Ramblings from the Desert

The man who trades freedom for security does not deserve nor will he ever receive either. ~Benjamin Franklin

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Location: New Mexico

Author of the urban fantasy novel, The Music of Chaos, and the paranormal romance, The Canvas Thief.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

The Definition of "Theory"

For all the boys and girls who slept through high school science class. (I took my naps in history and economics.)

Scientific theory is not like your "theory" that your neighbor might be having an affair because he works late every Friday. That's speculation.

In common usage a theory is often viewed as little more than a guess or a hypothesis. But in science and generally in academic usage, a theory is much more than that. A theory is an established paradigm that explains all or many of the data we have and offers valid predictions that can be tested. In science, a theory can never be proven true, because we can never assume we know all there is to know. Instead, theories remain standing until they are disproven, at which point they are thrown out altogether or modified slightly.

Often the statement "Well, it's just a theory," is used to dismiss controversial theories such as evolution, but this is largely due to confusion between the scientific use of the word theory and its more informal use as a synonym for "speculation" or "conjecture." In science, a body of descriptions of knowledge is usually only called a theory once it has a firm empirical basis, i.e. it:

1. is consistent with pre-existing theory to the extent that the pre-existing theory was experimentally verified, though it will often show pre-existing theory to be wrong in an exact sense,
2. is supported by many strands of evidence rather than a single foundation, ensuring that it probably is a good approximation if not totally correct,
3. has survived many critical real world tests that could have proven it false,
4. makes predictions that might someday be used to disprove the theory, and
5. is the best known explanation, in the sense of Occam's Razor, of the infinite variety of alternative explanations for the same data.

This is true of such established theories as evolution, special and general relativity, quantum mechanics (with minimal interpretation), plate tectonics, etc.

The paranormal or supernatural are not part of the body of science because they cannot hold up to the rigors of a true scientific theory. Now, note that I do believe in souls. And I admit that it may be possible that the existence of such simply cannot be proven with present scientific methodologies. But...adherence to the definitions of science and theory puts souls and other things spiritual outside the purvue of science. Consequently, until (if) there are methods available to model and test the existence of souls, they have no place in a science classroom. Ditto, creation stories.

Proponents of Intelligent Design may argue that they are not pushing a Christian agenda. This is not true.

Distilled of all religious references, ID becomes: "The Universe and its components were created via the guidance/involvement of some supernatural force." Hardly something to build a curriculum around.

If, however, proponents want to include references to the Bible, then there should also be a thorough examination of all creation stories: Native American, African, Australian Aboriginal, etc. Huh. I suspect pro ID folks would't cotton much to that, would they? And, again, I.D. isn't a scientific theory.

But scientific theories can be proven wrong, say some. Evolution may be proven wrong. True.

But in the end, it doesn't matter whether it is the correct scientific theory. It is the current theory and as such belongs in a science class. (The fact that it can be proven wrong makes it a theory; I.D. cannot be proven wrong because...it's a belief.) Until creation stories can hold up to the rigor of the scientific method, they are not an alternative theory. They are beliefs, just like my belief in the existence of a soul.

Religion has no place in science and vice versa.

Happy Friday,

Pat Kirby


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