I have many pet peeves in my life. Because I am a scientific editor, many of my pet peeves revolve around abuse of the English language. The abuse that set me off most recently is the misuse of the word “theory”. These days everyone has a theory about something. For example I have a “theory” as to why I gained five pounds over the holidays: Too much rich food and egg nog! However, from a scientific standpoint, saying “I have a theory as to why I gained five pounds over the holidays” is not a proper use of the word theory. While it is likely that the food and egg nog contributed to the weight gain, I do not have a theory. The cause of the weight gain has not been scientifically scrutinized and put through rigorous testing. There isn’t a pile of scientific evidence to support my statement. What I have is a sound working hypothesis, not a theory.
On a scale of scientific certainty, a theory shares the top spot with scientific law, then down at the bottom is hypothesis. That’s not to say that all theories or laws are 100% correct. There are cases where a scientific theory or law has needed a little tweaking. For example, everyone knows that Sir Isaac Newton “discovered” gravity supposedly after an apple fell on his head. His description of gravitational forces stood the test of time for 400 years until the 20th century, when modern scientists determined that Newton’s description of gravity seemed to unravel when applied to events inside black holes. These scientists, who include Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking, then expanded on Newton’s ideas and revised the description of gravity so that it was consistent with the new observations. The result was a stronger, more well-supported theory.
An example where the theory might be disproved altogether: recent results at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, have suggested that neutrinos are capable of travelling faster than the speed of light, something that is not possible if Einstein’s theory of relativity is true. Scientists are scrambling to confirm these findings and determine if the speed of these neutrinos is the death knell for Einstein’s theory.
Anne Marie Helmenstine at About.com sums up the differences between the scientific concepts of theory, law and hypothesis. She states:
“A hypothesis is an educated guess, based on observation. Usually, a hypothesis can be supported or refuted through experimentation or more observation. A hypothesis can be disproven, but not proven to be true.”
“A scientific theory summarizes a hypothesis or group of hypotheses that have been supported with repeated testing. A theory is valid as long as there is no evidence to dispute it.”
“A law generalizes a body of observations. At the time it is made, no exceptions have been found to a law. Scientific laws explain things, but they do not describe them. One way to tell a law and a theory apart is to ask if the description gives you a means to explain ‘why’.”
Unfortunately, the level of scientific certainty associated with the word “theory”, as it is used outside of the lab or classroom, was low to begin with and is eroding even further. The word “theory” has become synonymous with “hypothesis”, and it makes me want to scream. I hear people say “Evolution is only a theory”, and I want to respond with “Yes, but so is cell theory, heliocentrism and even gravity. These theories have all withstood the onslaught of scientific testing and are consistent with all of the available data and observations.
I was starting to feel that I was fighting a losing battle, that the word “hypothesis” would soon go the way of the dinosaurs, at least in everyday language.
Imagine my surprise, my elation, when a recent rerun of the television show Big Bang Theory got it right. One of the nerdy, überintelligent characters on the show used the word hypothesis and used it correctly! I even pointed it out to my husband, who is also a scientist and could appreciate the source of my joy. Not long after that, I heard the word “hypothesis” used correctly on the television show Bones.
Maybe there is some hope that the word “hypothesis” isn’t dead after all.
With that glimmer of hope in my heart, I now turn to my other newest pet peeve: people using “me” as a subject by saying things like “Me and my best friend went to the library…”, but that is a rant for another day.
What is the topic of your most recent rant?
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