Words in Science

Mathematics on board

This Scientific American article addresses one of my pet peeves.

It drives me up the wall when I hear it said that something is “just a theory” rather than a fact. This implies that facts are superior creatures and that theories are little more than entertainment. Facts can be extremely valuable because they can support or refute theories but theories are versatile and are what science seeks to build. With a well-tested theory we can get things done like healing the sick. Without one we have little more to work with than informed trial-and-error as a methodology. Scientists are not the only ones who construct theories. We all do it. It’s how children learn about the world and how to function in it. Scientists just go about it more systematically and are more precise about articulating their conclusions.

In addition to theory, the article also describes problems with the terms hypothesis, model, skeptic, nature versus nurture, significant, and natural. It also touches upon the question of whether scientists should try to change the words they use or if better science education would be more effective. In my work as a private tutor, most of my time with clients is spent talking about physics and mathematics. This leaves little opportunity for exploration of the broader issues in science so I hope some of my students read the article. I strongly recommend it to everyone.

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