Saturday, January 3, 2009

I have a theory...

Most people in the US know about of the "Theory of Evolution," the "Theory of Relativity," experienced the "Theory of Gravity" and heard of the "Theory of Intelligent Design." Noticing a theme here? The word theory, however correct its usage might be, has been misinterpreted by a lot of folk and I want to set them straight.

What theory is.

When viewing phenomena or the results of the phenomena a person might see some relation between the different events. The relationship observed might have some reason for the correlation between the events. A person can then come up with their own explanation for why the events work together. This explanation is a theory. At this point the theory is not usually well known because there is no specific proof to establish the theory and because they just came up with it.

Theories can take three courses at this point:

  1. The idea is declared self evident by the creator of the theory and spread around like truth. This is quite often followed up with certain logical proofs that might or might not stand up to scrutiny. If someone does take the time to scrutinize the theory supporters of it will either attack the scrutinizer or dismiss the criticisms given by the same or both.
  2. The originator or their colleagues find ways to test the theory by forming hypothesis and testing them. If enough evidence is given that the theory is correct then the theory is published with its supporting tested hypothesis. This publication is then distributed to people who would care about such things and they test the theory with the same or new hypothesis. If all this testing supports the theory then a new discovery is presented to the world with “Theory” in its name.
  3. The idea is marked “interesting” by the originator and forgotten. It might be discovered later by someone else.

The major drawback to the idea of a theory is that it is inherently not certain. The best way to explain this is that a theory has a probability of being right. As we test the hypothesis related to the theory the probability of it being correct either moves toward or away from 100%. Theories, by their nature can never be 100%. They can be 99.9999% correct, but never 100%.

Oh yeah, but what about…

Two plus two is four, right? Well if I have a cup and I add water to it I have two items. Is it a cup of water? The water and cup are made up of billions of atoms. Are they more than one cup of water? Nothing is certain and that is why people have a problem with theories.

People like certainties. They know grass is green, like macaroni and cheese, CSI is their favorite show, 1+1=2, the sky is blue and Elizabeth Hurley is hot. They don’t want to forget to water their lawn, buy Mac & Cheese at KFC, see Big Bang Theory, pour water in a cup, or see Elizabeth get old. So when the scientific community says “we saw a correlation between these things, came up with a few theories, tested them and found this one to be the most likely with a 97% certainty” people tend to be a bit put out:

“What do you mean 97% certainty?”
“Well, a better revision of our explanation might come along.”
“So why did you tell us?”
“Well we thought it was important. It allows us to predict these other things that might lead to better technology.”
“Develop technology from an uncertainty. How can you build on a shaky foundation?”
“Can you come up with a better explanation?”
“Then this is the best one you have.”
“Yes, but it’s not certain.”
“Augh!” Scientist goes to bang his head against the wall.

Of course!

So far I’ve been talking about theories that take course #2 (above). These would include things like the Theory of Relativity, the Theory of Evolution and the Theory of Gravity. Course three would include the Theory of Evolution at least till Darwin got a hold of it. Gregor Mendel saw that his plants could evolve based on natural selection and marked it as interesting. Darwin picked it up later and said this was something more than just interesting.

Course #1 is where we find Intelligent Design. Someone came up with that, supported it with some circular logic and announced it to the world. Then the hypothesis testers got a hold of it and, well, tested it. It didn’t fly. The supporters of the Intelligent Design (who avoid calling it a theory) then dismissed the scientists as bias against their cause and promptly ignored the scientist’s findings. Sad. The Theory of Intelligent Design has a lower chance of being correct than the Theory of Evolution and so therefore we follow the Theory of Evolution. If something else with a higher probability of being correct we’ll follow that. I find this to be unlikely.

Gimmie the odds

Science is all about probabilities. It’s not easy to accept, but think of the things you accept every day that are not certain. Dinner. What if it gets burned? Job. You might get a better offer somewhere else. Girlfriend. Well, you’re not married. Jell-O? Wait, no. You can always be sure about Jell-O.

Be theoretical.