Monday, February 23, 2009

a theory about theories

according to this week's poll watch in the week magazine, only 39% of americans believe in the theory of evolution. part of it certainly has to do with the religiosity of americans and the christian right's insistence on creationism and/or 'intelligent design,' but i think a good chunk of it has to do with the different uses to which the word 'theory' is put in and out of the world of scientific inquiry.

in everyday language, to say you have a theory about something is to say that you have what seems to you a rational explanation for whatever phenomenon you're attempting to describe, whether or not you have put said 'theory' to any sort of test at all. it is, at best, an educated guess and, more generally, just a regular guess that fits both the facts and the way that your worldview inclines you to see them.

were you a scientist, you would call such a thing a hypothesis, and you would then attempt to devise a test to see if your hypothesis stood up to scrutiny. then you would repeat the test, and repeat it again, and again, and so on, until you were pretty sure that you had reliable data which either did or did not back up your hypothesis. then you would publish those results, and other scientists would see if they could replicate your results without you there, going through a number of iterations, over and over, until they reached a conclusion, whether or not it was the same conclusion you reached or not.

this sort of testing would go on and on, and be carried out many, many times, by many, many different scientists, and be published and reviewed many, many times. and it would all have to come out the same, meaning all those experiments, all those tests of your hypothesis, would have to come to the same conclusion.

then you could call it a theory. and even then your hypothesis/theory would only stand until a better explanation of whatever phenomenon you were trying to describe was posited, tested, reviewed, etc.

so, in the world of scientific inquiry, for something to be called a theory implies many years of rigorous testing and failed attempts at falsification; it means the idea has been tested and stood up to that testing, and that noone has been able to come up with a better explanation.

in regular life, a theory is just a reasonable explanation somebody came up with, but that lacks the key evidence that would make it so.

to put it in regular people parlance, my theory about why fewer than 4 in 10 americans believes in darwin's theory of evolution, one of the most tested, tried, and true of all scientific theories, one that's been tested, over and over again, for a hundred fifty years, and stood up to those tests, is that most people hear the words 'theory of evolution' and mistake the scientific meaning of the word for its more colloquial usage, and assume that it's just some explanation some guy thought up a hundred years ago but that is equivalent to, say, the theory that brad pitt left jennifer aniston for angelina jolie because angelina has bigger boobs.

maybe i'm wrong, but, as the saying goes, nobody ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of the american people.

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