You Do Not Have a Theory

10/26/2011 06:19 pm ET | Updated Jan 05, 2012
  • Cara Santa Maria Science correspondent, Huffington Post; editor, Talk Nerdy to Me

I want to first assure you all that I am not ignoring your comments on my blogs! Since I am new to the HuffPost team, we have to work out a few technical kinks before I can engage in direct conversation with you. In the meantime, I think it's a good idea to get an old thorn that's been infecting most of our sides out of the way.

You do not have a theory! You have an idea. A theory is not something that one person can so arrogantly possess. I don't think I truly understood this concept until graduate school. When I was working on my undergraduate degree, I was fortunate enough to find a path that combined psychology, philosophy, and biology as my main areas of study. One would think that taking classes like the Philosophy of Natural Science would address some of these issues, but instead we spent weeks discussing why Lamarck should be given equal space in the evolution dialogue with Darwin (yes, my professor was quackers. But, he also taught Thomas Kuhn, an invaluable experience for me). Anyway, it took working with some very inspirational people and reading some game-changing literature for me to finally understand the difference between a hypothesis and a theory. In my nervousness defending my Master's thesis I uttered the phrase, "my theory is..." Needless to say, I was quickly corrected by about fifteen different people.

When most of us were kids, learning about the scientific method for the first time, we were taught that a hypothesis is an educated guess. Although this is an oversimplification, it is graspable for most young children. It is also, I'd venture to guess, what most adults would currently say if they were asked to define the term. Hypothesis formation is born out of observation. Currently, the top three Google searches for "What would happen if..." are 1) "...a girl took viagra?" 2) "...the earth stopped spinning?" and 3) "...I ate myself?" This means that hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Googlers are engaging in the beginning stages of scientific exploration. But it's not enough to ask "what would happen if I ate myself?" A hypothesis requires supposition based on observation. "If I ate myself, then I would double in strength" is a hypothesis, albeit one that is likely to be refuted.


But say enough martyrs for the scientific cause (or for the right amount of money) were willing to remove and subsequently devour their own ____fill in the blank____. And say that consistently, these poor saps actually did develop significant increases in strength. With enough repeated trials and enough consistent evidence, scientists from around the globe would start to see patterns emerging. New experiments would be devised to account for variables that may have confabulated early results. Details would be explored and hammered out. Eventually, a theory would be born.

Scientists are, by nature, conservative in our language. This is because we have been wrong a fair share of times, not because we suck at our jobs, but because we must make assumptions based on available evidence using only available technology. We are uncomfortable with words like proven, fact, and always/never. We prefer to say that "recent evidence supports the claim..." or "it is highly likely that...." Theory is the closest thing we have to fact within the scientific community. Theories emerge after mountains of evidence have been collected in support of a claim. Theories hold water until repeatable evidence comes along to disprove its individual components (we are happy to disprove until the cows come home, but proof is left to the mathematicians). So the next time somebody starts an argument saying, "Evolution is just a theory," before you roll your eyes and storm out of the room, you can always come back with, "Yeah, evolution is a theory. So is gravity. Let's argue about the merits of that one." #facepalm

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