It’s a worn out discussion. It’s been explained time and again. The words theory and hypothesis are like open wounds and every time they get blatantly misused popularly, it’s as if a healthy coat of salt is copiously sprinkled atop them.
It’s a worn out discussion, but until we, collectively, decide that these words should be abandoned by scientists or that their proper definitions be taught from a young age, it’s got to be made again and again.
I was baited into rehashing this because I came across a Scientific American article about seven words that are repeatedly misused. Take a guess what number 1 and 2 were.
Exactly. I didn’t read far, but I did come to the part when the article asked, “What is the definition of ‘Hypothesis’?” Take a stab.
There’s a good chance that you will answer, “An educated guess.” If you didn’t answer that way, you may immediately think, “Oh yeah. That’s what I learned in Mr. So-and-So’s class.” I can very specifically remember the class in which I learned this definition. -although I can’t think of the teacher’s name presently. It was sixth grade (kind of old to be learning this, come to think of it) and I was in my Science classroom at Warner Elementary School in Wilmington, Delaware.
Hypothesis – An Educated Guess
OK. I can understand why someone might have thought this was a reasonable definition. Oxford Dictionaries uses the following: “A supposition or proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation.” They explain the etymology as coming originally from the Greek hupothesis meaning ‘foundation.’
Immediately, the distinction is obvious.An educated guess might be anything. But it very certainly does not have a necessary connection with using it as a foundation for further investigation. Instead, it probably boils down in most people’s minds to: ‘Guess.’Or even, BS.
in boiling down hypothesis to some BS guesswork, there’s plenty of room left for ‘Theory’ to slide down to the position hypothesis is supposed to fill. Such as, “Well, I have a theory about that…” (actually, I think we just slid down to BS again.)
The University of California, Berkley definition of ‘Theory’ is “a broad, natural explanation for a wide range of phenomena. Theories are concise, coherent, systematic, predictive, and broadly applicable, often integrating and generalizing many hypotheses.” (I had to go to Berkley because my friends at Oxford were letting me down on this one.)
I thought I’d leave with a few examples of theories that form our understanding of the world today…
- The theory of gravity – basically, masses are attracted to one another
- The ever maligned theory of evolution – that we are here because our ancestors survived to have children
- The oxygen theory of combustion – that oxygen is what combines with materials during combustion
- The theory of plate tectonics – that the Earth’s surface is covered with plates that move relative to one another due to the planet’s internal furnace
- Heliocentricm – that the planets orbit the sun (basically a restatement of the theory of gravity under the specific conditions of our solar system.
- Atomic theory – that matter is made up of atoms.