, I have very little apprehension about the validity of their work. As we shall see in the next few chapters, The Modern Scientific Method (when properly followed) is exceptionally and extraordinarily great at producing unbiased results and objective knowledge.
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