In my opinion,  just and theory are two words that should never be juxtaposed in a sentence.  Yet this phrase crops up on television, in the news media, and in popular usage with dismaying regularity.  This phrase suggests that the idea referred to is speculative supposition; a half-baked idea to be dismissed as trivium.  But in the scientific sense, nothing could be further from the truth and the frequency with which the word theory is misused suggests that we are not doing a very good job of teaching science.   Indeed, given the number of people have told me that they ‘don’t like’ science, I’ve come to suspect that most people don’t know what science really is – they associate the word with a guy in a white lab coat heating colourful liquids over a bunsen-burner.

Science is nothing more or less than a systematic means of figuring things out, commonly known as the Scientific Method.  It is how we make sense of the observations that we make about the natural world and allows us to interpret those observations in a meaningful way.  What’s not to like about that?

Here’s how it works.  If you observe something that you don’t understand, you might come up with an idea that seems to explain it.  In fact, you’ll probably come up with several different ideas.  These are called hypotheses.  For example, you sit down at your computer, eager to read the latest post on Lore Deposits.  When you open your browser instead of your homepage, all you see is some message informing you that the connection is unavailable.  Why?  You were able to access the internet yesterday – what has changed since then?  You sit down and think about what might be causing your problem and come up with the following possibilities:  perhaps your ethernet cable is unplugged; the network might be down due to problems with your service provider; there might be a problem with your modem.  These hypotheses seem to be the most likely causes, so you then begin to figure out which of them it is.  This is where you test your hypotheses.

You start by testing the easiest and most likely hypothesis – an unplugged cable.  You check the connection at your computer and modem and find that the cable is securely connected.  You have just disproven and eliminated your first hypothesis.  Next, you try re-booting your modem.  Still no luck, so you reinstall your internet software, reboot, and try again.  Still nothing.  Finally you call your service provider to ask if there is a disruption in the service.  They tell you that they are  experiencing technical problems and service is down in your area.  Bingo!  You systematically tested  your hypotheses, eliminating those you disproved, and finally discovered the truth.  Congratulations you are now a scientist!

Once a scientist has tested all of his competing hypotheses, eliminated those that did not pass the tests, and finally is left with one that seems to fit the facts, that hypothesis graduates to the status of ‘working hypothesis.’  It gets written up and submitted to a scientific journal for publication.  Before it can be published, however, it has to undergo the intense scrutiny of peer-review, in which other scientists examine your work and look for flaws in your methods or assumptions.  If they agree that the science is sound, your hypothesis can be published.

After publication, your hypothesis is studied by experts from all over the world who will further test and study your findings.  The stronger your hypothesis seems to be, the more intense will be the attempts to find flaws in it.  If, after many years of rigorous testing, your hypothesis becomes generally accepted by the scientific community it graduates to the lofty status of Theory.

Thus, far from being merely some crack-pot’s pet idea, a theory is about as close to truth as we ever get.  We must always allow for theories to be modified in light of new evidence, but robust theories become even stronger – rather than discredited, when such evidence is brought to light.

Sadly, I’ve seen far too many scientists, who ought to know better, refer to their hypotheses as theories when interviewed by the media.  They say “My theory is that…” when they really mean hypothesis.  Unless their name is Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Alfred Wegener, or some other such luminary, they don’t have a theory and likely never will.

So, am I being nerdishly pedantic in insisting on a strict interpretation of the word theory?  I don’t think so.  Diluting the concept of the scientific theory by popular usage opens the door to pseudoscience and religious dogma, whose proponents all want equal time regardless of the legitimacy of their ideas or the existence of corroborating evidence.   Creationists are particularly tenacious in their attempts to insinuate their religious beliefs into public school curriculum on the basis of providing an ‘alternative’ theory to Natural Selection.  They have, in recent years, tried to make their beliefs sound more scientific by repackaging them as ‘Intelligent Design Theory,’ but calling something a theory doesn’t make it so – especially if it lacks any supporting evidence.

Likewise, the medical field suffers under the onslaught of ‘alternative medicine,’ which has undergone none of the research, testing, trials, and scrutiny that backs up mainstream medicine.  Not a day goes by when I don’t hear advertisements on the radio for naturopathic, homeopathic, or chiropractic treatments claiming to purge toxins from your body, improve your health and vitality, and help you to lose weight.  These pseudoscientific practices claim to present alternatives to the well-understood Germ Theory of disease which guides all legitimate medical practitioners.

We live in a golden age of science.  There are currently more scientists practicing today than all of the scientists in history put together.  Yet, more and more, people seem to be turning to superstition and pseudoscience – perhaps because scientific research proliferates so quickly that it becomes confusing and difficult to tell truth from fiction.

What it comes down to is that we need to do a better job of teaching what science is and what it is not so that people are better able to evaluate spurious claims and separate the lore from the gangue.