Words words, everywhere! …I have no way to end that.
For the next several weeks (and from time to time after) I intend to devote Wednesdays to word abuse. Words play an integral role in our society – indeed, they’re quite literally the glue that holds civilization together. After all, if people couldn’t communicate there would have been no way they could have built society as we know it! Unfortunately, despite their vital role, many words are bandied about willy nilly, without a thought for their correct use. Worse are the words that are overused to the point where they basically have no meaning anymore. These are just two forms of word abuse – there can be several iterations of the phenomena, which I intend to cover over the course of this series as I make them up [this is hard science, guys! And you can believe that because I hold a science degree ;)]
Speaking of science, lets talk theory. Not any specific theory, but the word “theory” itself. Every time I hear lay people or television pundits utter the word, I think ofThe Princess Bride. I’m sure you all remember this exchange:
[Vizzini has just cut the rope The Dread Pirate Roberts is climbing up]
Vizzini: HE DIDN’T FALL? INCONCEIVABLE.
Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
“Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
Theory does not mean what you think it means (unless you’re a scientist, then it probably does mean what you think it means and you can pat yourself on the back). That’s okay though, because “theory” has been a victim of abuse for a long time. Once the media got a hold of it sometime during the cable news era, it was all down hill from there. But now it’s time to recover the word and restore it to its former glory!
You see, in its conventional, every day use the word “theory” means little more than an educated guess based on observations (or arm chair logic in the case of political pundits, but that’s not a road we’re going to go down).
However, in scientific circles the word has quite a different meaning. You see, the everyday usage of “theory” has an equivalent in science: the word “hypothesis”. Theory, however, is a much more robust term. In order to understand what it means, we must first look at another word, one that is often used as the polar opposite of a theory: fact.
To illustrate the point, I’m going to discuss a real world example – the theory of evolution. Folks who dislike the theory (usually because they misunderstand or don’t want to understand it) will often say: “It’s a theory, not a fact!” In reality, these people are both wrong and right. The theory of evolution is indeed a theory (it’s in the name, after all), but it is also a fact.
Poor guy is probably spinning in his grave, what with all the people misusing the word “theory” in reference to his theory and all.
“But how could this be?!” You may exclaim, shaking your fist at the computer screen, cursing the gods of vocabulary as you do so. Before you punch a hole in your monitor (boy words get you pretty excited don’t they?), let me explain. A fact is something that has been observed and is, in general, held to be true. Gravity is a fact – you could test it by jumping off your roof, although I wouldn’t recommend it. Evolution is a fact – it has been observed and verified many times, through many independent lines of evidence. It is a fact the the Earth is round (technically an oblong spheroid, but let’s not be too picky) and that the Sun is the center of the solar system.
In short, facts describe what is; they are generally held truths about the world. A theory, on the other hand, explains a the facts. It’s rather like what police do when they come to a crime scene – they gather facts about the crime, better known as evidence, and then try to construct a coherent explanation (a theory) as to what occurred and how. In scientific terms, a theory is based upon robust evidence and is peer reviewed by experts in the field. A theory must be falsifiable. In other words, new evidence can overturn a theory if it is robust enough. Such an event does not often happen these days, as most theories are flexible enough to incorporate new data that may seem on the surface to be a devastating blow, but when deeper insight is obtained from further study often a slight modification of an existing theory is all that is needed to explain an apparent inconsistency.
A theory also has a range of validity. When Einstein formulated his Theory of Relativity, that didn’t mean that physicists simply tossed out Newton’s Laws of Motion (they’re called laws for a reason!). Newtonian physics is useful for large objects moving at relatively slow speeds (i.e. not a significant fraction of light speed). As an object approaches light speed, Newton’s equations basically become too difficult to use, and Einstein’s theory kicks in. As objects become super small, both Einstein and Newton step aside and Quantum Theory comes into play.
Whew! Take a deep breath…the science is done. Should have given better warning. My bad.
We orbit this, not the other way around. Facts make learning fun! =D
Let me give a brief recap. Theory as it is conventionally used corresponds to the scientific usage of the word hypothesis. A hypothesis is, in a basic sense, an educated guess based upon observations. A theory, on the other hand, is a robust explanation of a natural phenomena, based on established facts. A theory explains these facts. In order to be a theory, an idea has to have certain characteristics. It must be supported by independent lines of evidence, that is to say, by the facts. A theory must be falsifiable – it must be able to be overturned or modified to explain new evidence. A theory has a range of validity – it only explains a certain set of facts, and outside of those facts it may have little explanatory power.
As you can see, the actual meaning of the word “theory” is much more complex than its conventional usage. Given that it was originally a science term, that shouldn’t surprise anyone. Now that you know the correct, science-y usage of the word, you t00 can feel that vein in your forehead throb in pure rage when someone dares abuse it!
Stay tuned. I’ll be rehabilitating more words in the coming weeks. I’m thinking I’ll tackle love and hate next week. Or maybe love next week and hate the following. I tend to blog by the seat of my pants, so we will see.
Until then, what are some instances of word abuse that you’ve encountered? If I like it your word just may appear later in the series =D