But it’s JUST a theory.


The point of this post is not to defend evolution, but to investigate the different meanings behind the word theory. However, this point comes up most frequently when people discussion evolution and possibly climate change. The word theory has become a very loaded word during discussions between scientists and non-scientists. It causes scientists to come across as arrogant to non-scientists. What causes people to believe that these scientists are arrogant? Well in Professor Dawkin’s documentary “Root of all Evil” Ted Haggard claims it has to do with how certain scientists are about their “theories.” Where scientists look down upon non-scientists in their ignorant views. For science this is a dangerous proposition where the people scientists need to convince the most that many different forms of scientific research needs to be conducted and funded publicly, scientists come across as arrogant know it alls that refuse to explain anything to the common person. This has also been noted in a Pew Science Survey.

So, why are scientists “arrogant” about their “theories?” Well, first it’s not arrogance. It’s extreme confidence in the current understanding of the world. The “theories” describe the state of the world and how we interact with it. However, there is a misunderstanding about the word theory. This can come from two ways. First, intentional intellectual dishonesty. In this case there is not much to be done, other than attempt to bring out this fraud and discredit the person on this basis. The second is an honest misunderstanding of the word. This may be difficult for many scientists to actually believe, but I think this can legitimately happen. While people who are actively interested in science are constantly being refreshed and reminded of how science works why it works and all the great things it has done for us, people who aren’t interest forget these things. Many of them haven’t had a refresher on how science works since high school, and that’s if they were paying attention to their teacher. They believe that a theory is a general idea of how something works, a educated guess.

I plan to elaborate on the differences in definitions through using a model presented through psychology in 1986. The study claims there are folk theories on how technology works, specifically thermostats. It is clear that there is the correct “scientific” theory of how the thermostat works, so it will be easy to compare the differences in the two different thermostat theories.

Willet Kempton’s article “Two theories of home heat control” is a survey of residents of Detroit Michigan of how the thermostat works in their house. The survey shows two prevailing theories. The valve theory and the feedback theory. The feedback theory is fairly straight forward, the thermostat detects the temperature and either turns on or off the furnace based on the deviation from the set temperature. The valve theory is a little different, this theory claims that when you turn up the thermostat you are increasing the flow of hot air the furnace is producing, which will increase the rate the house warms up. There maybe some reasons why this theory was popular, the fact that the thermostat was a knob and that many people were used to using radiators to heat their house previously. These two theories were defined as “Folk Theories” which fall into the general category of educated guess or a hunch of how it works.

However, we know that both of these cannot be correct. So at this point we have competing paradigms or research programs. So to determine which one is correct we conduct experiments. We collect temperature data of the air coming from the ventilator at various different thermostat settings. This allows us to test our hypothesis that the thermostat is actually a valve. Since the feedback theory is basically correct our data would show that the temperature of the air is constant or near constant regardless of the temperature setting on the thermostat.

Now we can move onto test the theory of the feedback mechanism. We can create more sophisticated tests to determine what the on/off points are for the furnace and create a model of how the thermostat interacts with the furnace to maintain the heat in a house. Over time we can build confidence in our model and other people can test our model in their own home and check the validity.

When people accept this model based on empirical evidence we then can say we have a scientific theory. However, this theory, while it may have been formed from a folk theory, has been thoroughly tested and replicated by many individuals. We can find many different examples of this in science, from biology, theories of gravity, relativity, the origin of the world, the list goes on and on.

Folk theories are hunches and educated guesses. Scientific theories are verifiable, testable and may be contradictory to our personal intuition.

2 thoughts on “But it’s JUST a theory.

  1. Funny thing that in that paper the 'wrong' valve theory produced better results in energy savings. It shows that testing and proving theories is not that easy. And even if something has been scientifically proven, human behavior can have unsuspected effects like this.As for the theory of evolution: It should be the law of evolution by now since it has been so broadly accepted by the scientific community and no credible scientific alternative has been given

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