13 March 2009

Can “theory” be saved?

Much has been written about how non-scientists don’t exactly understand what the word “theory” means in science. In science, “theory” specifically means a large and well supported organizing principle that predicts, controls, and explains.

Non-scientists typically disparage things called theories, frequently by saying something is “only” a theory. fnord. Indeed, the phrase is used so much that Ken Miller used it as the title of one of his books on creationism in the U.S.

But I think there’s another reason that people outside science attack anything associated with the word “theory” so often. What common English phrase do you most often hear that contains the word “theory”?

How about, “conspiracy theory”?

Is it any wonder that people think scientists are trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the public when they talk about scientific theories, when the only other time they ever hear the word “theory” is next to unsupported, rampant, and usually flat-out freakin’ crazy ideas about secret organizations, the course of history, persecution, and maybe a little dose of bigotry on the side?

Maybe the “theory” is too degraded to be saved for use in discussions with the public. Maybe it’s time for scientists to give up caution and nuance, and just say “true,” as, for instance, Jerry Coyne did in his book title.

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