What is a Scientific Theory?

29 07 2013

A scientific theory summarises a hypothesis or group of hypotheses that have been supported after repeated testing.  If sufficient evidence amasses to support a hypothesis, it shifts to the next step – known as a theory – in the scientific method and becomes accepted as a valid explanation of a phenomenon.

scientific theory

Used in non-scientific context, the word “theory” to most people 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/or confirmed as a “general principle” helping to explain and predict natural phenomena.

Any scientific theory must be based on a careful and rational examination of the facts….. In “the scientific method”, there is an unambiguous distinction between facts, which can be observed and/or measured, and theories, which are scientists’ explanations and interpretations of the facts.  NOTE: interpretations are NOT beliefs…..  Scientists can have various interpretations of the outcomes of experiments and observations, but the facts, which are the cornerstone of the scientific method, do not change.

A theory must include statements that have observational consequences.  A good theory, like Newton’s theory of gravity, has unity, which means it consists of a limited number of problem-solving strategies that can be applied to a wide range of scientific circumstances.  Another feature of a good theory is that it is formed from a number of hypotheses that can be tested independently.

A scientific theory is not the end result of the scientific method; theories can be proven or rejected, just like hypotheses.  Theories can be improved or modified, constantly, as and when more information or data is gathered so that the accuracy of the prediction becomes greater over time……  theories are rarely if ever “settled”.

Theories are foundations for furthering scientific knowledge and for putting the information gathered to practical use.  Scientists use theories to develop inventions or find a cure for a disease, even though they may not be ‘proven’…..

Some theories do become laws, but theories and laws have separate and distinct roles in the scientific method. A theory is an explanation of an observed phenomenon, while a law is a description of an observed phenomenon.

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One response

30 07 2013
Graham Palmer

G’Day Mike, Did you see this on Lateline last night? http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2013/s3813760.htm It actually only refers to the melting of the arctic ice and release of methane so who knows what the all up cost would be Graham

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