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.

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