From: Rob Fargher
To: All Mar-22-94 04:26:36
Subject: Theories and science
***Cross-posted from the EVOLUTION echo***
-=> Quoting Tom Clayton to Trent Hall <=-
TH> suggested explanation a proof? No, merely a theory that
TH> perhaps proves
TC> Obviously a "suggested explanation" is not a proof. It is
TC> a theory,
The above exchange exemplifies the complete misuse of the term
theory in common parlance. As your former president, Ronald
Reagan stated "Well, evolution is just a theory" and
demonstrated that such misconceptions pervade the whole of
society (though I'm not sure just what stratum he represents!).
The whole structure of scientific explanations is strictly
hierarchical and the ranking of any individual phenomenological
exegesis depends upon how much confidence we have in it.
Science, if it is nothing else, is a method for determining, in
an unbiased manner just how much confidence we can have that a
given explanation is correct. Secondly, the ranking depends
upon how much evidential support there exists for a given
accounting and the explanatory power it has to encompass known
facts better than competing explanations.
With that as a prelude, here is my taxonomy of scientific
1) Wild Assed Guess. This is an inductive leap of faith and is
generally the starting point. Usually the product of an
individual, a wild assed guess is the product of idea
generation and intuition. There is no direct evidential support
for a wild assed guess as it is invoked to explain an existing
situation and has not yet been subjected to testing by
2) Beer Parlour Hypothesis. Similar to a wild assed guess, a
beer parlour hypothesis is the outcome of a group of
individuals in a very relaxed informal environment where ones
reputation is not on the line. Fruitful locations are bars
close to universities, hotel lounges at a scientific
conference, and campfires while out in the field. Again, a beer
parlour hypothesis does not have direct evidential support but
having been exposed to the immediate challenge of competent
critics (other grad students, supervisors or ones peers) seated
around the same bar table, they are useful guides to the work
to be done in the lab in the next week.
Both of the above are prolific idea generators.
3) Working hypothesis. A more respectable ranking, a working
hypothesis is the local paradigm that one has to understand a
phenomenon. It must have explanatory power to cover the known
facts and make testable predictions that directly aid in the
design of experiments. Perhaps a few experiments have been done
that provide support in favour of ones working hypothesis but
it has not yet been conclusively shown to be a better
explanation of known phenonmena than competing hypotheses.
Working hypotheses are frequently discarded as the winnowing
process of testing and falsification shows them to be
inadequate. Many people really equate theory with working
hypothesis, as in "I have a theory to explain that" or "Well,
evolution is just a theory."
4) Hypothesis. A hypothesis differs from a working hypothesis
in that it has extensive evidential support, that attempts to
falsify it have failed. Thus we have greater confidence that
the explanation of known facts provided by the hypothesis is
approaching an accurate model of reality. Generally, a
hypothesis has a known flaw: either it is not a significantly
better explanation of competing hypotheses or one of the
predictions made by the hypothesis is seen to be inaccurate. A
true hypothesis has a lofty ranking and is a respectable beast
because of its evidential support.
5) Theory. A theory is more than a grown-up hypothesis. It has
been subjected to large scale testing and challenges and has
passed every one with flying colours. We have great confidence
in a true theory, believing it to be more likely correct than
wrong. There are no known flaws, all predictions have been
shown accurate and it is a significantly better explanation for
nature (or at least the phenomenon under consideration) than
any rivals. True theories are very valuable critters; they
provide a paradigm or a conceptual framework for the approach
to solving new problems (ie. design assistance). They also
provide powerful problem solving strategies (ie. methods to be
used in testing and interpretory power in assessing the results
6) Law. A scientific law is conceptually different from a
scientific theory. A law is a description (not an explanation)
of universal behaviour. We have no idea why laws exist, other
than that is the way the universe is built. Thus, the laws of
physics just are. It is expected (hoped) that as theory
advances and becomes more and more an accurate model of reality
that the behaviour that a law describes becomes an obvious
consequence or prediction of theory.
I hope the above helps to clarify for people just what
scientists mean when they talk about the Theory of Evolution.
In common parlance, a theory is generally equated to, at best,
a working hypothesis and is something that can be freely
discarded as lacking evidential support wheras in reality, a
theory is an extremely well tested model of reality, one far
more likely to be correct than incorrect (but _always_ subject
to being falsified).
... How many of you believe in telekinesis? Raise MY hands.
--- Blue Wave/Max v2.12
* Origin: The BandMaster, Vancouver, BC (604-266-7754) (1:153/7715)