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SciTech Watch: In Theory

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In all the debate surrounding various moral, scientific, and political issues, one of the most abused words is theory.

It’s not uncommon to hear a particular position disparaged as just a theory. If we view the word in light of its position in the scientific method, then a good deal of the hyperbole surrounding it is dispelled.

The scientific method is the process that scientists use to take observations and formulate an hypothesis. The hypothesis must be a statement that makes testable predictions. The success or failure of the testing of those predictions provides information that can be used to correct the hypothesis. Here’s a graphic that shows how the process works:

Flow Chart for the Scientific Method

Notice that a theory is not the initial creation of the scientific method. It is the result of an iterative process of observation, hypothesis, prediction, and testing. This is a feedback loop that results in the hypothesis being changed until it produces predictions that are subsequently tested and prove to be true.

Part of the power of the scientific method lies in the fact that one person does not have to perform all four parts of the hypothesis loop. The fact that other scientists can perform the tests on the predictions of a hypothesis means that any prejudice a single scientist has would be eliminated when predictions are tested by others in the scientific community. A hypothesis becomes a theory only when the predictions made by the hypothesis are tested and found to be correct. [ADBLOCKHERE]

Once a hypothesis becomes accepted as a theory, it is still subject to new observations, predictions and tests. If a new prediction made by the theory fails testing, then the theory is said to be falsified by the new testing results. The theory reverts to its status as a hypothesis until it can be revised and tested and is once again proven to make accurate predictions.

So when you hear the word theory used in a discussion, stop and ask yourself how is it being used. Is it used in the colloquial setting to describe an explanation or is it used as a rigorous scientific term to describe certain phenomenon? Anytime you believe someone is using the word theory in the scientific sense you should be able to find the predictions and tests that resulted in the statement at hand being declared a theory. If there are no predictions or testing possible then the statement is not a scientific theory.

I am always interested in new story ideas you might have for this column. Your can reach me via email at johniac25[@]gmail.com or feel free to leave your ideas in the comments section.

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  • Duane

    Very instructive piece, Johniac. I hope all the creationsists read it. As a followup, maybe you could expound upon the definition of “fact” in the scientific context. I often see people make statements such as “Evolution is not a fact,” or “Evolution is a fact,” which just makes me cringe.