Monthly Archives: June 2009
A scientific theory, as opposed to the colloquial use of the word, is more than just a guess, nor is it, as Isaac Asimov once quipped, something you came up with while drunk.
It is a constellation of ideas that weaves facts together into a single overarching description and detailed explanation for a given set of phenomena.
Any scientific theory is provisional, never proven with complete certitude, but it is important to distinguish a theory from the facts it describes.
The scientific use of a theory gives no indication of its actual degree of certainty, though a given set of such ideas may be so well established by repeated testing as to be demonstrated as confirmed beyond all rational doubt, such as the theories of genetic inheritance, general and special relativity, quantum mechanics, number theory in mathematics, music theory in music, and stress theory in engineering, the germ theory of disease, atomic theory, heliocentric theory, round Earth theory, plate tectonics theory, and of course, evolution.
Unfortunately not everyone’s doubt is rational, and various sorts of science deniers are given to labeling any set of scientific ideas they have a bug up their proverbial butts about as ‘just a theory, not a fact,’ playing on the general misunderstanding of both the words ‘theory,’ and ‘fact.’
A theory is not a hypothesis, as the latter is merely a component of a theory, a specific set of predictions within its overall framework, what one should expect to see, and not see, if that part of the theory is to be confirmed or falsified.
A fact in science is never absolute, due to the provisional nature of the scientific enterprise, for it can never be known with complete surety that some data which may disconfirm that fact will never appear at any given point in the future.
Theories are never ‘promoted’ to laws, as they are two different sorts of beasts — A law merely defines things, while a theory describes and explains how they work.
Theories usually start as models, which propose hypotheses for testing by experiment or other observation, such as the comparative method in the mostly historical sciences, such as geology, cliodynamics, cosmology, astronomy, paleontology, and archaeology to name a few.
No, you do not have to do experiments in a lab to do science. Otherwise, no crime that has ever been committed could be solved using evidence left at the scene it occurred at, and detectives would be permanently out of work as a profession. Science is not just for the nerdy guys (and gals…) in labcoats and pocket-protectors.
Most science today is done as a community effort, evolving over time, and all involved in a study contribute something to the overall theory being investigated; the idea of the lone gentleman researcher working in his basement lab, the sole progenitor of his ideas, is a quaint notion, however popular it may be in fiction.
Even broader than a theory is an overarching concept called a paradigm, often composed of many theories. M-theory in cosmology would be a good example of a paradigm, as a candidate for a ‘theory of everything’ composed of many subsets that individually describe and explain some aspect of reality.
The term was coined by philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn and he used it in an early attempt to describe the internal process by which science changes, though it is now more often used in the sciences to refer to a conceptual tool, as a mode of thinking or general working approach to theories and frameworks of theories.
Further, a theory is never supported by only one piece of evidence, but through multiple, often thousands, even millions, or more independent lines of data spread throughout multiple research disciplines, which is why the demand science deniers make of, “show me just one piece of evidence that proves the theory true,” is nothing more than an empty rhetorical stunt, and an unfair shifting of the burden of proof.
Ultimately, any theory can never be proven to be timelessly, absolutely true by a finite data set, though depending on the nature of the theory, it sometimes only takes one reliable observation to falsify one or more attendant hypotheses.
My troythuluness just loves folklore, especially the traditional kind involving various sorts of supernatural beings, as well as modern tales of the paranormal. I’ve noticed some interesting parallels between the lore of the Wee Folk and those of modern science-fiction and popular UFO mythology.
No, don’t worry, I’m not gonna go all Sir A.C. Doyle on you and profess to a belief in the literal existence of faeries, as I have certain standards to maintain. Despite the content and tone of my last April Fool’s post, this is still a skeptical blog, so chill.
I’ve noticed a lot of similarity between the various tales told concerning the Fair Folk, and those accounts people have given of UFO abductions and sightings, these things the same in structure and generalities, and differing only in the cultural context, the trappings that they use.
It appears that only the window-dressing differs. Yes, those ‘classic’ and ever-popular Failures of the Human Imagination™, the alien Greys that all too commonly and banally populate the UFO literature are simply the Good Neighbors repackaged and given a new lease on life in today’s world, as are many of the earlier aliens of science-fiction.
What is the essential distinction, for example, between people being taken to the Land of Faerie while alone, and the typical Barney-and-Betty-Hill style abduction scenario, also of physically isolated people, other than the cosmetic details? I would hasten to say none at all. Both, for example, involve the subjects being somehow incapacitated (by faerie magic or alien technology…), taken away to a strange place while in this state, often interacting in some fashion with their captors (whether as interviewees, guests, or test subjects…)and both involve the story element of “missing time.”
There’s also a lot of similarity between the relatively diminutive size of (not always, but over the last couple of decades, most commonly in the popular consciousness…)the aliens and that of some of the more ‘elfin’ Fay, such as the Bogans and the ever popular (and not evil, but dangerously indifferent to the human condition…)Dark Grey Man, the Bodach Glas of the British Isles, or the more malignant Duergar, or Grey Dwarves.
Many of these beings are depicted in both tradition and modern fantasy fiction as being psychologically alien to humans, displaying at times behavior that seems bizarre by most mundane standards, as do the seemingly dispassionate Greys when they are claimed to eviscerate random livestock, press intricate designs in grain fields in oddly futile attempts to ‘communicate’ with us, or subject humans to embarrasing medical experiments, none of these for any apparent logical reason.
I could go on with further points of similarity, but I think you get the idea. It seems apparent to me that this is just one piece in a larger picture showing that the UFO phenomenon is much more likely to be a psycho-cultural one than it would be truly extraterrestrial in nature. It seems to be a phenomenon that has been with us for a very long time in one form or another, and the devil is in the details. Very cool, and very interesting indeed.