A theory is a supposition, or a system of ideas intended to explain something, especially one based on general principles and independent of the thing to be explained. But as a practical matter most of us use the term when all we really have is a belief, an idea, a hunch or perhaps even a sarcastic thought, i.e., “Yeah, in theory!”
Now there’s nothing wrong with using the word in loose context because someone or something isn’t betting his or her life on it. But true scientific theories actually do “bet their life,” – and this occurs, every day! Theories must make predictions that are testable, which is why scientific theories are continually scrutinized. In many ways, a theory is a working hypothesis—it’s a proposed picture of reality to help us think about reality. That’s why theories are tested and retested; and what better way to truly understand a theory than to test it?
Theories get tested until they fail. Physicists have been testing the Theory of Relativity for over a century, and while it’s never failed, it’s still tested—that’s what gives the scientific community confidence in the theory’s soundness. Interestingly, a scientific theory can be ‘disproved’ by a single counterexample, but it can never be absolutely ‘proved’ because if a theory can’t be refuted, then by its very definition, it’s no longer science—it’s religion.
Physicists know that Einstein’s general relativity can’t be completely right because it’s inconsistent with quantum mechanics, i.e., the theory the entire electronics industry is based upon. (By the way, every time we fly in an airplane, pop a muffin in the toaster or send an email, we’re doing so based upon a “theory.”)
While this may appear contradictory, it really isn’t because new scientific theories don’t necessarily rule out the theory that preceded it; once a field of study undergoes a revolution that creates a solid intellectual foundation—like Newtonian mechanics gave physics—that foundational theory will stand forever.
For example, Newtonian physics is as accurate as ever even though it’s been eclipsed by Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Why? Because Relativity defined the limits within which Newtonian mechanics are reliably accurate. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity doesn’t replace Newtonian physics—it encompasses it by expanding the scope of observation and prediction to explain things beyond its ken.
~ Try this exercise ~
Take a sheet of paper and draw a one-inch square and label it “Newtonian physics;” then on the same sheet of paper draw a four-inch square around the one-inch square and label the larger square “Relativity.” Metaphorically, both theories will make the same predictions within the one-inch square box (although the results are explained differently.) However, the area outside the ‘Newtonian one-inch box’ but inside the four-inch ‘Relativity’ box, represents the conditions when the Theory of Relativity is required make accurate predictions.
We need to understand that scientific theories are not absolute truths; if they were absolute and impervious to questioning, as noted, it would no longer be contained within the realm science, rather, they would fall into the realm of religion or faith. Scientific “truths” must always remain open to questioning, and it’s the job of scientists to seek out the most fertile questions and challenge every theory.
This has long been the issue with climate theories. Some may be accurate as far as they go, just as Newtonian physics is accurate as far as it goes but like Newtonian physics, they fail to explain the overriding milieu. So, when someone says, “the science is settled” ask them if their statement is predicated upon years of painstaking analysis, hundreds of thousands of observations and continuous testing under the most stringent of laboratory conditions—or if they are simply volunteering their belief system.
Quote of the day: “It’s hard to argue that humans aren’t having an impact on the Earth. But I think this narrative showcases our arrogance as well. The Earth does far more to itself than we’ve ever done to it, or even could do to it right now.”—D. Goldman (from The Double Arrogance of Climate Change.)