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I Have a Theory

There’s the problem, right there! You have a notion about what I meant from the headline. You might believe I’m thinking about something that’s not been tried or tested in the real world. “Theoretically” is often taken to mean a guess. Blame pop culture and bad sci-fi for that. Some politicians create confusion by saying “theory” when “idea” is more accurate. The words don't mean the same thing.

Paper airplanes are all about precision, and so is science. In science, a theory sits at the top of a mountain of research, testing, publishing, and peer review. To get the high status of a theory, an idea must best describe all the known evidence and best predict how new evidence will fit into its framework. A theory is the end product of a mountain of scientific work.

What most people mean, when the say they have a theory, is that they have a hypothesis—a guess based on what they know. A hypothesis is at the beginning of an idea’s scientific journey. A theory has an honored position at the end.

The next time you hear someone say, “It’s just a theory”, you can be sure they’re not familiar with how science works. There is a theory of gravity. There is an electro-magnetic theory. There is a theory of evolution. All these theories carry the same scientific weight. To throw one out is to throw them all out.

Science is simply a structure for finding out things. No single person speaks for science. It's a product of serious testing and review. It is what we can know at any given moment. While you may hold a particular belief for life, science demands we accept a fact when new, compelling evidence comes to light. A lot of people are uncomfortable with this aspect of science-- that what we believe to be true might change. Over the ages, scientists have been thrown in prison for disproving common beliefs.

But remember, science demands a theory fit all the evidence past, and predict evidence yet to come. Science is hardly ever throwing out the baby with bath water. It's mostly finding a better soap. When you see a headline that screams “… this discovery changes everything…” it rarely does that. Einstein’s theory didn’t mean Newton’s work was bad. It added a new layer of understanding. Newtonian physics works very well to describe events we can see and interact with. Einstein goes further to describe things not easily visible; things we can barely interact with.

Science doesn’t allow for picking and choosing. It just is. If you disagree with science, that’s your opinion. And you’re wrong—theoretically speaking.


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