There is no question that English can be a complicated, confusing language. I have a great deal of respect for those who master English as a second language. Not only do we have different ways to pronounce things like “ough” (through, slough, tough, and on and on), but many of our words have multiple meanings as well. On occasion, as in the case of “theory,” this gets us into trouble.
One of the challenges instructors of psychology face is convincing students that we are in fact a science. In introductory psychology, we generally spend a fair amount of time explaining the process of science. I would love to assume that students at the college level would already know this backwards and forwards, but misunderstandings are common. Students often believe that science can “prove” that facts are correct–it can’t. All we can do is show that something is wrong. The reason we can’t prove something is right is that somewhere down the road, somebody might invent a new technology that would show us we’re wrong. In my own college days, we dutifully related “Dale’s Law,” which is actually unfair to Dale who really didn’t state his namesake law the way it became used. The law maintained that a neuron released a single neurotransmitter. We know today, of course, that neurons can release multiple chemicals, although there is usually a “main” one. So our improved technology required us to rethink the previous “law.”
Another common misunderstanding is due to the multiple meanings of a theory. Theories can be guesses or hunches, as in “I have a theory that the USC football team will have a good year,” but this is not a scientific theory. A scientific theory is a massively supported set of facts and relationships between facts that explains and predicts phenomena. Theories stand until somebody shows they are incorrect, at which time they must be revised or discarded.
So I saw with dismay a Facebook message from none other than the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) that stated “Climate change isn’t a theory. It’s a fact that belongs in our children’s science curriculum.” Oh dear. This would be bad coming from a middle schooler, but coming from AAAS itself, this is highly discouraging. Shall we no longer teach the Theory of Evolution because it is “only” a theory? I’m hopeful that somebody who is scientifically literate at AAAS has had a conversation with their social media team, but the same message has appeared on my feed on more than one occasion. Several commenters made the same point as I’m making here, but apparently, they’re not getting through.
While we’re on the topic of climate change, please don’t get me started on the oft-repeated “97% of climate change scientists believe in global warming.” This is a topic for another blog, but as a preview, the study that serves as a source for this statistic is humorous. The researchers asked if the scientists thought the planet was warmer now than before 1850. I’m no climate scientist, but I am aware that there was a mini Ice Age in the early 1800s–think the snowy London of Dickens’ books. So one needs to worry about the 3% who somehow missed the fact that the mini Ice Age ended.
The greater point, though, is that science is not a democracy. At different times in our history, the majority of learned people have been just flat out wrong. I’m reminded of the difficulty John Garcia had in publishing his first paper on taste aversion. Science is about data, not how people think about data. When people replicated Garcia and could see the data for themselves, they all changed their minds. This is science at its finest.
We also need to resist the idea that any scientific hypotheses and theories are somehow beyond reproach. Good science is never defensive. Theories only get better when people question them and try to prove them wrong.
I’m not optimistic that AAAS will change its message, but at least it does provide us with a very good starting point for class discussion about what a scientific theory really means.