Your theory and mine….

One of the major problems for scientists, when they communicate–whether with the public or with their colleagues–is language. Even within disciplines, a word can mean different things to different scholars. We tend to label that whole set of issues somewhat trivially by telling our trainees to avoid using “jargon”. But the problem is larger than that.

An example: the word “theory”. For the general public (and many of the direct stakeholders for science), the word means “best guess”. In a TV detective drama, the hero has a theory for who committed the crime which may or may not be correct. For scientists however, theory has a different meaning altogether: it means something that has been settled over time by numerous experiments from independent scientists–the Earth orbits around the Sun, is “theory” in the language of scientists. It’s been tested experimentally and by observation many times; the answer has come back consistently; the world of science has arrived at consensus that this statement is fact.

So when scientists communicate with the public and use their version of “theory” for talking about something like “evolution” or “climate change”, the public doesn’t hear what the scientist thinks they are hearing. Instead, what is heard is that: this is my idea of what is true. It may be correct. It may not be. But it’s my best guess.

That’s a big problem.

So what language do scientists use for the public’s version of the word “theory”? I suppose “hypothesis” covers part of it, but that word, in science, also has the implicit requirement that the hypothesis be testable using experimentation. Lots of physicists are enamored with String Theory, but it’s not really a hypothesis because there is no current way to really test it.

And by the way, String Theory is a scientific misnomer because it is “theory” in the public sense of the word, not the scientific operational definition.

In any case, what passes for the scientific version of the public word “theory” usually goes into the Discussion section of a scientific paper. That’s the part of a publication where the scientific “detective” is telling what she thinks is happening–and it may or not be correct.

In general you can trust scientific data. But what goes into the Discussion section, that’s just “theory”. In the public sense.