In school we all learned of the so-called scientific method, a glamorous term for guess and check.
- Ask a question.
- Form a hypothesis. Write down what you think would happen.
- Design an experiment to check your hypothesis.
- Analyze your results and check them against your hypothesis.
- Adjust your hypothesis and start again.
A theory is much like an hypothesis in how it sets out expectations that we have. It is likely a collection of multiple hypothesis that have been vindicated through multiple facets of experiments to show that things work as we now expect them to. One absolute requirement is the ability to falsify its claim. It can be used to predict other things that might happen based off this knowledge. One such example is how Newtonian Physics helped us to predict the orbit of other planets and led us to the discovery of multiple planets, one later to be demoted to the status of a plutoid thanks to the efforts of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Later on Albert Einstein was able to enlarge upon this and excogitate two theories on Special and General Relativity. Through these theories we were able to predict the curvature of light around the moon during an eclipse, proving that space gets bent by mass, and after over 35 years of preparation scientists were able to devise an experiment to prove his theory with how space is dragged rather than just bent. With a good theory you can predict outcomes of things to come, or things that you may find in the past, such as with the theory of Evolution.
There was one memorable time when I was at my friend +Johnathan Bunn's house and another of our mutual friends was over there discussing with us concerning the matter of how old the Earth is and the theory of evolution. It was inevitably brought up by our friend that evolution is only a theory and hasn't been proven yet, that is why they call it a theory. How does one argue against this kind of logic? He went on to expound his misology by continuing to impress us with his understanding of humans not coming from monkeys or apes and how there are no monkeys giving birth to humans today. Through great evolutionary biologists, such as Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould, and countless archaeologists and geneticists, we understand that he was correct in his conjecture that we weren't descended from monkey's or apes, but missed that we still have more in common with a chimpanzee. Just as we now know that Neanderthals are our cousins, not our direct ancestors.
Religion, at least in America, could be to blame for the lack of understanding and differentiation between these two similar terms. They like the ambiguity in order to drive their point through broken logic that it is only a theory so it can't be taken seriously. Before I go into a tirade and historiette, let me refer the reader to other works much more elegant than mine which will be listed at the end of this article, and revert back to our main subject.
Hopefully now we will be able to disambiguate a hypothesis and a theory. It may take a bit of consciousness raising before we stop saying "I got a theory..." over things which are better left to hypothesis. I have a hypothesis, what would happen if some sitcoms or songs used the phrase "I have a hypothesis..."? I suppose the next generation may do better at understanding scientific theory.
The God Delusion By Richard Dawkins
God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything By Chistopher Hitchens