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A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of knowledge that has been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment. Scientists create scientific theories from hypotheses that have been corroborated through the scientific method, then gather evidence to test their accuracy. As with all forms of scientific knowledge, scientific theories are inductive in nature and do not make apodictic propositions; instead, they aim for predictive and explanatory force.
The strength of a scientific theory is related to the diversity of phenomena it can explain, which is measured by its ability to make falsifiable predictions with respect to those phenomena. Theories are improved as more evidence is gathered, so that accuracy in prediction improves over time. Scientists use theories as a foundation to gain further scientific knowledge, as well as to accomplish goals such as inventing technology or curing disease.
Scientific theories are the most reliable, rigorous, and comprehensive form of scientific knowledge. This is significantly different from the word "theory" in common usage, which implies that something is unsubstantiated or speculative.
The defining characteristic of all scientific knowledge, including theories, is the ability to make falsifiable or testable predictions. The relevance and specificity of those predictions determine how potentially useful the theory is. A would-be theory that makes no observable predictions is not a useful theory. Predictions not sufficiently specific to be tested are similarly not useful. In both cases, the term "theory" is hardly applicable.
A body of descriptions of knowledge is usually only called a theory if it has fulfilled these criteria:
The first three criteria are the most important. Theories considered scientific meet at least most of the criteria, but ideally all of them. This is true of such established theories as special and general relativity, quantum mechanics, plate tectonics, evolution, etc.
The United States National Academy of Sciences defines scientific theories as follows:
The formal scientific definition of theory is quite different from the everyday meaning of the word. It refers to a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence. Many scientific theories are so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter them substantially. For example, no new evidence will demonstrate that the Earth does not orbit around the sun (heliocentric theory), or that living things are not made of cells (cell theory), that matter is not composed of atoms, or that the surface of the Earth is not divided into solid plates that have moved over geological timescales (the theory of plate tectonics)...One of the most useful properties of scientific theories is that they can be used to make predictions about natural events or phenomena that have not yet been observed.
A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment. Such fact-supported theories are not "guesses" but reliable accounts of the real world. The theory of biological evolution is more than "just a theory." It is as factual an explanation of the universe as the atomic theory of matter or the germ theory of disease. Our understanding of gravity is still a work in progress. But the phenomenon of gravity, like evolution, is an accepted fact.
Note that the term theory would not be appropriate for describing untested but intricate hypotheses or even scientific models.
The scientific method involves the proposal and testing of hypotheses, by deriving predictions from the hypotheses about the results of future experiments, then performing those experiments to see whether the predictions are valid. This provides evidence either for or against the hypothesis. When enough experimental results have been gathered in a particular area of inquiry, scientists may propose an explanatory framework that accounts for as many of these as possible. This explanation is also tested, and if it fulfills the necessary criteria (see above), then the explanation becomes a theory. This can take many years, as it can be difficult or complicated to gather sufficient evidence.
Once all of the criteria have been met, it will be widely accepted by scientists (see scientific consensus) as the best available explanation of at least some phenomena. It will have made predictions of phenomena that previous theories could not explain or could not predict accurately, and it will have resisted attempts at falsification. The strength of the evidence is evaluated by the scientific community, and the most important experiments will have been replicated by multiple independent groups.
Theories do not have to be perfectly accurate to be scientifically useful. For example, the predictions made by classical mechanics are known to be inaccurate in the relatistivic realm, but they are almost exactly correct at the comparatively low velocities of common human experience. In chemistry, there are many acid-base theories providing highly divergent explanations of the underlying nature of acidic and basic compounds, but they are very useful for predicting their chemical behavior. Like all knowledge in science, no theory can ever be completely certain, since it is possible that future experiments might conflict with the theory's predictions. However, theories supported by the scientific consensus have the highest level of certainty of any scientific knowledge; for example, that all objects are subject to gravity or that life on Earth evolved from a common ancestor.
Acceptance of a theory does not require that all of its major predictions be tested, if it is already supported by sufficiently strong evidence. For example, certain tests may be unfeasible or technically difficult. As a result, theories may make predictions that have not yet been confirmed or proven incorrect; in this case, the predicted results may be described informally with the term "theoretical." These predictions can be tested at a later time, and if they are incorrect, this may lead to revision or rejection of the theory.
If experimental results contrary to a theory's predictions are observed, scientists first evaluate whether the experimental design was sound, and if so they confirm the results by independent replication. A search for potential improvements to the theory then begins. Solutions may require minor or major changes to the theory, or none at all if a satisfactory explanation is found within the theory's existing framework. Over time, as successive modifications build on top of each other, theories consistently improve and greater predictive accuracy is achieved. Since each new version of a theory (or a completely new theory) must have more predictive and explanatory power than the last, scientific knowledge consistently becomes more accurate over time.
If modifications to the theory or other explanations seem to be insufficient to account for the new results, then a new theory may be required. Since scientific knowledge is usually durable, this occurs much less commonly than modification. Furthermore, until such a theory is proposed and accepted, the previous theory will be retained. This is because it is still the best available explanation for many other phenomena, as verified by its predictive power in other contexts. For example, it was known in 1859 that the observed perihelion precession of Mercury violated Newtonian mechanics, but the theory remained the best explanation available until relativity was supported by sufficient evidence. Also, while new theories may be proposed by a single person or by many, the cycle of modifications eventually incorporates contributions from many different scientists.
After the changes, the accepted theory will explain more phenomena and have greater predictive power (if it did not, the changes would not be adopted); this new explanation will then be open to further replacement or modification. If a theory does not require modification despite repeated tests, this implies that the theory is very accurate. This also means that accepted theories continue to accumulate evidence over time, and the length of time that a theory (or any of its principles) remains accepted often indicates the strength of its supporting evidence.
In some cases, two or more theories may be replaced by a single theory which explains the previous theories as approximations or special cases, analogous to the way a theory is a unifying explanation for many confirmed hypotheses; this is referred to as unification of theories. For example, electricity and magnetism are now known to be two aspects of the same phenomenon, referred to as electromagnetism.
When the predictions of different theories appear to contradict each other, this is also resolved by either further evidence or unification. For example, physical theories in the 19th century implied that the Sun could not have been burning long enough to allow certain geological changes as well as the evolution of life. This was resolved by the discovery of nuclear fusion, the main energy source of the Sun. Contradictions can also be explained as the result of theories approximating more fundamental (non-contradictory) phenomena. For example, atomic theory is an approximation of quantum mechanics. Current theories describe three separate fundamental phenomena of which all other theories are approximations; the potential unification of these is sometimes called the Theory of Everything.
The special theory of relativity, the successor to classical mechanics, was first proposed in 1905 by Albert Einstein. Part of the theory is based on two observations ‒ that the Galilean transformation ("addition of velocities") is valid, and that light does not obey the Galilean transformation. Einstein constructed a system in which both observations were either correct or approximately correct, by altering the equation for the Galilean transformation such that it became less accurate as speed approached the speed of light. This was reasonable because the previous (confirming) tests of the Galilean transformation did not reach speeds where this effect would have been apparent. This new theory explained more experimental observations than previous theories, and its mathematics also made further testable predictions that could be confirmed.
The theory of relativity also explains why classical (Newtonian) mechanics makes accurate predictions: Newton's laws are a very good approximation in almost all circumstances. If relativity could not explain why Newton's laws were successful, then its explanatory power would have been less than the previous theory, and it would not have been an eligible successor theory.
Einstein subsequently replaced special relativity with general relativity, and the theory has been advanced further since then, through the efforts of scientists such as Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose. However, classical mechanics still remains useful today (e.g. for calculating spacecraft trajectories), because its equations are much simpler and its predictive power is sufficiently accurate in most circumstances; the difference is that the accuracy of relativity is even greater. If a future theory with even greater accuracy were to succeed relativity, a similar situation might occur.
Both scientific laws and scientific theories are produced from the scientific method through the formation and testing of hypotheses, and can predict the behavior of the natural world. Both are typically well-supported by observations and/or experimental evidence. However, scientific laws are descriptive accounts of how nature will behave under certain conditions. Scientific theories are broader in scope, and give overarching explanations of how nature works and why it exhibits certain characteristics. Theories are supported by evidence from many different sources, and may contain one or several laws.
A common misconception is that scientific theories are rudimentary ideas that will eventually graduate into scientific laws when enough data and evidence has been accumulated. A theory does not change into a scientific law with the accumulation of new or better evidence. A theory will always remain a theory; a law will always remain a law.
The logical positivists thought of scientific theories as statements in a formal language. Mathematics is an example of a formal language. The logical positivists envisaged a similar scientific language. In addition to scientific theories, the language also included observation sentences ("the sun rises in the east"), definitions, and mathematical statements. The phenomena explained by the theories, if they could not be directly observed by the senses (for example, atoms and radio waves), were treated as theoretical concepts. In this view, theories function as axioms: predicted observations are derived from the theories much like theorems are derived in Euclidean geometry. However, the predictions are then tested against reality to verify the theories, and the "axioms" can be revised as a direct result.
The phrase "the received view of theories" is used to describe this approach. Terms commonly associated with it are "linguistic" (because theories are components of a language) and "syntactic" (because a language has rules about how symbols can be strung together). Problems in defining this kind of language precisely, e.g., are objects seen in microscopes observed or are they theoretical objects, led to the effective demise of logical positivism in the 1970s.
The semantic view of theories, which identifies scientific theories with models rather than propositions, has replaced the received view as the dominant position in theory formulation in the philosophy of science. A model is a logical framework intended to represent reality (a "model of reality"), similar to the way that a map is a graphical model that represents the territory of a city or country.
In this approach, theories are a specific category of models which fulfill the necessary criteria (see above). One can use language to describe a model; however, the theory is the model (or a collection of similar models), and not the description of the model. A model of the solar system, for example, might consist of abstract objects that represent the sun and the planets. These objects have associated properties, e.g., positions, velocities, and masses. The model parameters, e.g., Newton's Law of Gravitation, determine how the positions and velocities change with time. This model can then be tested to see whether it accurately predicts future observations; astronomers can verify that the positions of the model's objects over time match the actual positions of the planets. For most planets, the Newtonian model's predictions are accurate; for Mercury, it is slightly inaccurate and the model of general relativity must be used instead.
The word "semantic" refers to the way that a model represents the real world. The representation (literally, "re-presentation") describes particular aspects of a phenomenon or the manner of interaction among a set of phenomena. For instance, a scale model of a house or of a solar system is clearly not an actual house or an actual solar system; the aspects of an actual house or an actual solar system represented in a scale model are, only in certain limited ways, representative of the actual entity. A scale model of a house is not a house; but to someone who wants to learn about houses, analogous to a scientist who wants to understand reality, a sufficiently detailed scale model may suffice.
An example of how theories are models can be seen from Ptolemy's theory on the planetary system. In this model, the Earth was at the center, the planets and the sun made circular orbits around the earth, and the stars were fixed on a sphere centered on Earth but beyond the planetary orbits. The retrograde motion of the planets was explained by smaller circular orbits of individual planets. Based on this model, mathematical calculations could be made that predicted planetary positions to a great degree of accuracy. His model of the planetary system survived for over 1500 years, until the time of Copernicus.
This illustrates how a theory can explain certain scientific facts yet not be a satisfactory picture of reality. Another, more acceptable, theory can later replace the previous model. For example, the Ptolemaic theory contained numerous ad hoc assumptions; the Copernican theory is simple and parsimonious, and also more accurate.
Several commentators have stated that the distinguishing characteristic of theories is that they are explanatory as well as descriptive, while models are only descriptive (although still predictive in a more limited sense). Philosopher Stephen Pepper also distinguished between theories and models, and said in 1948 that general models and theories are predicated on a "root" metaphor that constrains how scientists theorize and model a phenomenon and thus arrive at testable hypotheses.
Engineering practice makes a distinction between "mathematical models" and "physical models."
...it is incorrect to speak of an assumption as either true or false, since there is no way of proving it to be either (If there were, it would no longer be an assumption). It is better to consider assumptions as either useful or useless, depending on whether deductions made from them corresponded to reality...Since we must start somewhere, we must have assumptions, but at least let us have as few assumptions as possible.
Certain assumptions are necessary for all empirical claims (e.g. the assumption that reality exists). However, theories do not generally make assumptions in the conventional sense (statements accepted without evidence). While assumptions are often incorporated during the formation of new theories, these are either supported by evidence (such as from previously existing theories) or the evidence is produced in the course of validating the theory. This may be as simple as observing that the theory makes accurate predictions, which is evidence that any assumptions made at the outset are correct or approximately correct under the conditions tested.
Conventional assumptions, without evidence, may be used if the theory is only intended to apply when the assumption is valid (or approximately valid). For example, the special theory of relativity assumes an inertial frame of reference. The theory makes accurate predictions when the assumption is valid, and does not make accurate predictions when the assumption is not valid. Such assumptions are often the point with which older theories are succeeded by new ones (the general theory of relativity works in non-inertial reference frames as well).
The term "assumption" is actually broader than its standard use, etymologically speaking. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and online Wiktionary indicate its Latin source as assumere ("accept, to take to oneself, adopt, usurp"), which is a conjunction of ad- ("to, towards, at") and sumere (to take). The root survives, with shifted meanings, in the Italian sumere and Spanish sumir. The first sense of "assume" in the OED is "to take unto (oneself), receive, accept, adopt." The term was originally employed in religious contexts as in "to receive up into heaven," especially "the reception of the Virgin Mary into heaven, with body preserved from corruption," (1297 CE) but it was also simply used to refer to "receive into association" or "adopt into partnership." Moreover, other senses of assumere included (i) "investing oneself with (an attribute), " (ii) "to undertake" (especially in Law), (iii) "to take to oneself in appearance only, to pretend to possess," and (iv) "to suppose a thing to be" (all senses from OED entry on "assume"; the OED entry for "assumption" is almost perfectly symmetrical in senses). Thus, "assumption" connotes other associations than the contemporary standard sense of "that which is assumed or taken for granted; a supposition, postulate" (only the 11th of 12 senses of "assumption," and the 10th of 11 senses of "assume") .
Popper summarized these statements by saying that the central criterion of the scientific status of a theory is its "falsifiability, or refutability, or testability." Echoing this, Stephen Hawking states, "A theory is a good theory if it satisfies two requirements: It must accurately describe a large class of observations on the basis of a model that contains only a few arbitrary elements, and it must make definite predictions about the results of future observations." He also discusses the "unprovable but falsifiable" nature of theories, which is a necessary consequence of inductive logic, and that "you can disprove a theory by finding even a single observation that disagrees with the predictions of the theory."
Several philosophers and historians of science have, however, argued that Popper's definition of theory as a set of falsifiable statements is wrong because, as Philip Kitcher has pointed out, if one took a strictly Popperian view of "theory", observations of Uranus when first discovered in 1781 would have "falsified" Newton's celestial mechanics. Rather, people suggested that another planet influenced Uranus' orbit—and this prediction was indeed eventually confirmed.
Kitcher agrees with Popper that "There is surely something right in the idea that a science can succeed only if it can fail." He also says that scientific theories include statements that cannot be falsified, and that good theories must also be creative. He insists we view scientific theories as an "elaborate collection of statements", some of which are not falsifiable, while others—those he calls "auxiliary hypotheses," are.
According to Kitcher, good scientific theories must have three features:
Like other definitions of theories, including Popper's, Kitcher makes it clear that a theory must include statements that have observational consequences. But, like the observation of irregularities in the orbit of Uranus, falsification is only one possible consequence of observation. The production of new hypotheses is another possible and equally important result.
In physics, the term theory is generally used for a mathematical framework—derived from a small set of basic postulates (usually symmetries—like equality of locations in space or in time, or identity of electrons, etc.)—which is capable of producing experimental predictions for a given category of physical systems. A good example is classical electromagnetism, which encompasses results derived from gauge symmetry (sometimes called gauge invariance) in a form of a few equations called Maxwell's equations. The specific mathematical aspects of classical electromagnetic theory are termed "laws of electromagnetism," reflecting the level of consistent and reproducible evidence that supports them. Within electromagnetic theory generally, there are numerous hypotheses about how electromagnetism applies to specific situations. Many of these hypotheses are already considered to be adequately tested, with new ones always in the making and perhaps untested. An example of the latter might be the radiation reaction force. As of 2009[update], its effects on the periodic motion of charges are detectable in synchrotrons, but only as averaged effects over time. Some researchers are now considering experiments that could observe these effects at the instantaneous level (i.e. not averaged over time).
Note that many fields of inquiry do not have specific named theories, e.g. genetics and developmental biology. Scientific knowledge outside a named theory can still have a high level of certainty, depending on the amount of evidence supporting it. Also note that since theories draw evidence from many different fields, the categorization is not absolute.