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.


chloe4178 · November 4, 2017 at 12:44 pm

Professor Freberg,

The beginning of this post caught my eye and related to the question my sister often gets as she is pursuing a major in psychology, “so, what are you going to do with that?”. Compared to my brother, who is heading to medical school, she often gets overlooked as her major not being as prominent or significant in the scientific field. I believe this definitely correlates to how people generally understand what a “theory” is and how they justify it. As you mentioned, many times it is held to be true until proven otherwise. I can see how under many situations, in psychology people take theories to be less based on data compared to maybe a “theory” proposed by a different field. It is interesting however, despite the content of the theory, how it seems to spike the interest and challenge peoples views on whatever it may be.

emilyknighton · November 5, 2017 at 6:45 pm

I think you make an excellent point about the word “theory.” It does seem that elementary, middle, and high schools do not do enough to help students understand the differences between facts, theories, laws, hypotheses, and predictions. I think Cal Poly’s biology department has done a good job of is dispelling the myths behind the word “theory” in my experience. I took an evolution course last quarter and, since it is a subject with a lot of widespread controversy to begin with, it was definitely important to discuss the meaning of the word “theory” as a precursor to the class. My professor had us come up with common arguments that people seem to have either for and against believing the theory of evolution. It seemed that, alongside conflicting religious perspectives, one of the most common arguments people had heard was that a theory cannot be trusted because there isn’t enough “proof” backing up something that is simply a “guess.” As you said, this is a very unfortunate misconception. The inability to prove something in science should not be seen as a weakness, but rather as an opportunity for continuous investigation. I think we would be better off if there wasn’t such a misunderstanding about the definition of a conversational theory versus a scientific theory. As science students, we know that theories are about as close to “proof” as science can get you. Maybe if more of the general public was aware of the distinction, it wouldn’t be so difficult to make progressive change in protecting the environment, for example.

egonz124 · November 18, 2017 at 11:51 pm

Interestingly enough, the introduction of this entry appealed to me as I was considering biology or psychology when I chose majors. Like many other people, I wasn’t educated enough to deduce that both incorporate theories into their respective fields and both are constantly evolving as a result of research, thus one shouldn’t be placed above another. Theories are called theories and not facts for a reason, the beauty of both subjects is that it’s not definitive and there’s always more to contribute to the conversation.

Laura Freberg · November 26, 2017 at 10:17 am

One of the things we rarely see about psychology is that it is an official STEM discipline:

vmakovey14 · December 2, 2017 at 1:36 am

Dr. Freberg,
I really enjoyed reading this especially because I, too have seen this mistake within colleagues. A theory is not a fact, it does have many proven facts behind it and much research backing it up. But again, a theory is still not a fact so things such as the world being flat was once a theory and was then proven wrong. I think the part in which you said that theories become stronger when people questions and try to prove them wrong was very right. They are either strengthened when people cannot prove it wrong or the theory changes if they are proven wrong.
Valentina Makovey

Kendallhawkes · February 7, 2018 at 11:13 pm

This is something we have discussed in more than one of my classes here at Cal Poly as biology major, and I wish it were discussed more in public K-12. I think that in our increasingly polarized political and social discussions, the misuse and misunderstanding of the word is particularly detrimental. Some people believe that they can dismiss something that opposes their belief because it is “just a theory,” in the same way they would dismiss something that is “just your opinion.” They do not understand that the word “theory” is rooted in science. I think this points to a flaw in our education system. If we are not giving our students a sound basis of science, then we are inhibiting our society’s ability to have conversations that are rooted in science, and not opinion.

monjazeb · February 13, 2018 at 10:26 am

Being a biology major, this is something that I can understand and relate to personally. I have often overheard students misinterpret a theory to be something that is solid and cannot be proven wrong, which is not the case. A theory is an assumption that is supported by factual evidence and data. Any new evidence at any point in time could likely prove a theory wrong, which is why the misunderstanding that a theory is “bulletproof” is concerning.

madisonklein118 · February 23, 2018 at 9:02 am

One of the very first things you learn here at Cal Poly as a Biology major is the theory of evolution in bio 160 and what that actually means. It really continues to blow my mind that college educated people will continue to misuse the terms theory and fact. This post made me cringe a little bit as it is hard to think that if the American Association for the Advancement of Science cant get it right, how are students expected to? No matter how strong and seemingly invincible a theory is, it is always wrong to claim it is 100% factual! Thanks for sharing.

TakaShimokobe · March 14, 2018 at 10:44 am

As someone who speaks both Japanese and English, I can confirm that I think English is definitely the more complicated of the two in terms of sounds. I think the Japanese language only has 5 or 6 sounds….while I have no idea how many English does.

I was someone who didn’t really understand the nuances between fact, theory, hypothesis, etc. before pursuing my Psych minor here at Cal Poly. I can understand how someone who really isn’t exposed to collegiate science can misinterpret these terms. However the fact that an establishment at prestigious as the American Association for the Advance of Science published an article like that is unacceptable (hopefully someone got in trouble). Theories cannot be proven, they can only be strengthened. It was a little shocking to hear that.

Leave a Reply