More than a year ago I penned How Do We Know Science is True – which itself was a continuation of earlier essays.
I make the connection because we are bound to get many a hysterical kneejerk howl, yet your gripe has most likely already been duplicated and dealt with already – so I ask that you take a look before beginning to froth.
What I want to do here is re-emphasize the facts about the much misunderstood term: ‘scientific theory’.
In daily language, we talk about theories; another word for what we mean by theory in daily chatter is ‘notion’, defined as “A conception of or belief about something. A vague awareness or understanding of the nature of something.”
Given that definition: When an unsophisticated person gets wind of, say, Evolutionary Theory; this is what they might naturally conclude:
> “Look at these fools, ‘believing in evolution’, a study that offers them only a vague awareness of life’s complexity”.
[Then, in the case of Evolutionary Theory, the delusion is amplified in that they’re likely to be further confused by all manner of disinformation on the topic from dubious sources. The result is that the unfortunate winds up feeling terribly smug that they’re up against “only a theory”. Allow me to now put the record straight so that you don’t make a fool of yourself.]
Let’s make this simple: Let’s draw an analogy between geographic discovery and discovery in the sciences:
Imagine that a new continent is found.
> The average sailor and folks back home will immediately begin with wild speculations about what the new land may contain and what might abound – fabulous riches, unicorns and other dangerous animals, dwarf people, etc.
> These speculations by laymen, in layman’s terms, are common ‘theories’ (a.k.a, notions).
> The laymen, and the lay-press, will talk about the ‘facts’ of this new land – heaping endless wild guesses on top of a scant few observations (eye witness account ‘facts’).
> But, as professional explorers are consulted (who understand the continent in terms of it’s position on a globe), more sophisticated ‘guesses’ might be made that go several leaps past the fancy and fantasy of common lay-theory; these might include whether or not it is in a tropical, temperate or some other zone – indicating what its rivers may be like and what ‘typical’ flora or fauna may be found there.
> These more informed speculations are what scientists call ‘hypothesis’.
> So, as you see – hypotheses are far more reliable than mere (layman) theories, or layman’s ‘facts’ for that matter… right?
> Now the real work of exploration and cartography begins – accurate measurements are taken and documented, contour and nautical maps of the surrounds made, geological surveys, anthropological analysis of the inhabitants, botanists will look at the plants, animals will be studied. All of these details will find their way into studious works – into models that represent the actual landmass.
> These collections of maps and data (actual verifiable facts) all get assembled into volumes – the hypothesis of what might exist has been tested against what actually exists > and the resulting set of models is reliable because it is a compendium of inter-related facts that cover the entire topic (in this case, the topic is the size, infrastructure and resources of a continent).
> The map one later holds in one’s hands or consults, and the data sheets that relate to it, are not the continent – they are the model of the continent. They are not the facts, they are the inter-relationship of the facts.
> Over time, new facts will be added, mistaken facts will be removed, and the whole endeavour will proceed to become ever more accurate and ever more representative of the ‘actual landmass’. And – who would argue against the fact that these representations, these models, make dealing with the ‘actual landmass’ and all it contains that much more predictable.
> The most dim witted among us can surely see this – that maps and almanacs and compendiums of facts that model a continent are useful, accurate, and not destroyed in toto when one or two of the data points that make up the whole are re-orientated or revised.
> Of course, the dim witted when presented with a map (and not ever having been shown how to read a map, and not prepared to learn to do so), get wildly angry in their idiocy that they’re being handed paper when what they want to see is the actual landmass in its entirety; clearly not something that is possible. And, it not being possible, they then throw their hands to the heavens and insist that they are victorious in detecting that it is all a sham and a lie; one they’re not falling for.
Of course, a trip (to a museum in the case of, say, evolution) and a grain of sense would resolve the matter – but not to someone who has made up their mind already.
Forgive - I have been pedantic above in my explanation because the obstinate and hard of thinking are pedantic in their refutations.
The map and other elements of the model described above are precisely what a “Scientific Theory” is – a complete model of a topic based on facts. A detailed description that brings together all facts and ensures they agree with one another. And, more than this, that no disagreement exists after experts from many wide and varied fields; whose training and task it is to rigorously pour over that theory and ring alarm bells if even one minor element does not fit or measure up to the actual real-life environment; have done their utmost to contradict the tome.
Indeed – those doing the checking are not particularly well rewarded for agreeing with what is presented – their big payday comes if they can disagree and show where it is wrong.
Thus educated, you now only have two options to choose for yourself:
1) If you are happy to be called unsophisticated or undereducated, then you are at liberty to cling to the layman’s common definition of theory:
2) If you want to be taken seriously, and be accepted as both sophisticated and educated, you have to give up your layman’s definition for Scientific Theory, or you will be labeled a mischief-maker, disingenuous, and outright dishonest liar.
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