Science What does 'theory' mean? 


Written for Canadian Community News by Mike Sterling

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Often I hear people comment on complicated issues and say ... "It's only a theory.  It's your experts vs. ours". This happens all the time in the DGR process.

I reject that.  Think about it.  It's not so much the experts as it is the process that authenticates their views.  If it were a shouting match, we would be stalemated in a fog of strange ideas.  The flat earth, earth centric universe, ... are ancient examples .  Should we take a popular vote on whether or not a medical opinion is correct?

No, we might get other opinions, but finally we accept the expert opinion of the medical community that has 'vetted' the therapy or procedure.  Oh,  my doctor is a sweetheart.  I trust him/her.  No, we have to trust the process first and then the therapy, operation or drug.

Attaching the word theory has various 'strengths'.  Humans like absolutes.  They  like laws of nature.  They like 100%  What's the difference?

The word theory confuses who's on what side of an issue.  Let's look at some theories that developed in the 20th Century:

1.  Einstein's Theory of Relativity.  This explanation of how the universe works in the large was created by the theoretician Einstein as a mind experiment and it has withstood the test of time and experimentation. Notice that the general public has grown to accept it.  The first testing of it came in 1919 with a solar eclipse expedition by Eddington.  The general public did not accept it for years and some not even now.  The science community was very slow in accepting it.

We use some aspects of Einstein's 'theory' every day in order to move around (e,g, GPS).  This 'theory' deals with the cosmological universe (Big Scale, Big Mass, Big Forces, High Speeds approaching the speed of light)  Scale is important.  We live in a three scale universe.

Relativity no longer needs the word theory attached to it, but there you have it.  It's just fine that it does.  It's not an issue.  Once in a while sombody comes along and says:  "Oh, I've found something that exceeds the speed of light!"  This happened recently and was proven wrong.

Relativity helps to explain how the universe works written in a large 'font'.  It has room to join cosmology, Newton and quantum physics.  A single theory is still looked for, however. Will it be found by new language and new theories in the future?  Yes of course.

2.  Newton's Theory.  This time tested theory works and is experimentally verified under certain circumstances and is used every minute of every day by engineers, scientists and you and I.  It's kind of the middle ground right between relativity and quantum mechanics.  It is used to compliment both.

Newton's theory works and is tested in human scale.  Toss a ball up and it falls to the ground.  The apple drops from the tree.  Moons move around their planets using Newton's Theory.  These uses of theories  weave their way up to cosmology and down to the quantum world too.

3. Quantum Theory and Particle Physics.  This theory has been tested over and over and over again and stands tall after more than a century of testing even though it defies what some people call 'common sense'. (see The Myth of Common Sense) As we've said before, common sense often leads us astray, but new information is always coming into play.

Is everything known about the quantum world?  No!  Quantum Theory works on a small scale, but there is something smaller too.  As some experiments point out, the mere act of measuring disturbs the system being measured.

Quantum theory is predictive too.  A recent famous prediction of the Higgs-Boson particle was found to be true using the Large Hadron Collider. Theory became reality.

We picked three highly tested theories that could be increased in number many times over. For instance the strange theory of light considered as a particle and a wave.  Mysteries sometimes span more than one theory as the wave yields to particle in this case.

Now let's not get too far ahead.  There are theories and there are laws.  Plenty of theories have not stood the test of peer review.  The Theory of the Ether is one that stands out. It was proven dead wrong, much to the surprise of the testers Michelson and Morley.

To be a physical law pushes a theory a bit further.  A law is like Euclid's postulates.  That is, the unproven beginning is a set of postulates. Postulates should be very few and self evident. Laws often are what the theories stand upon.

For example, the second law of thermodynamics is considered an untouchable law of our universe.  It is a basic proposition like two points determine a straight line in  Euclid's geometry.  It is not required that a theory morphs into a law.  It is required that theories do not defy basic laws.

One has to smile, however, because the 2nd law of thermodynamics comes again and again under scrutiny in high energy physics and cosmology.  Talk about peer review! So far it holds true.  Does it have limits or parameters that require subtle changes to it?   Who knows?  The jury is out.  It's a good jury.

We have not mentioned Atomic Theory, but of course Bruce County residents are well schooled in that.  No, that's not quite right.  In the great DGR controversy that continues, we say strange ideas abound.

Some of the residents are familiar with it. People working at the power plant are educated daily in atomic theory and practice. 

To others it is something at the back of the book that they did not follow closely in their 10th grade science class.

Flip on your light switch.  Guess what?  It works.  Folks who work at the world's largest atomic energy plant know something about why the light bulb all of a sudden is sending out photons.  Your neighbour the electrician can fill in the rest, but mysteries still abound.

I run into people all the time who disdain engineering and science and look for any conspiracy theory that will allow them to attack or confuse.  I have no idea about their motives.  I suspect fear or some form of elitism.  It's kind of like not enjoying learning about something you have trouble learning.  It's natural.

As they peer at their TV showing the fog of coal fired power plants, many don't think that man has much to do with it.  They see people wearing masks moving about in semi-darkness in China.  Somehow they think man has not caused that too.

Click the orange arrow to read the second column

China's Price for Progress

"Oh, it's only a theory!"  "Will this or that happen 100% of the time?"  When the scientist or engineer answers no, or they don't know, the naysayers use this as a lever to hammer away at tried and true theories. 

These people do not understand how science moves forward and seem happy they don't.  Recently, they have called for a popular vote on very complex issues of process, engineering and science like DGRs. They try to rally votes on issues they have not studied.  Should we vote on a new cancer therapy or should we take our lead from process sharpened science?

Some engineer erects a bridge.  The calculations used are peer reviewed.  Is the designer 100% sure of its safety?  If so, for how long? 

No, something could happen like bad metal or concrete.  We see this all the time.  Peer review becomes more and more important and popular vote has no part of it.

Age and rust are enemies.  Bad designs abound.  That's why the process of design and build is so important.  That's why peer review is so important.  That's why experts are essential.  Engineers have learned how to manage process.  They know how to use strain gauges and know the essence of metal fatigue.

I have to say that any review of a complex issue by the general public often confuses rather than clears the air.  Ok, let's all vote on a particular bridge design.  It's Joe's idea vs. Mary's thoughts.  Let's just have everyone vote on it.  Of course that's absurd, but it's being proposed right now.

Darwin's Theory of Evolution has been tested over and over again, but it often undergoes unreasonable attacks.  Some state legislators in the US have used a general vote on it.  Some school boards are targeted to change science.

Sometimes the attacker will point out that all the branches and leaves on the genetic tree have not been found and therefore, it is fair to reject the whole.  "After all it's just a theory!"

Canada has played a strong part in this investigation and the debunkers soon get a faint heart.  How?  Well Canada is a wonder world for archaeologists and genetic theorists.

Some theory attackers' arguments have focused on a particular sequence of evolutionary events or lack thereof.   Here is one famous one:

Somehow, in the distant past a fish came on land and fins were changed to legs over eons and the former fish walked around.  Strangely over time some of the land creatures went back to the sea too.  This happened.  How do we know?

"Where is the intermediate fossil record for this?" asks the naysayer.

Ah, this New Your Times article in 2006 tells the story: See Article

So the word theory gets tied to an area of thought and just languishes in the minor leagues of a law.  Not so.  There are perfectly good theories built on evidence and held together by basic laws, which stand the test of review.

We all believe that gravitational theory is testable and repeatable.  If we drop a ball, it hits the earth.  Moving this experiment to another planet or moon, changing the parameters ... causes new things to happen. Things change as we should expect and as predicted by Newton's Theories.

The earth is flat was a theory and under peer review it failed.  The earth is the centre of the universe, but under peer review, it too failed.  Science works.  The DGR in Kincardine has had over 10 years of study and peer review.  Should we vote on it?  I think not on the science at least.

So the next time you meet a theory that has been tested over a hundred years or so, tip your hat.  It won't be 100%, but what is?

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Thursday, November 19, 2015