Thursday, May 30, 2013

Theory vs. Scientific theory

Throughout my many debates with theists both online and in person I have come upon a common stumbling block for theists due to a misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the word theory. Many theists that I have encountered have mistakenly taken the word theory as defined by the common layman to mean the same thing as the word is used in scientific circles.

  1. speculation: abstract thought or contemplation
  2. idea formed by speculation: an idea of or belief about something arrived at through speculation or conjecture

The definition above is the definition of theory that is in common use among most of us in the English speaking world. The key word in that definition is "speculation," so let's take a moment to define that word as well so that by the time I am done we will be perfectly clear as to what that word means and how it ties into the definition of the word theory.

  1. opinion based on incomplete information: a conclusion, theory, or opinion based on incomplete facts or information
  2. reasoning based on incomplete information: reasoning based on incomplete facts or information
The key word in the definition of speculation is opinion and we all know what those are; so I wont waste your time trying to define it. An opinion is a subjective idea based not on known facts, but on ones personal views about a subject or situation. For example, it is my personal opinion that gods or the biblical God does not exist. It is not a definite fact because there is no way to prove or disprove that he or they do. Any assertions made by faith as used in religious circles is not based on facts but on speculation and are therefore opinions. This is why the burden of proof for the existence of gods is entirely on the one making the positive assertion that they do.

The next word we want to design is theory or "scientific theory" as it is used in science. For this next definition I have chosen to utilize a definition from a science education website called 'Live Science' I will be using the entire definition because at the same time it explains the scientific theory and differentiates the word theory as it is understood in common usage.

scientific theory:

When used in non-scientific context, the word “theory” implies that something is unproven or speculative. As used in science, however, a theory is an explanation or model based on observation, experimentation, and reasoning, especially one that has been tested and confirmed as a general principle helping to explain and predict natural phenomena.

As you can see in the diagram above and in the definition of scientific theory there is a huge difference on how scientists come up with theories and how they are interpreted. A scientific theory is an explanation of something based on observation, experimentation, and has been tested and confirmed as a general principle.

Note: Word definition were taken from Bing online and


  1. I agree Evolution is a fact and not a how do we convince those pesky creationists.

    Same thing can be said about the word marriage and the opposition to gay marriage. Its only a word I just wish Theists would realize that.

    1. Cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias make it impossible for theists to see the obvious. Theists love circular reasoning.

    2. Evolution is both a Fact AND a Theory. Just because something in Science is proven it does not graduate from Theory to Fact. It still is a Theory. Evolution is *both* a Theory and a Fact. Did you see the flowchart above regarding Theories? Notice that nothing comes after Theory? That's because Theory is the pinnacle of Scientific Terms. There is no "Fact" After Theory because a Theory contains Facts.

      Look at Websters Dictionary's definition of the word Theory; THEORY: the analysis of a set of facts in their relation to one another

      When an observation is first proposed in Science it is called a Hypothesis. When enough information is gathered (Facts) and the Hypothesis is proven it then becomes a Theory. Thats it. Thats as far as it goes. A Theory never graduates to a Fact, A Theory contains Facts, Laws, Observations and makes Predictions. If there were a ranking of terms in Science Theory would be at the top. Even if additional information, (Facts) are gathered, a Theory still remains a Theory. Einsteins Theory of Relativity is over 100 years old and it still is and always will be a Theory. And it has been proven to be a Fact numerous times, yet it still remains a Theory. Ever heard of the Heliocentric Theory? It is still a Theory yet it has been proven that the Earth revolves around the Sun.

    3. You've misinterpreted the purpose of this post which is to differentiate between the definition of theory in common usage and its definition as utilized in science. You've correctly stated that in science a theory contains facts. This is not the case in the way the average person uses and defines the word theory. From the same link you provided I will give you the common definition of theory: abstract thought : speculation and an unproved assumption : conjecture.

      The definition you've chosen among the list provided on Webster is more suitable and compatible with the scientific definition of theory. What you describe regarding the chart is what is known as the scientific method which is not the topic nor aim of this post. Thanks for your comments and insight.

  2. That's actually one of my pet peeves - people saying "it's just a theory" because they don't know that in Science that word means pretty much the opposite of what the general public means when they use it.

    1. It's one of my pet peeves as well. Sometimes I feel like I am talking to a first grader. If you are going to attack a position at least take the time to research the opposing view before making a fool of yourself.