Scientific theory

A scientific theory is an explanation of an aspect of the natural world and universe that can be (or a fortiori, that has been) repeatedly tested and corroborated in accordance with the scientific method, using accepted protocols of observation, measurement, and evaluation of results. Where possible, some theories are tested under controlled conditions in an experiment.[1][2] In circumstances not amenable to experimental testing, theories are evaluated through principles of abductive reasoning. Established scientific theories have withstood rigorous scrutiny and embody scientific knowledge.

A scientific theory differs from a scientific fact or scientific law in that a theory explains "why" or "how": a fact is a simple, basic observation, whereas a law is a statement (often a mathematical equation) about a relationship between facts and/or other laws. For example, Newton’s Law of Gravity is a mathematical equation that can be used to predict the attraction between bodies, but it is not a theory to explain how gravity works.[3] Stephen Jay Gould wrote that "...facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world's data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts."[4]

The meaning of the term scientific theory (often contracted to theory for brevity) as used in the disciplines of science is significantly different from the common vernacular usage of theory.[5][note 1] In everyday speech, theory can imply an explanation that represents an unsubstantiated and speculative guess,[5] whereas in a scientific context it most often refers to an explanation that has already been tested and is widely accepted as valid.[1][2]

The strength of a scientific theory is related to the diversity of phenomena it can explain and its simplicity. As additional scientific evidence is gathered, a scientific theory may be modified and ultimately rejected if it cannot be made to fit the new findings; in such circumstances, a more accurate theory is then required. Some theories are so well-established that they are unlikely ever to be fundamentally changed (for example, scientific theories such as evolution, heliocentric theory, cell theory, theory of plate tectonics, germ theory of disease, etc.). In certain cases, a scientific theory or scientific law that fails to fit all data can still be useful (due to its simplicity) as an approximation under specific conditions. An example is Newton's laws of motion, which are a highly accurate approximation to special relativity at velocities that are small relative to the speed of light.[6][7][8]

Scientific theories are testable and make verifiable predictions.[9] They describe the causes of a particular natural phenomenon and are used to explain and predict aspects of the physical universe or specific areas of inquiry (for example, electricity, chemistry, and astronomy). As with other forms of scientific knowledge, scientific theories are both deductive and inductive,[10] aiming for predictive and explanatory power. Scientists use theories to further scientific knowledge, as well as to facilitate advances in technology or medicine.

  1. ^ a b National Academy of Sciences (US) (1999). Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences (2nd ed.). National Academies Press. p. 2. doi:10.17226/6024. ISBN 978-0-309-06406-4. PMID 25101403.
  2. ^ a b Winther, Rasmus G. (2016). "The Structure of Scientific Theories". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University.
  3. ^ Bradford, Alina; Hamer, Ashley (July 2017). "What Is a Scientific Theory?". Live Science. Retrieved 17 January 2021.
  4. ^ The Devil in Dover,
  5. ^ a b "Is Evolution a Theory or a Fact?". National Academy of Sciences. 2008. Archived from the original on 7 September 2019.
  6. ^ Cite error: The named reference Misner1973 was invoked but never defined (see the help page).
  7. ^ Cite error: The named reference Weinberg was invoked but never defined (see the help page).
  8. ^ Cite error: The named reference Project2061 was invoked but never defined (see the help page).
  9. ^ Cite error: The named reference Popper was invoked but never defined (see the help page).
  10. ^ Andersen, Hanne; Hepburn, Brian (2015). "Scientific Method". In Edward N. Zalta (ed.). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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