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Thread: What "theory" means in science

  1. #11
    Evolution is God's ID rogue06's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by rogue06 View Post
    Apparently the lack of understanding by many of what a theory is in science leads some to talk about how things like evolution are "only a theory" and therefore dismiss it on those grounds. But as the National Academy of Science explains, "theories are the goal of science" (see below) not, as the author and biochemist Isaac Asimov so eloquently put it, "something you dreamt up after being drunk all night."

    Noted biologist Douglas J. Futuyma explains in his book "Evolution":

    Source: Evolution


    A theory, as the word is used in science, doesn't mean an unsupported speculation or hypothesis (the popular use of the word). A theory is, instead, a big idea that encompasses other ideas and hypotheses and weaves them into a coherent fabric. It is a mature, interconnected body of statements, based on reasoning and evidence, that explains a wide variety of observations. It is, in one of the definitions offered by the Oxford English Dictionary, “a scheme or system of ideas and statements held as an explanation of account of a group of ideas or phenomena; . . .a statement of what are known to be the general laws of something known or observed.” Thus atomic theory, quantum theory, and plate tectonic theory are not mere speculations or opinions, but strongly supported ideas that explain a great variety of phenomena. There are few theories in biology, and among them evolution is surely the most important.

    © Copyright Original Source



    This article from LiveScience also makes clear what theory means in the scientific sense:

    Source: What is a Scientific Theory?

    A scientific theory summarizes a hypothesis or group of hypotheses that have been supported with repeated testing. If enough evidence accumulates to support a hypothesis, it moves to the next step—known as a theory—in the scientific method and becomes accepted as a valid explanation of a phenomenon.

    When used in non-scientific context, the word “theory” implies that something is unproven or speculative. As used in science, however, a theory is an explanation or model based on observation, experimentation, and reasoning, especially one that has been tested and confirmed as a general principle helping to explain and predict natural phenomena.


    Source

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    And as the prestigious National Academy of Sciences explained:

    Source: Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science (1998)

    Why isn't evolution called a law


    Laws are generalizations that describe phenomena, whereas theories explain phenomena. For example, the laws of thermodynamics describe what will happen under certain circumstances; thermodynamics theories explain why these events occur.

    Laws, like facts and theories, can change with better data. But theories do not develop into laws with the accumulation of evidence. Rather, theories are the goal of science.


    Source

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    And before anyone gets their underwear all bunched up because I'm citing what they might call "pro-Darwin" sources perhaps these will help:

    Source: American Heritage Dictionary


    the·o·ry

    1. A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena.

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    Source: Dictionary.com


    the·o·ry

    1. a coherent group of tested general propositions, commonly regarded as correct, that can be used as principles of explanation and prediction for a class of phenomena: Einstein's theory of relativity.

    © Copyright Original Source



    Source: Wikipedia: Scientific theory


    A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that is acquired through the scientific method, and repeatedly confirmed through observation and experimentation.

    © Copyright Original Source




    In science theories explain facts. Without them facts are merely isolated data points with no relation to one another. Science without theory is useless since facts without explanatory principles are meaningless. This is why that in science theories occupy the highest tier of knowledge.

    So when scientists use the word "theory" they don't mean a "guess," a "conjecture" or a "hunch" (like when someone says "I have a theory why Susie doesn't like broccoli"), but rather a well-substantiated, well-supported, well-documented explanation for our observations.

    IOW, in science theory means an overarching framework that has been carefully constructed, based upon facts and encompassing many tested hypotheses, used to explain a variety of observations concerning the real world.

    So when someone grumbles about how evolution is "just a theory" it isn't a valid objection to it, but rather a persuasive point in its favor.
    A nice addition that I found in an article by James J. Krupa, a biology professor at the University of Kentucky wrt the Theory of Evolution:

    Source: Defending Darwin


    In science, something can be both theory and fact. We know the existence of pathogens is a fact; germ theory provides testable explanations concerning the nature of disease. We know the existence of cells is a fact and that cell theory provides testable explanations of how cells function. Similarly, we know evolution is a fact and that evolutionary theories explain biological patterns and mechanisms. The late Stephen Jay Gould said it best: “Evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts.”

    Theory is the most powerful and important tool science has, but nonscientists have perverted and diluted the word to mean a hunch, notion, or idea. Thus, all too many people interpret the phrase evolutionary theory to mean evolutionary hunch. Not surprisingly, I spend the first week of class differentiating theory from fact, as well as defining other critical terms.


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  2. #12
    tWebber
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    My only problem with these official definitions of what "theory" means in science is that I suspect they're a bunch of hooey. Has anyone seen a study of how scientists actually use the word "theory", and whether they actually conform to these definitions? In my experience, scientists mostly describe broad, well-supported explanatory frameworks as theories for historical reasons. In contemporary usage, "theory" is all over the map. Endosymbiotic theory and the neutral and nearly neutral theories of evolution were all called "theories" long before they were widely accepted or well supported, and they still don't really have the breadth that the definition of "theory" might suggest. In particle physics, heavy quark effective theory and lattice gauge theory were mathematical approaches for doing approximate calculations, calculations that couldn't be done in the full theory, which isn't called a theory -- it's the Standard Model. Technicolor and supersymmetric models are often called theories, even though they have zero experimental support.

    So do any scientists actually use the word "theory" in the way that's proposed? How do other fields use the word?

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  4. #13
    tWebber shunyadragon's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by sfs1 View Post
    My only problem with these official definitions of what "theory" means in science is that I suspect they're a bunch of hooey.
    Your suspicions do not justify our question the scientific concepts of theory.

    Has anyone seen a study of how scientists actually use the word "theory", and whether they actually conform to these definitions? In my experience, scientists mostly describe broad, well-supported explanatory frameworks as theories for historical reasons. In contemporary usage, "theory" is all over the map. Endosymbiotic theory and the neutral and nearly neutral theories of evolution were all called "theories" long before they were widely accepted or well supported, and they still don't really have the breadth that the definition of "theory" might suggest.
    Your all over the place and not coherent concerning what theory means in terms of science. Do you accept the science of evolution?

    In particle physics, heavy quark effective theory and lattice gauge theory were mathematical approaches for doing approximate calculations, calculations that couldn't be done in the full theory, which isn't called a theory -- it's the Standard Model.
    The standard model is a model not a theory

    Technicolor and supersymmetric models are often called theories, even though they have zero experimental support.
    Sometimes called, ah . . . no.

    So do any scientists actually use the word "theory" in the way that's proposed? How do other fields use the word?
    Science is the issue here, and yes scientist use and know perfectly well what 'theory' means.
    Glendower: I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
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    But will they come when you do call for them? Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1, Act III:

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  5. #14
    tWebber
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    Quote Originally Posted by shunyadragon View Post
    Your suspicions do not justify our question the scientific concepts of theory.
    Why ever not? Scientists question things.

    Your all over the place and not coherent concerning what theory means in terms of science.
    Exactly my point. What the word "theory" means in science is actually all over the map, not the tidy meanings that are sometimes offered.

    Do you accept the science of evolution?
    Yes, although I have no idea what that has to do with anything.

    The standard model is a model not a theory
    Which of the definitions previously offered does it not fit? It's a 'big idea that encompasses other ideas and hypotheses and weaves them into a coherent fabric. It is a mature, interconnected body of statements, based on reasoning and evidence, that explains a wide variety of observations. It is, in one of the definitions offered by the Oxford English Dictionary, “a scheme or system of ideas and statements held as an explanation of account of a group of ideas or phenomena; . . .a statement of what are known to be the general laws of something known or observed.”'
    Science is the issue here, and yes scientist use and know perfectly well what 'theory' means.
    I asked for evidence of this usage, not bare assertion.

  6. #15
    tWebber shunyadragon's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by sfs1 View Post
    Why ever not? Scientists question things.
    True, they propose a hypothesis, and test and falsify the hypothesis with scientific methods, and the result may be called a theory or a hypothesis that supports a theory. That's how science works in the real world. The hypothesis or theory fails or succeeds based on the evidence.


    Exactly my point. What the word "theory" means in science is actually all over the map, not the tidy meanings that are sometimes offered.
    No, not all over the map. You are all over the map without a coherent argument.


    Yes, although I have no idea what that has to do with anything.
    Trying to establish your agenda and negative view towards science. Your avoiding the question.

    Which of the definitions previously offered does it not fit? It's a 'big idea that encompasses other ideas and hypotheses and weaves them into a coherent fabric. It is a mature, interconnected body of statements, based on reasoning and evidence, that explains a wide variety of observations.
    Big Idea? Theories most often start with small ideas and hypothesis, which are then tested by scientific methods. Not meaningful. Hypothesis are proposed usually based on some evidence. The hypothesis is tested and falsified by objective scientific methods, and often combined math. By the way, not 'proven' in science. The theories may by applied to models, and theories that apply to the models are further tested and falsified to determine if the models are sound.


    It is, in one of the definitions offered by the Oxford English Dictionary, “a scheme or system of ideas and statements held as an explanation of account of a group of ideas or phenomena; . . .a statement of what are known to be the general laws of something known or observed.”'
    To vague to be real in the scientific application of the meaning of a theory. Let's stick with the specific meanings and uses of theory in science as I described above.

    I asked for evidence of this usage, not bare assertion.
    Not a bare assertion at all. Scientist know what theory means and use it specifically as I described it above.
    Glendower: I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
    Hotspur: Why, so can I, or so can any man;
    But will they come when you do call for them? Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1, Act III:

    go with the flow the river knows . . .

    Frank

    I do not know, therefore everything is in pencil.

  7. #16
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    Quote Originally Posted by shunyadragon View Post
    True, they propose a hypothesis, and test and falsify the hypothesis with scientific methods, and the result may be called a theory or a hypothesis that supports a theory. That's how science works in the real world. The hypothesis or theory fails or succeeds based on the evidence.
    Except that sometimes it's called a theory before it's been tested, as with endosymbiotic theory. It would help if you would pay attention to the actual cases I've provided from actual science, rather than wandering off into generalities.

    Trying to establish your agenda and negative view towards science. Your avoiding the question.
    Do we have to go through this again? I didn't avoid the question: you asked a yes-no question and I answered "yes". Also, you're going to waste a lot of time if you keep trying to establish my agenda and negative view towards science. I love science, and I've been a scientist for several decades, publishing widely and being highly cited in two fields. I'm not attacking science. I'm complaining about a way that people talk about science.

    Big Idea? Theories most often start with small ideas and hypothesis, which are then tested by scientific methods. Not meaningful. Hypothesis are proposed usually based on some evidence. The hypothesis is tested and falsified by objective scientific methods, and often combined math. By the way, not 'proven' in science. The theories may by applied to models, and theories that apply to the models are further tested and falsified to determine if the models are sound.
    You didn't answer the question. You said that the Standard Model of particle physics wasn't a theory. I asked what part of the definition it failed to meet. Try again: why isn't the Standard Model a theory? Pick any definition you want to use.
    Not a bare assertion at all. Scientist know what theory means and use it specifically as I described it above.
    Yes, it's a bare assertion. I gave half a dozen cases of scientists using the word "theory" in ways that do not conform very well to the standard definitions. You, on the other hand, gave zero evidence. Statements without supporting evidence are bare assertions.

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    Note: I was hoping to get some feedback about others' experience with the use of "theory" in science. I was not hoping to get into another exchange with shunyadragon.

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    tWebber shunyadragon's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by sfs1 View Post
    Except that sometimes it's called a theory before it's been tested, as with endosymbiotic theory. It would help if you would pay attention to the actual cases I've provided from actual science, rather than wandering off into generalities.
    endosymbiotic theory is a theory that fits my description. It is based on the evidence and the proposal as a hypothesis. It is a testable hypothesis based on the genetic and physical relationship between organelles, like chloroplasts and mitochondria, and independent organisms. It can be falsified if no such relationship can be found or demonstrated. Theories like this can never be proven, because science does not 'prove' theories, but they can be found false by the evidence.


    Do we have to go through this again? I didn't avoid the question: you asked a yes-no question and I answered "yes". Also, you're going to waste a lot of time if you keep trying to establish my agenda and negative view towards science. I love science, and I've been a scientist for several decades, publishing widely and being highly cited in two fields. I'm not attacking science. I'm complaining about a way that people talk about science.
    That is a problem, 'talk about science?,' concerning the ignorance of the people not science. You also questioned whether scientist use theory as defined in science. The answer was an obvious yes, the vague definitions you cited outside science are meaningless, and rejected.

    You didn't answer the question. You said that the Standard Model of particle physics wasn't a theory. I asked what part of the definition it failed to meet. Try again: why isn't the Standard Model a theory? Pick any definition you want to use.
    I gave my definition, and rejected your vague generality from Oxford, which cannot be accurately applied to science. I also described here how hypothesis are proposed and tested to support theories and models. Models, like the Standard Model, involve different theories in physics such as the Theory of Relativity, String Theory, Dark Matter and Energy. As new knowledge becomes available, the models for our universe (origins and nature of the universe), are tested through hypothesis involving different theories. A 'model' is rejected when the research, and new knowledge of the different theories involved fail and the model is found to be false in some way. Some models change and evolve through new information to fit the theories involved in testing the models

    Yes, it's a bare assertion. I gave half a dozen cases of scientists using the word "theory" in ways that do not conform very well to the standard definitions. You, on the other hand, gave zero evidence. Statements without supporting evidence are bare assertions.
    I gave more specific details to what definitions apply clearly to science, and justifiably rejected your vague definitions like from Oxford, that cannot be applied to science. NO, you have NOT given good examples of how theory is used in science that do not apply to the standard us of theory in science. I have responded to where your examples fail, and where they do apply in a standard way like the endosymbiotic theory. Actually some of the vague meaningless definitions and examples you gave are more 'bald assertions' without good specific examples cited from scientific sources where scientists use the definition of theory differently from what I described.
    Last edited by shunyadragon; 03-28-2015 at 04:20 AM.
    Glendower: I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
    Hotspur: Why, so can I, or so can any man;
    But will they come when you do call for them? Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1, Act III:

    go with the flow the river knows . . .

    Frank

    I do not know, therefore everything is in pencil.

  10. #19
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    Quote Originally Posted by shunyadragon View Post
    endosymbiotic theory is a theory that fits my description. It is based on the evidence and the proposal as a hypothesis. It is a testable hypothesis based on the genetic and physical relationship between organelles, like chloroplasts and mitochondria, and independent organisms. It can be falsified if no such relationship can be found or demonstrated. Theories like this can never be proven, because science does not 'prove' theories, but they can be found false by the evidence.
    You've missed the point again. Endosymbiotic theory was described as a theory well before it was well supported by evidence. I'm using it to counter the claim that "theory" means an explanation that's well supported by evidence.

    That is a problem, 'talk about science?,' concerning the ignorance of the people not science. You also questioned whether scientist use theory as defined in science. The answer was an obvious yes, the vague definitions you cited outside science are meaningless, and rejected.
    The vague definitions I've quoted are the ones being offered in this thread as describing how "theory" is used in science.

    I gave my definition, and rejected your vague generality from Oxford, which cannot be accurately applied to science. I also described here how hypothesis are proposed and tested to support theories and models. Models, like the Standard Model, involve different theories in physics such as the Theory of Relativity, String Theory, Dark Matter and Energy. As new knowledge becomes available, the models for our universe (origins and nature of the universe), are tested through hypothesis involving different theories. A 'model' is rejected when the research, and new knowledge of the different theories involved fail and the model is found to be false in some way. Some models change and evolve through new information to fit the theories involved in testing the models
    So when are you going to tell me why the Standard Model isn't a theory, based on any definition of theory you choose? You're writing a lot of words, but avoiding the question.

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    Having thought about it a little more, I see that there's a fairly clear distinction between "theory" used as a mass noun and used as a count noun. As a mass noun, "theory" means a set of mathematical tools or approaches, while the count noun means an explanation. At least that's the case in physics and in fields that draw techniques from physics. The mass nouns sense overlaps with mathematic use of "theory" (group theory, number theory, perturbation theory). The mathematical tools in question may be closely tied to a particular physical domain (heavy quark effective theory) or more generally applicable (diffusion theory). Concrete, explanatory theories include relativity, BCS theory, endosymbiotic theory, the neutral theory, and plate tectonics. Quantum field theory is mass-noun theory that is employed in particular theories like quantum electrodynamics, electroweak theory, QCD.

    So a theory is indeed an explanatory model. I remain to be convinced that "theory" is consistently used for models that are both overarching and well-supported. Taking a quick look on PubMed for the use of "theory" in abstracts, I find (along with lots of use of "theory" as a mass noun) statements like "Our results are consistent with the theory that the brushes act as kinetic barriers rather than efficient prevention of adsorption at equilibrium", "Indeed, this array of deficits is sufficiently prominent to have prompted a theory that executive dysfunction is at the heart of these disorders", and "Purpose: To propose a theory based on clinical observation, namely, whether axonal distress induced by optic nerve tumors could be a triggering factor for optic disc drusen (ODD) formation." I find it difficult to distinguish these uses from "hypothesis".

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