Theory: That thing you think you have when you’re digging for a reason why your friend Becky acts so weirdly in public. In our society today, there’s a bit of a disconnect between what scientists report and what the general population hears or interprets. The result is a largely unnecessary distrust of scientists and science as a whole, which can mold public opinion and stunt scientific progress. So let’s clear up some misconceptions about how science works, what scientists do, and what it means when scientists report their findings using the language they do. In particular, let’s take a look at two scientific principles that are often confused for each other – hypotheses and theories.

Hypothesis

In popular culture, often when someone says (based on little to no evidence) that they have a “theory” on something, what they often mean is that they have a hypothesis. A hypothesis is a possible explanation one comes up with for why an observed phenomena occurs. It is essentially an educated guess that you go on to test through further observation and experimentation. It must additionally be falsifiable, meaning that it should be possible to prove it wrong.

A hypothesis could be a inference as to why a specific type of bee acts in a certain way, or a question about the behavior of a strange pulsar in a different galaxy. It could also be a prediction on why your friend Becky doesn’t act right in public settings. That’s right, we’re still on that topic. After observing Becky’s behavior for a while, you make a hypothesis as to why she is acting this way. Maybe she has social anxiety? Let’s run with that assumption for now. You start doing some research on social anxiety, and begin observing your friend more closely. After a few weeks of doing this, you ignore the nagging voice in your head telling you to stop being a creepy armchair psychologist, and deduce that you have sufficient evidence to say that Becky has social anxiety. You could have just been a proper friend and asked her about it, but hey, science is more fun. You now have the beginnings of a theory.

Theory

In a scientific context, a theory is an explanation of some phenomena based on facts and evidence gathered from repeated experimentation and observation. After a theory is established, it can be strengthened by further evidence, or modified with new, contrary evidence. Although theories have been wrong in the past, in modern days, many scientific theories are so well-established with mountains of evidence behind them it is highly unlikely new evidence would do much more than slightly modify them.

Why Does It Matter?

“Alright,” you might be thinking, “so the way popular culture uses ‘theory’ is different from how scientists use it. Why does it matter?” At best, we just clarified a misconception; at worst, we look like that smug guy who is never any fun at parties. So why did we take the time to differentiate between pop culture “theories” (hypotheses) and scientific theories? Because the discrepancy matters – in a colloquial, informal context, theories don’t mean much. They are more akin to scientific hypotheses (good guesses) than actual theories. In a scientific context, theories are drawn from extensive evidence-based study, and explain the natural world using facts and reason. Confusing the colloquial and scientific uses of the word  “theory” can have powerful repercussions, detracting credence from the scientific meaning of the word. Oftentimes, the gravity of  a scientific theory is because the word “theory” is not interpreted as seriously as it should be in its scientific context.  How many times have you heard “Oh (X) is just a theory anyway” as an argument against the validity of important scientific concepts like evolution or climate change? The theory of evolution, for example, is supported by decades of study across a myriad of disciplines, including biological sciences, anthropology, paleontology, geology, and much more. To write off a concept like evolution as “just a theory” discredits the incredible amount of factual data and work that built it up. Worse still, the confusion lends credence to fringe speculation and ideas that otherwise have no scientific basis (flat earthism).

Not all “theories” are created equal. Theories in the colloquial and scientific sense are very different. So the next time someone insists that a well supported scientific concept such as evolution, climate change, or heliocentrism is just a theory, remind them that gravity is also a “just a theory”. Point made.

This confusion over the meaning of the word “theory” is just one example of a more widespread issue of effectively communicating science to the public. Stay tuned for more information on science communication, as we will be diving into the topic in greater detail in upcoming articles.