Friday, November 12, 2010

Annoying Words: Theory

Part of a series (I hope) called
The consequences of equivocation in scientific rhetoric.
 (or, Words that both freaking Annoy Me and allow other Jerks to Annoy Me, and why I think Someone should do Something about it before I get more Annoyed)

Please read the premise for all these "annoying word" posts 
at this link right here.


Ah, an innocent word.

A scientific "theory".

Well, we all know what "theory" means, right?
A theory is just a gussied-up guess. You could be just sitting there, and then come up with a great idea, and shout, "Eureka! I have great theory!" Maybe it's a wild guess. Or it could be one with a few facts to prop it up. But it's still just a guess.
And I think I've heard that a theory stops being a guess when it's somehow proven and then becomes a "fact" - or, if it's really important, it's called a "law", as in Newton's Laws of Motion, the Laws of Thermodynamics. Or or maybe it's the other way around?
"Theory" is commonly used by people in a sentence like this: "It's only a theory - it's never been a proven fact. It's not like it's a law or anything."
OK OK, wait a sec! Right now, any scientist reading the last few paragraphs will likely be frothing at the mouth - and rightly so! Everything in the past three paragraphs, while fine for normal English speaking - English being an exceptionally flexible language - is completely wrong in the dialect of scientists.

Actually, there was a time when that description may have had some kind of truth to it, but that was a pretty long time ago - no more.

In the community of the sciences, the use of all these words ("fact", "theory", "law") has become more cautious and restrained and precise than it once was. This change was meant to be a good thing but, unfortunately, this change of meaning in the sciences hasn't fully reached the ears of the general public.
So what are the differences between the understanding of everyday English speakers and scientists speaking about science when they use the word "theory"?

And, more importantly, how have these innocent differences allowed some folks to poison the conversation about what we've learned about the world?

Fact, Theory, and Law, in Science dialect and in plain English
Today, in common everyday talk, all the following words are very similar in meaning, and are often used as synonyms: a thought, hunch, guess, idea, speculation, conjecture, theory. It doesn't matter if they aren't truly synonyms - they are viewed that way in casual speaking, and that's really all that matters in this discussion.

Similarly, in common talk, these words are practically the same: a rule, fact, truth, law (as in a "law of nature")

However, in the sciences the following is the way it's been for the past century or so:

A "fact" is an individual observation, something you can show by measurement or other direct observation. It is pretty much self defined as true.

"Every time I throw the ball into the dark garage, it ends up coming back out of the garage."
That's a fact that someone might have seen happening. That fact is more believable if you can get lots of pictures, video, and, importantly, if others can come along and repeat the curious activity.

A "hypothesis" - a word essentially meaning something you propose - is a stringing together of some facts and logical argument to make a first attempt at explaining how an observed fact actually comes to happen. It's better than a simple guess because it has some fact and logic behind it, but it's probably very new and untested. It's often as likely to be proven wrong as proven correct.
"I think there might be an alien in the garage who is throwing the ball back at me."
That's a hypothesis. Unless there's been a recent surge of confirmed extraterrestrials seen recently (ie, more than zero), it's not very likely, but it still is a hypothesis. An opposing hypothesis is:
"there is a wall in the garage and the ball keeps bouncing off it to come back outside"
Now to "theory". A theory, in the science world, is now used to mean something that once was just a hypothesis but has since been tested and challenged, by a good amount of experiment and logic, and found to still hold up where other hypotheses have fallen.

In my "is it ET?" example, turning on the lights and having someone see what actually happens to the ball in the garage will help determine which of these two hypotheses can be called an acceptable theory and which one won't.

After testing these competing theories, the result will be (I'm just going to choose, since I made it up)
The theory of the wall in the garage: "there is a wall in the garage. When a ball is tossed inside the garage, the ball keeps bouncing off the wall and then bounces back outside the garage." The original Wall hypothesis will have now been proven by experimentation and logic - and found to still hold up to observations. At this point it's good enough to be considered a reasonable entry-level theory.
The Alien hypothesis, meanwhile, had no evidence to support it, and, in fact, has evidence to the contrary (the ball just keeps bouncing off the wall without alien assistance). So the Alien hypothesis is discarded.
Over time, theories will get tested, and then tested again. If it's reasonably good to start with, the theory will be tweaked and modified as new test results show the subtler nature of the reality being studied. If the theory slowly begins to not jibe with reality, it will become apparent that no amount of modification will help make it work - and the theory will be discarded.

So, OK, fine, but when do we get to Laws? I mean, once a theory is really, really strongly proven - when it's overcome every hurdle and survived every assault on it's validity - does it THEN become a Law?

Well... here's the kicker. In the modern sciences (not counting math), a "law" does not exist.

No matter how solid the evidence, no matter how many pieces of modern medicine or technology are successfully powered by the fruits of a theory, you will not find a single non-mathematical scientific idea discovered in the 20th or 21st century that is given the title of a Law.

Knowledge vs. Certainty
See, the word "law" as it came to be used by the 19th century sort of implies "absolute truth". Meanwhile, one of the changes that happened was that, sometime by the end of the 19th century into the early 20th, people started to realize that flinging around words implying everything is known could be a bit rash.

For example, in the 1600s, Isaac Newton observed and devised rules of motion which became dubbed "Laws". But then, a few hundred years later, at the beginning of the 20th century, two separate fundamental discoveries in physics (Einstein's General Relativity and Quantum physics) conclusively showed that these so-called laws were, in fact, not quite right. They are close enough for most purposes, but they are wrong enough to make the previous implication (of being absolute truth) now seem... well, both embarrassingly naive and amazingly arrogant.

Today in science, to avoid the impression of absolute certainty, as opposed to simply saying a theory is the best and strongest explanation to date, there is no more grand a label to give an idea then the word "Theory".
Now, this is all fine in the profession of science. But it has become problematic for the purposes of communicating to the rest of the world.

One word is perhaps too few?
There are many theories which have survived some initial challenges and look reasonably good - perhaps for many years. But it is an accepted truth of scientific thought that any theory may subsequently fall, or be heavily modified, when faced with new evidence - and that is indeed the fate of many reasonable theories. Sometimes they may have been partly correct, but were later found to be lacking in some way while others will be found to have been completely off base.

Then there are other theories which have survived almost uncountable challenges. Usually, these theories have been so well tested and finely developed that, barring a major finding, they represent an understanding of how something works that comes as close to established truth as humans are currently able to achieve.

Sadly, no additional words have been made to distinguish between the two extremes of what gets the label "theory": We have the young theory, brash and bold, but not yet heavily tested. Then we have the older theory, weather-worn, strong due to surviving many challenges by experiment and logic, often with marks of experience, some from it's battles and some from the simple act of growing-up and forming the defining lines of maturity.

But they're all just called "theories".

Inside the science world, that's ok - everyone there knows the range of newly established theory and old warhorse, heavily-tested theories.

But outside that world, no one knows this.

And this breakdown in understanding has allowed the landing major blows to the understanding and acceptance of scientific discovery. The blows don't have to be fair, they just have to do their job of damaging the credibility of their target.

Yes, one simple word, misunderstood or maliciously garbled in meaning, can cause great damage to communication of truth. Here's how...

"It's only a theory"
This gimmick has been used - to great effect - in a hell-bent attempt to discredit one of the most experimentally supported (and thus strongest) theories in all of science: that natural evolution is powered by Natural Selection.

Now before people start rumbling, let me just say this: I'm not going to touch any of the details of natural selection here. That's a whole other bit of writing. What I will say is this:

The observed evolution of species on Earth - as opposed to how it actually happened - is a hugely demonstrated fact.

It happened. It has been observed a multitude of times in a multitude of ways. Life changed over time, from thousands of millions of years ago right to this date. It's there, it's been measured by every imaginable means.

It exists.

Now, as to the question of exactly how all this increasing diversity over increasing time came to happen - that is a Theory. The most experimentally solid theory for the how Evolution could have happened is that called Natural Selection.

Again, I will not touch on this theory's details here, nor will I fight, here, against those who seek to deny the strength of this theory - and also deny the vast reams of observed facts, which are indisputable. That fight is for another place.

What I will point out is that those who seek to deny both the theory and the fact use this statement, again and again, as one of their anchor points:
"Evolution is only a theory. There is no Law of Evolution and there are Newton's Laws of Motion (which are indisputable, because they're Laws!) . And since a theory is just a guess, why should anyone believe it over any other theory someone tosses into the area of ideas?"
The above attempt to mislead has been wildly successful. It is pushed by some innocently believing the above quote to be true.

It is also pushed by others who know very well it is false. These folk know that the label "theory" has a wide range of meaning that hasn't been well communicated. And they also know well the general public doesn't know this.

So the argument works because it makes sense in general English. But it also happens to be false on its face. All because a single word doesn't have quite the same meaning to the public as it does to scientists.

The response is actually simple:
1) If Newton's "laws" had been discovered in the 20th century, they would have been called Newton's Theories of Motion - NOT Laws. Their strength in explaining the motions of the easily observable Universe (as opposed to that of the very, very massive and the very, very small) would remain undiminished. Period. End of Story. And then no one would have to explain why scientists called something a law when it ended up being not quite complete (thanks to Quantum and Relativistic theories in physics).
2) Natural Selection is a theory. As are theories of Gravitation, Relativity, Atomic theory (that all things are made of atoms), and so on. Further, it is not a young theory. It is the most vigorously tested theory in all of Biology - arguably in all of science. As a result of the endless experimentation and revision - by people who would often be deliriously happy if they were the one to conclusively disprove any such strong theory - the only points of natural selection that might ever be changed will have to do with relatively minor, discrete points about the mechanisms of it's action. The overall nature of the theory is not likely to change much at all.
But - thanks to unfortunate word differences and active deception by some - these facts remain unknown in the mind of the public. To everyone out there this theory - and, by extension, all theories and all science - are just rough guesses with no reason to believe them any more than some other guess I could whip up myself. They could change at any time. Therefore, they are to be ignored.

And thus science is discarded.

And we simply return to the unknown - and the fear that resides within.

So what do we do?
This is only one example of many words that have subtly different meanings in the smaller world of a group and the larger world of the general public. These differences, though seemingly small, can cause chaos when exploited by those who wish to halt scientific discovery and an honest exploration of the world.

On the one hand, I have no grand solution to offer. There is a determined agency that is hell-bent on using every nasty trick, every accidental misunderstanding, every innocent slip of the tongue, to cause strife, division, and anger between those that are trying to discover truths of the universe - to benefit us all - and those in the general public who want to understand but only hear the deceptions.

On the other hand, perhaps simple changes could help.

There's nothing inherently wrong - nothing at all - with the broad way the term "theory" is used in the sciences. It's just that we now see it's causing problems. And you can politely explain these subtle distinctions with the public (which is all of us) all you like, but there's a lot of people and not enough public outreach.

So... my naive thought is: refine the words. You can't change past publications, but you can change the future. Others in science communication have mentioned this as well, so I'm not alone in thinking about this.

Now, while I'm quite attracted to the idea of making up new words from scratch, I'll save that thought for the posting where I give the word "planet" the boot.

Therefore, keep it simple. My though is to keep theory as the base word.
But what is a new theory? In my mind, it's "young" - as I implied before. It's youthful and thinks it can take on the world. It's also probably in for a world of hurt. Whether it survives is a big question.
It's a Young Theory.
What is a theory that has been surviving many challenges, while being subtly changed by evidence and logic - one that's probably going to stick around but still is getting all the kinks worked out?
It's a Mature Theory.
And finally, what is a theory that has stood the test of decades or centuries of challenge and development, which still stands showing all the marks of it's development that allowed it to endure and be respected as a pretty darn good look at a truth of the world?
It's a Strong Theory.

OK, fine: how about new words? Well, ok, I'm a fan of "I don't care what you call it - call it 'Ni!" for all I care - just let's all agree what that means." I can just make up words.

Young Theory = Grok
Mature Theory = Groker
Strong Theory = Grokest


("grok" might actually be claimed, anyway)

OK, maybe it won't help. Just thought I'd toss the idea out there.

Regardless of my feeble attempts, I feel very strongly that,any changes with an eye on being clearer to the general public can well make it possible to take some of the word-weapons, unintentional though they were, away from those that would choose to exploit them for their own political purposes.

It's for now and for the future.
It's what I care about.

Which is why I'm even writing this at all.

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