Exposing PseudoAstronomy

April 30, 2010

What’s a Theory? Dictionary versus Science

This is a short post so I’m going to dispense with the normal “Intro” and “Final Thoughts” sections. Back in December 2008 in one of my first posts, I talked about what a scientist means by “Theory” because it’s very different from the general public. The post is reasonably well-used with over 2,300 views (averaging somewhere around 5/day) and it gets a fair amount of hits from Google under the “define: [word]” category of searches.

The crux of that post was that the word “theory” in popular use is simply “vague idea of something” as opposed to the use by scientists being, “This has been elevated to the highest level of certainty possible in science, withstanding hundreds or thousands of attempts to disprove it.”

Recently, though, I’ve been seeing some blog posts and some posts on creationist sites that disagree with this, trying to back up a very fallacious idea that “theory” in science means what the general public uses it for. Unfortunately, when I decided to write this post, I could not readily locate an example, and for that I apologize. But I promise you that unless I was having some very realistic dreams across multiple nights, this is not a straw man argument.

However, the arguments that I have read generally go as follows: “Scientists claim that you can’t say ‘Evolution is JUST a Theory’ because ‘theory’ to them means the pinnacle of scientific certainty. However, the [insert definition number] in the [insert your favorite dictionary] says that ‘theory’ means ‘a supposition’ [or similar language]. Therefore, it is perfectly reasonable to say that evolution is just a theory or the Big Bang is just a theory.”

To say that this is a ridiculous argument is an understatement. It’s exactly what the British Chiropractor Association did to Simon Singh recently. Bot for those of you who don’t know that whole story, let’s have a different example: Sally says, “The star Sirius was really bright last night before it set.” Johnny knows that the word “star” can mean both a famous person (as in “movie star”) or a celestial object that is a giant ball of gas that when alive produces energy through fusion. Despite the context, Johnny chooses to think that Sally meant the up-and-coming movie star with the stage name “Sirius.” Admittedly, like many of my examples, this is a bit contrived, but it is pretty much the same thing.

So, in summary, it doesn’t matter what definitions 1-4 say a word means. In science, the word “theory” has a very set definition. Claiming that scientists mean something else when using it and trying to argue that the dictionary is proof of this is simply absurd, and in itself is a straw man argument.



  1. Theory is one of the proposition of the truth, yet it remain as a
    proposition as we never know the truth. Therefore it is the relative
    matter, and that is why we still have the word “Hypothesis” or
    “Widely accepted Theory” “Established Theory” and so on.
    Chinese theory of “Ing-Yang” and the so-called “Meridian” in their
    Acupuncture and Herbal Medicine were never proved or backed-up by
    the western science though, in certain extent it seemed to work.
    They are the results of thousand of years statistical observations,
    and “as the Relative matter” if it is likely works it works.
    Here, the matter is not the truth, but the effects.
    If we never know the truth, why not settle for most likely Theory.

    Comment by yoshizen — April 30, 2010 @ 1:43 pm | Reply

  2. I think the classic example of creationists trying to soft shoe evolution by reminding people it’s “only a theory” is the Cobb County text book sticker that read:

    “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.”

    Comment by karl — May 5, 2010 @ 8:58 am | Reply

  3. You know, a scientific theory truly is a “supposition” in the colloquial sense, because it is proved inductively. The salient point about scientific induction, though, is that it eventually yields very strong suppositions:

    “Inductive reasoning allows for the possibility that the conclusion is false, even if all of the premises are true. Instead of being valid or invalid, inductive arguments are either strong or weak, which describes how probable it is that the conclusion is true. Another crucial difference [between inductive and deductive reasoning] is that deductive certainty is impossible in non-axiomatic systems, such as reality, leaving inductive reasoning as the primary route to (probabilistic) knowledge of such systems.”

    The only proof which is “certain” is a deductive proof, e.g. “All scientists are smart. Bob is a scientist => Bob is smart.” Aristotle did science that way, and it turned out to have its limits! But since the invention of the Scientific Method, inductive reasoning has demonstrated that it’s far more useful than the alternatives. In other words, pseudo-scientists can construct deductive hypotheses which might be correct for eternity if they wish to do so. It’s just that history has demonstrated, empirically, that the classical deductive method doesn’t promote progress.

    I think the reason that non-scientists are uncomfortable with inductive scientific proofs is that probability is hard for people to grasp (that’s why people buy lottery tickets). So, when non-scientists state, “Well, space aliens COULD have built the pyramids; you haven’t proved that they could NOT have done so,” they’re correct in every sense. The difference is that scientists simply don’t want to buy that lottery ticket, whereas pseudo-scientists love to buy lottery tickets – even though the winning number won’t be drawn until The End of The World!

    Comment by Adam — March 12, 2016 @ 9:10 pm | Reply

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