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Just a Theory

June 1, 2010

“You know Evolution is just a theory”

Ok, I’m going to ignore that Atheism and evolution are actually two completely different subjects. If you want, look up Directed Panspermia and the Realians, those are examples of atheists who don’t buy the concept of human evolution.

Anyway, I wanted to tackle this “It’s just a theory” (emphasis on “Just”) thing.

What is a theory?

A scientific theory is many things such as

1)      A predictive model

  1. It is a way to predict what the natural world will do under well-defined circumstances

2)      A falsifiable explanation of observable phenomenon

  1. In other words, it explains what we can observe and can be tested and, perhaps not “proven” right, at least be able to be proven wrong if an experiment were to give certain results

3)      A collection of facts

  1. This is true, but it’s more accurate to say it’s the end result of the collection of facts

4)      Constantly in flux

  1. Theories must be tested, retested and reevaluated and, on occasion, modified to conform to new data

5)      The best explanation for all the data available

  1. Is it the only? No. But it’s one the accounts for all observable evidence and has the fewest assumptions possible. If it doesn’t, then go back to point 4.

A theory has also, by definition, gone through scientific peer review and has been tested and tested and retested over and over and over again until it can actually be called a “theory”. That’s part of the scientific process.

Hypothesis VS Theory

What people really mean when they say “it’s just a theory” is “hypothesis” which is a possible explanation of a set of facts. A hypothesis is also, by definition, something which has not gone through peer review, been tested and refined or seen as a reliable predictive model. You can think of it as a precursor to a theory in the same way that the Model T was a precursor to a Mustang. The Model T was a good start but it needed to be refined and reworked before it was readily accepted by the public at large. They have things in common, but, the end result is always a work in progress too and is usually very different than the starting point.

What is a Law?

A scientific law is something completely different from both a theory and a hypothesis. A law is a principle that holds true in all cases and has been proven to do so using logic or mathematics. As a result, the only scientific laws in existence are ones which can be expressed solely in terms of mathematics or logic.

Evolution is a theory because it’s biological in nature and can’t really be expressed in terms of mathematics. Even though we can observe it in action (and we have) it’s not a law because we would have to show that it’s true in all cases and that, because of the sheer amount of resources it would take, is impossible for humans to ever do.

It’s a Theory… and a Fact

Yeah, sure, it’s a theory and unless we come up with some kind of mathematical representation for it, it will always be a theory. But, at the same time, it’s also a fact.

It’s a fact in the sense that we can see it happen and demonstrate its existence. We’ve seen it happen in the lab and in the wild. We know it works. We’ve used it to predict actual phenomenon. It’s there just as much as gravity is – there are alternate explanations for both but the scientific theories are the only ones which account for all observable data and contain the fewest assumptions. How else would you define a “fact”?

Other Things which are “Just Theories”

In case you were wondering:
Cell Theory in Biology
Einstein’s Theory of Relativity
Newton’s Theory of Gravity
Kepler’s Theory of Planetary Motion
The Big Bang Theory
String Theory
Atomic Theory
Plate Tectonic Theory
Meteorological Theory
Stellar Theory
Global Warming
Germ Theory
Music Theory
Acoustic Theory
Color Theory
Kinetic Theory of Gases
Helio-Centric Theory
Get the idea? Almost everything in science and even other fields of studies are “just theories”

So, yeah, Evolution is “just a theory”. We really do science a disfavor by calling anything a “theory” because the public’s idea of what is a theory is completely different from the nuanced scientific definition. They tend to think a theory is what Columbo spouts off at a trial or during an investigation – that it’s just someone’s “best guess” to what’s going on. It’s not anywhere near that.

So, for any creationists out there who want to use the “It’s just a theory” argument, my advice is this: Stop. Just stop. Stop before you hurt yourself. It will only end badly for you.

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