Oh, That’s Just a Theory


For those of us in the Humanities, anything that smells like a belief in “truth” is suspicious. What is “truth?” Who decides that? Isn’t all “truth” just a construction? Well, let’s pause from these questions common in the Humanities and ask: what does “fact,” “law” and “theory” mean from a biological perspective? This little word “theory,” for instance can cause a lot of trouble. Its meaning in the sciences is very different from how it seems to be used otherwise. Poor “theory.”

The following are quotes from Dr. Fritz’s class lecture.

Fact: In science, a fact is an observation that has been repeatedly observed/confirmed. (Facts, however, don’t ultimately have to be true, but they could be.)
Example: structure of a cell membrane.

Law: A descriptive generalization about how some aspect of the natural world behaves under certain circumstances. ….But like all elements of science, they can be altered with new information and observations.
Example: First law of thermodynamics states that energy cannot be created or destroyed—just transformed from one state of being to another.

Theory: In science, theory is an explanation proposed for some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses.

Another way to look at theory is an explanation for how facts function. So, is evolution a fact or a theory? It’s both. The fact is that organisms change. The theory addresses HOW the organisms change.

What are the applications of all this for those of us not in the sciences? When someone says casually, “Oh, that’s just a theory,” as a way to diminish what is being said, it’s a misunderstanding of what theory in science actually means. Would you brush aside the idea that the sun is the center of our universe? Well, that is the theory of heliocentricity. What about the idea that germs make us sick? That’s the theory of germs. What about that all matter is divisible by atoms? That’s atomic theory.

A theory in science is not simply an idea, a hunch, or a hypothesis. Theories in science are explanations for how things work that have been tested and re-tested.