In many debates on various topics I read or hear someone make this misconception. Instead of getting all bent out of shape like many do. I figured I'd just explain where the misconception is.
It's not always a matter of ignorance. It's often just a matter of someone just happened to not have learned this common misconception.
I just want to clear this up because its obvious many people think the word means the same thing in science as it does outside science. Which causes confusion.
For that reason I'm going to steer clear of using to many technical terms which will likely just cause more confusion. Instead I'm just going explain as if I where talking to a friend about this topic
If you hear the word theory in everyday conversation. A theory basically means a guess. For example, "Do you have any theories on who's going to win the football game tonight"?
These kinds of theories cannot be known for sure until the outcome is reached. They can theorize all they want to based on statistics. But they won't know for sure until the game is over.
Anything can happen in that football game. Their theory can be right or wrong but there's no way to know for sure before hand. This is what I call the common english definition of theory.
A scientific theory on the other hand has a different meaning. In a nutshell a scientific theory means someone made an assumption (hypothesis) and every test thrown at it confirms that assumption.
A scientific theory summarizes a hypothesis or group of hypotheses that have been supported with repeated testing. A theory is valid as long as there is no evidence to dispute it.
One definition of a scientific theory is to say it's an accepted hypothesis. All scientific theories can be disputed. But until they are they remain a scientific theory.
If you ever hear someone talk about a scientific topic and they say, "________ is just a theory". What that actually means is "_______ has passed every test thrown at it so far."
One of the most common topics the word "theory" is misunderstood these days is the "theory of evolution". In debates you'll often hear someone say, "evolution is only a theory".
Anyone who uses this argument obviously never learned that a scientific theory has a different definition than the word has in common English outside of science.
So when someone says, "It's just a theory". They're actually saying, "It was believed to be a possible explication. So it was tested to confirm the hypothesis and has passed every test so far."
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