In Science, It’s Never ‘Just a Theory’

Apr 10, 2016

Photo credit: Zohar Lazar

By Carl Zimmer

We asked readers to share the misconception that frustrates them the most on The New York Times — Science Facebook page. People had an array of answers, a number of which we addressed earlier this week. Judging from all the likes it quickly accumulated — far more than any other submission — this was the standout in terms of mass frustration.

Misconception: It’s just a theory.

Actually: Theories are neither hunches nor guesses. They are the crown jewels of science.

One day, it’s Megyn Kelly who has a theory about why Donald J. Trump hates her.

Another day, the newly released trailer for the next Star Wars movie inspires a million theories from fans about who Rey’s parents are.

And on Twitter, someone going by the name of Mothra P.I. has a theory about how cats can assume a new state of matter:

I have a theory, that cats are actually in a liquid state some of the time, as demonstrated here… pic.twitter.com/qz8x2laXWc

In everyday conversation, we tend to use the word “theory” to mean a hunch, an idle speculation, or a crackpot notion.

That’s not what “theory” means to scientists.

“In science, the word theory isn’t applied lightly,” Kenneth R. Miller, a cell biologist at Brown University, said. “It doesn’t mean a hunch or a guess. A theory is a system of explanations that ties together a whole bunch of facts. It not only explains those facts, but predicts what you ought to find from other observations and experiments.”

Dr. Miller is one of the few scientists to have explained the nature of theories on a witness stand under oath.

He is a co-author of a high school biology textbook that puts a strong emphasis on the theory of evolution. In 2002, the board of education in Cobb County, Ga., adopted the textbook but also required science teachers to put a warning sticker inside the cover of every copy.

“Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things,” the sticker read, in part.

In 2004, several Cobb County parents filed a lawsuit against the county board of education to have the stickers removed. They called Dr. Miller, who testified for about two hours, explaining, among other things, the strength of evidence for the theory of evolution.

Once the lawyers had finished questioning Dr. Miller, he stepped down from the stand and made his way out of the courtroom. On the way, he noticed a woman looking him straight in the eye.

“She said, ‘It’s only a theory, and we’re going to win this one,’  ” Dr. Miller recalled.

They didn’t. In 2005 the judge ruled against the board of education. The board appealed the decision but later agreed to remove the stickers.


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15 comments on “In Science, It’s Never ‘Just a Theory’

  • “She said, ‘It’s only a theory, and we’re going to win this one,’  ” Dr. Miller recalled.

    After hearing the opposite and correct explanation from Miller for two hours she said this. You can not win against such obdurate ideological nonsense, you can just wait for the next generation to be properly educated.



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  • In 2002, the board of education in Cobb County, Ga., adopted the textbook but also required science teachers to put a warning sticker inside the cover of every copy.

    “Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things,” the sticker read, in part.

    Did no science teachers think of putting a second set of stickers next to the first ones, which read:

    “That evolution has been happening since life began, is a fact, but we are obliged by the political rulings of scientific illiterates, to put on these other stickers proclaiming their ignorance, on these science books!”

    “That evolution is happening is a fact.
    How it is happening is a scientific theory as explained in this text book!”

    (Perhaps an endorsement from some scientific body(ies) would add weight!)



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  • It’s about time this was nailed.

    Miller came up with a more succinct definition of a theory than the one cited: “In science, theories unite and explain facts about matter.”.

    Another helpful explanation came from one Richard Dawkins: “The non randon survival of randomly occurring self-replicating information.”.



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  • We are at least partly to blame. Look to the physicists and their “String Theory” which has not been demonstrated to even be ABLE to be tested. I, myself, have made a concerted effort to say “hypothesis” when I mean “hypothesis”. But, this is a very large pet peeve.

    A second one could be the constant conflation of evolution and origin of life.



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  • @OP – “She said, ‘It’s only a theory, and we’re going to win this one,’  ” Dr. Miller recalled.

    They didn’t. In 2005 the judge ruled against the board of education. The board appealed the decision but later agreed to remove the stickers.

    Ah the Dunning-Kruger confidence of delusional profound ignorance!

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/2015/02/the-dunning-kruger-effect-are-the-stupid-too-stupid-to-realize-theyre-stupid/



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  • Yes several years since Michael Behe, whose university disowns his creationist ideas, had to admit in court [Kitzmiller v Dover,] that creationism was in the same league as astrology ! If I am allowed the odd gloat, although I’m not that type of person, this particular gloat, I will enjoy for the rest of my life !



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  • PeterS #11
    Apr 12, 2016 at 9:43 am

    “Gravity is just a theory too, – anyone who doubts it is welcomed to jump out of a ten story window.”

    . . .and wait expectantly for some “new physics” to turn up during the following seconds!



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  • As I said a couple of months ago in another thread, the word “theory” doesn’t appear in the title of Darwin’s book and I see little need to even use the word in regard to evolution let alone have to defend it or explain it. It’s a purely circular argument from religious types to pin the word “theory” on evolution and then rail against the word rather than the substance of the work.



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  • Arkrid Sandwich #13
    Apr 12, 2016 at 10:46 am

    It’s a purely circular argument from religious types to pin the word “theory” on evolution and then rail against the word rather than the substance of the work.

    For the most part fundamentalist creationists, don’t read science books!
    They read creationist books ABOUT science books! – books full of fallacious thinking and pseudo-science science-denial nonsense!

    (Such as “Hamster arky-ology -science” and “Hovidian fizzicks”)



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  • One of the teachable moments contained in the “it’s just a theory trope” revolves around me (the teacher) alluding to the following:

    Only in hindsight do we see Darwin’s idea as a theory. He proposed it as an hypothesis and it competed with many other hypotheses (including Lamarck’s hypothesis). Darwin did not declare his idea a “theory”; history did. AT no point in his life time was his idea heralded as theory. Quite to the contrary, even though the general concept was quickly adopted as true, the mechanism of natural selection was not widely accepted until the 1940’s.

    I have zero allegiance to Darwin. As a matter of fact, I’d prove him wrong tomorrow if I could. Then, MY picture would be in the text… I’d be a rock star. But the reason Darwin is mentioned is that his hypothesis bears true and as it has been tried and tested, it has always been demonstrably correct.



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