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Author Topic:   What is a Theory?
platypus
Member (Idle past 3833 days)
Posts: 139
Joined: 11-12-2006


Message 1 of 249 (464027)
04-22-2008 10:37 PM


I've been having this problem lately with scientific theores. It's been very evident the way that people thrown around the term from this recent thread The Importance of the First Amendment.

BlueJay writes:

The word "theory" is held in very high esteem in science: there is no higher office to which a scientific concept can be promoted.

Rahvin writes:

That evolution occurs is an observed fact. The Theory of Evolution is the model used to describe the mechanism by which evolution happens - that is, genetic mutations and genetic drift guided by natural selection.

Its the same as gravity. That gravity exists is an observed fact. The Theory of Gravity is the model we use to explain the mechanism by which gravity functions.

I agree, but there can be plenty of theories, or explanation of observed facts, which are not scientifically solid. Like the Metabolic Theory of Ecology which can explain a large diversity of fact, but is highly disputed and considered wrong by a large number of scientists. Or String Theory which has no supporting evidence, but is a nice idea striving towards unification theory. And Einstein developed the Theory of General Relativity to explain some wierd phenomena about light, not to explain a diversity of scientific facts. In fact, true verification for the theory came after its introduction. This is in direct contrast to this sort of statement:

BlueJay writes:

Science generally uses part of the first definition, thus: "A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena which has been repeatedly tested and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena." Basically, theories are verified by their abilities to pass repeated testing and by their abilities to successfully predict solutions to problems or answers to questions. Scientists believe them because they work very well.

I don't think this is Bluejay's fault, I think this is generally the defintion scientists like to give for theories, I just don't think it's as clear cut as we'd like it to be.

Further thought
Heliocentric Theory, cell theory and the theory of plate tectonics are really just facts about the world, not big explanations for diverse facts.
Giant Impact Theory explains how the moon formed, but was only recently accepted as the dominant theory and still suffers criticism
circuit theory, signal theory, and antenna theory which are all descriptions of how to do things, rather than explanations of data, but they're engineering theories (is that different from scientific?).
And then there's all those math theories that are something else entirely, which I'd probably consider non-scientific but still use the word theory.

My point is the word theory is not as sacred or as clear in science as we make it out to be.

Just for clarification, my point is not that evolution is not valid, but that we should stop harping on about how it is this grand theory in science because theory is a confusing topic in science.

Here's two more links for scientific theories in wikipedia:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_theories


You hear evolutionist says we are descedant from apes and monkees. Sure, but that's not the point. All of life is related, not just human's with monkees. If you hug a tree, you're hugging a relative, a very distant relative, but a relative nonetheless." Dr. Joan Roughgarden in Evolution and Christian Faith
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AdminNosy
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Posts: 4754
From: Vancouver, BC, Canada
Joined: 11-11-2003


Message 2 of 249 (464035)
04-23-2008 1:04 AM


Thread moved here from the Proposed New Topics forum.
  
Blue Jay
Member (Idle past 777 days)
Posts: 2843
From: You couldn't pronounce it with your mouthparts
Joined: 02-04-2008


Message 3 of 249 (464047)
04-23-2008 2:47 AM
Reply to: Message 1 by platypus
04-22-2008 10:37 PM


platypus writes:

I just don't think it's as clear cut as we'd like it to be.

Of course it's not clear-cut when you include examples that span over four centuries of scientific work, in which time our very philosophy, let alone usage of terminology, has evolved and changed considerably. Also, you have multiple fields of science that don't often interact with each other, and so, develop different strategies and terminologies. And, you have the media tacking "theory" on the end of anything scientific.

Then, you get stuff like this:

platypus writes:

..but they're engineering theories (is that different from scientific?)

I don't know about engineering, but music has "theories," too. So does comparative literature. These are quite different from scientific theories: they describe methodologies of writing and composing, not definitive principles about the subject matter.

---

As Rahvin said, a scientific theory is a model to explain the facts. But, if the model doesn't explain the facts, you can't call it a theory. And, if it isn't tested thoroughly enough, you can't say it explains the facts (new facts come up all the time). So, a theory has three prerequisites:

1. Explains facts about the universe
2. Holds up to testing
3. Makes predictions about as-yet undiscovered facts

And, as I stated in that thread, science doesn't make anything better than that.

platypus writes:

And Einstein developed the Theory of General Relativity to explain some wierd phenomena about light, not to explain a diversity of scientific facts. In fact, true verification for the theory came after its introduction.

I don't know much about the history of physics, but are you sure that it was called a theory before it was verified? Further, are you sure that the word "theory" meant the same thing in Einstein's time as it does now?

And, wasn't it Special Relativity that was meant to explain weird stuff about light, and General Relativity that consolidated Special Relativity and Newton's Laws?


I'm Thylacosmilus.

Darwin loves you.


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Annafan
Member (Idle past 2658 days)
Posts: 418
From: Belgium
Joined: 08-08-2005


Message 4 of 249 (464052)
04-23-2008 4:06 AM


What about the potential of falsifiability (testability)?

Suppose a cosmologist comes up with a proposal to get a more detailed picture of the first moments of the Big Bang. His theoretical work is consistent with current observational data, but where it is different, one would need a 10x more detailed picture of the background radiation than what is currently available. To what degree would this be considered a genuine "theory", while the necessary observational data is not available?


    
Percy
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Posts: 18309
From: New Hampshire
Joined: 12-23-2000
Member Rating: 2.7


Message 5 of 249 (464066)
04-23-2008 8:53 AM


I think the complaint this thread attempts to address, that the word theory is used inconsistently, is really about the fluidity of language, and good luck with that. There's no overseer of language usage, even in France where they think they have one.

Few if any words have a precise and unambiguous meaning independent of context, and even within science there is ambiguity about the word theory. Like all words it lacks precision unless qualified by other words. Hence we have simple terms like "accepted theory," "rejected theory" and "questionable theory", and the complexity goes up from there. People will use the word hypothesis in place of theory and vice versa. People will use the word theory when talking about a theory that is as broadly accepted as could possibly be (the heliocentric theory of the solar system, for example), and in the very next sentence use it in reference to complete nonsense, e.g., the miasm theory of homeopathy or the Qi (vital energy) theory of acupuncture.

Not only is there is a continuum of acceptance of theories that ranges from broad acceptance all the way to widely rejected, but there are other axes of meaning to consider. Someone mentioned string theory, and while it hasn't yet become accepted because it has yet to make any successful predictions that would differentiate it from the standard model, it is widely regarded as promising, and "promising" is a very ambiguous term.

In other words, it isn't possible to put theories into neat boxes of "accepted," "rejected" and "pending". Each must be qualified by all the numerous details that characterize its degree of acceptance and the manner in which it is regarded within the scientific community. And this is independent of the layperson's typical misunderstanding of theory as little better than a hunch.

That being said, the formal definition of theory as a framework of understanding that explains a body of evidence and that has been repeatedly verified as making successful predictions is very useful conceptually, but this is definitely not the only valid way to use the word theory, even in a scientific setting.

Communication is far more than just mechanically stringing terms of precise meaning together into sentences and paragraphs. Most of us reserve the right to be creative in our choice of vocabulary, construction and syntax. Those who dispute a theory simply because the word theory is as fluid in usage as all other words has a pointless complaint about language, not about science.

--Percy


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Annafan
Member (Idle past 2658 days)
Posts: 418
From: Belgium
Joined: 08-08-2005


Message 6 of 249 (464067)
04-23-2008 8:57 AM
Reply to: Message 5 by Percy
04-23-2008 8:53 AM


Let me be the first to congratulate Percy with this excellent little piece that goes to the heart of the matter. Really nice.
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platypus
Member (Idle past 3833 days)
Posts: 139
Joined: 11-12-2006


Message 7 of 249 (464188)
04-23-2008 8:36 PM
Reply to: Message 5 by Percy
04-23-2008 8:53 AM


Hi Percy,

Thank you for the clear response. I tend to agree with most of what you are saying. My main point, though, I think still stands. Consider this opening quote:

That evolution occurs is an observed fact. The Theory of Evolution is the model used to describe the mechanism by which evolution happens - that is, genetic mutations and genetic drift guided by natural selection.

Its the same as gravity. That gravity exists is an observed fact. The Theory of Gravity is the model we use to explain the mechanism by which gravity functions.

The theory of gravity was developed in Newton's time, it if anything means something different than how we use theory today. Yet gravity is used as the most common analogy with evolution, especially on this forum. I am mainly surprised a creationist hasn't picked up on this before, and guess just wanted to bring it to people's attention as a word of caution, especially because of this:

In other words, it isn't possible to put theories into neat boxes of "accepted," "rejected" and "pending". Each must be qualified by all the numerous details that characterize its degree of acceptance and the manner in which it is regarded within the scientific community.

I completely agree, I just tend to cringe when "Theory of Evolution" is used in debates without qualifiers.

I guess I don't really have anything in particular to argue with you about, and your response was really well said, so I guess this can be considered a closed case.


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erikp
Member (Idle past 3629 days)
Posts: 71
Joined: 12-23-2008


Message 8 of 249 (491864)
12-23-2008 6:01 AM
Reply to: Message 7 by platypus
04-23-2008 8:36 PM


>>> Its the same as gravity. That gravity exists is an observed fact.

Bad analogy.

A theory is proven not when some observations support it, but when all possible observations support it. Since gravity makes statements that covers future observations, gravity is not yet fully observed, and therefore, unproven, and absolutely not a fact.

Futhermore, Gödel's incompleteness theorem deducts that there must be observations that do not fit the theory of gravity at all. That is also what Popper clearly states: one day or the other, gravity theory will prove to be false. So, the correct status for gravity theory is necessarily: unproven, false.

Scientific breakthroughs do not occur when a theory is proven to be true -- which is only possible if the theory does not cover any future observations, and therefore is pretty useless -- but when a theory is proven to be false.

It is very hard (has it been done yet?) to prove that gravity is false. That is why it is such a good theory. But that still does not make the theory true. It will remain unproven and false, until someone finally manages to prove that it is false.

The job of the scientist is, therefore, not to attempt in any way to prove that scientific theories are true. On the contrary, his job is to prove that they are false (which we know they are, anyway).


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bluescat48
Member (Idle past 2268 days)
Posts: 2347
From: United States
Joined: 10-06-2007


Message 9 of 249 (491874)
12-23-2008 9:44 AM
Reply to: Message 7 by platypus
04-23-2008 8:36 PM


The theory of gravity was developed in Newton's time, it if anything means something different than how we use theory today.

Which is just what the term theory implies, falsifiability. Very few theories, held today, are the same as when they were first accepted. That is the role of science to test theories and modify or even overturn them based on current evidence.


There is no better love between 2 people than mutual respect for each other WT Young, 2002

Who gave anyone the authority to call me an authority on anything. WT Young, 1969


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Coyote
Member (Idle past 185 days)
Posts: 6117
Joined: 01-12-2008


Message 10 of 249 (491875)
12-23-2008 10:08 AM
Reply to: Message 8 by erikp
12-23-2008 6:01 AM


Proved true?
Bad analogy.

A theory is proven not when some observations support it, but when all possible observations support it. Since gravity makes statements that covers future observations, gravity is not yet fully observed, and therefore, unproven, and absolutely not a fact.

Futhermore, Gödel's incompleteness theorem deducts that there must be observations that do not fit the theory of gravity at all. That is also what Popper clearly states: one day or the other, gravity theory will prove to be false. So, the correct status for gravity theory is necessarily: unproven, false.

Scientific breakthroughs do not occur when a theory is proven to be true -- which is only possible if the theory does not cover any future observations, and therefore is pretty useless -- but when a theory is proven to be false.

It is very hard (has it been done yet?) to prove that gravity is false. That is why it is such a good theory. But that still does not make the theory true. It will remain unproven and false, until someone finally manages to prove that it is false.

The job of the scientist is, therefore, not to attempt in any way to prove that scientific theories are true. On the contrary, his job is to prove that they are false (which we know they are, anyway).

I am not sure exactly what you are trying to say here.

Theories are not "proved true," nor are they inherently false.

From a list of definitions I have assembled:

quote:
Truth: This is a word best avoided entirely in physics [and science] except when placed in quotes, or with careful qualification. Its colloquial use has so many shades of meaning from ‘it seems to be correct’ to the absolute truths claimed by religion, that it’s use causes nothing but misunderstanding. Someone once said "Science seeks proximate (approximate) truths." Others speak of provisional or tentative truths. Certainly science claims no final or absolute truths. Source

Proof: Except for math and geometry, there is little that is actually proved. Even well-established scientific theories can't be conclusively proved, because--at least in principle--a counter-example might be discovered. Scientific theories are always accepted provisionally, and are regarded as reliable only because they are supported (not proved) by the verifiable facts they purport to explain and by the predictions which they successfully make. All scientific theories are subject to revision (or even rejection) if new data are discovered which necessitates this.

Proof: A term from logic and mathematics describing an argument from premise to conclusion using strictly logical principles. In mathematics, theorems or propositions are established by logical arguments from a set of axioms, the process of establishing a theorem being called a proof.

The colloquial meaning of "proof" causes lots of problems in physics discussion and is best avoided. Since mathematics is such an important part of physics, the mathematician's meaning of proof should be the only one we use. Also, we often ask students in upper level courses to do proofs of certain theorems of mathematical physics, and we are not asking for experimental demonstration!

So, in a laboratory report, we should not say "We proved Newton's law" Rather say, "Today we demonstrated (or verified) the validity of Newton's law in the particular case of..." Source


You write "On the contrary, his job is to prove that they are false (which we know they are, anyway)." This is not necessarily accurate. Because a theory cannot be "proved true" does not necessarily make it false. Neither does the fact that theories are subject to modification as new data arise. Perhaps they might be best considered tentative or maybe even incomplete, but to consider all theories false is inaccurate.


Religious belief does not constitute scientific evidence, nor does it convey scientific knowledge.
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Agobot
Member (Idle past 3609 days)
Posts: 786
Joined: 12-16-2007


Message 11 of 249 (491882)
12-23-2008 12:42 PM
Reply to: Message 1 by platypus
04-22-2008 10:37 PM


platypus writes:

My point is the word theory is not as sacred or as clear in science as we make it out to be.

"One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike -- and yet it is the most precious thing we have"

A.E.


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edge
Member
Posts: 4470
From: Colorado, USA
Joined: 01-09-2002
Member Rating: 3.9


Message 12 of 249 (491898)
12-24-2008 12:01 AM
Reply to: Message 7 by platypus
04-23-2008 8:36 PM


I completely agree, I just tend to cringe when "Theory of Evolution" is used in debates without qualifiers.

Well, most of us understand what is meant by the "Theory of Evolution" and have some common ground for discussion. Having said that, I know there are some YECs who demand precise definitions, as though we might confuse the evolution of waterproof fabrics with biological evolution. Personally, I think this is just a silly and superfluous argument and I'm not sure what the objective is.

And I have to take issue with your statement that plate tectonic theory is just a description of geological facts. To the contrary, PT explains a huge amount of data from solid earth seismology to climate change.

Also, I don't see how your two descriptons of 'theory' are are exclusive of each other. Please explain.


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Rrhain
Member
Posts: 6349
From: San Diego, CA, USA
Joined: 05-03-2003


Message 13 of 249 (491904)
12-24-2008 2:12 AM
Reply to: Message 8 by erikp
12-23-2008 6:01 AM


erikp writes:

quote:
Futhermore, Gödel's incompleteness theorem deducts that there must be observations that do not fit the theory of gravity at all.

Incorrect. It sounds like you were given a quick summary of the Incompleteness Theorems but have not done the foundational mathematical work to derive them on your own. In short, you're applying a conclusion of Set Theory to something that is not Set Theory and are expecting it to behave the same way.

This is the same fallacious reasoning that has professors of the Humanities trying to claim that the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle has some effect upon human behaviour.

The short summary of the first Incompleteness Theorem states that in an axiomatic description of set theory sufficiently powerful enough to model arithmetic, there will be statements within that theory that cannot be proven by those axioms.

The last time I checked, gravitational theory was not an axiomatic set theory let alone one powerful enough to model arithmetic. Therefore, the Incompleteness Theorems do not apply.

quote:
That is also what Popper clearly states: one day or the other, gravity theory will prove to be false.

Incorrect. Gravitational theory may be absolutely perfect exactly as we have it. However, due to the observational nature of science, we will never know. In order to demonstrate it, we would need to be able to make all possible observations, which cannot be done. This doesn't mean our model is destined to be false. It simply means we will never know if it is true.

quote:
So, the correct status for gravity theory is necessarily: unproven, false.

Incorrect. Instead, the status of gravitational theory is the same as that of every one solid theory we have: Consistent with the observations we have and satisfying the predictions we have demanded of it.

quote:
It is very hard (has it been done yet?) to prove that gravity is false. That is why it is such a good theory. But that still does not make the theory true.

Indeed, but that also doesn't make it false. Instead, what we have is a theory that is consistent with all the observations we have made. We might have it exactly right, but we'll never be able to know for sure. Being unable to show it true does not mean it is false.

quote:
It will remain unproven and false, until someone finally manages to prove that it is false.

You do realize that the above sentence contradicts itself, yes?


Rrhain

Thank you for your submission to Science. Your paper was reviewed by a jury of seventh graders so that they could look for balance and to allow them to make up their own minds. We are sorry to say that they found your paper "bogus," specifically describing the section on the laboratory work "boring." We regret that we will be unable to publish your work at this time.
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erikp
Member (Idle past 3629 days)
Posts: 71
Joined: 12-23-2008


Message 14 of 249 (491910)
12-24-2008 5:03 AM
Reply to: Message 13 by Rrhain
12-24-2008 2:12 AM


>> It will remain unproven and false, until someone finally manages to prove that it is false.
>>> You do realize that the above sentence contradicts itself, yes?

The sentence does not contradict itself. Theories go from unprovenly false to provenly false. Scientific progress is the result of proving that what we know is wrong.

As soon as someone finally finds an observation that contradicts the theory, the theory will finally be proven to be false, because proof of falsehood only requires one observation that contradicts the theory.


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erikp
Member (Idle past 3629 days)
Posts: 71
Joined: 12-23-2008


Message 15 of 249 (491911)
12-24-2008 5:10 AM
Reply to: Message 13 by Rrhain
12-24-2008 2:12 AM


>>> In short, you're applying a conclusion of Set Theory to something that is not Set Theory and are expecting it to behave the same way.

The requirement that something can be represented as a number, is nothing more than requiring that you can create a digital representation of it. What then applies to the numbers, applies to the original thing too.


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