It’s just a theory

Several times I have been stumped by people telling me that anthropogenic global warming is really just a theory. I’m a climate scientist. Yes, I think, exactly, it’s a theory!

But ‘theory’ means something very different to scientists than to nearly everyone else.

To scientists, a theory is a rigorous explanation for some aspect of the physical world. A theory has been substantiated through repeated testing and is supported by a body of empirical evidence. Some of our fundamental theories are Newton’s Laws of Motion, Darwin’s theories of natural selection and Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.

To other people, a theory may simply be a scientist’s haphazard thoughts, and may be some ill-considered ideas that have not been properly tested. As such, the word ‘theory’ has been shrewdly appropriated by various groups to cast doubt on our robust scientific understanding of various process, such as evolution and climate change.

To clarify the use of these words by scientists as technical terms with specific meanings:

  • – A hypothesis is a proposed explanation for a phenomenon that can be tested. It is not simply a guess.
  • – A theory is a substantial explanation for a phenomenon that has been rigorously tested. It is not n  idea someone happened to think up on a whim.

It is unfortunate that we have been so slow to recognize that these words are poorly understood and poorly communicated. Science today takes on many forms and the linear, highly empirical scientific method of hypothesis testing and theory development is applicable to only some of our scientific disciplines.

Perhaps we can abandon these now loaded words and replace them with something more universal and more easily understood? Or at the very least, it’s about time we paid attention to how our words are interpreted by those outside the field.

In the meantime, this is clearly the best response to assertions that climate change is just a theory!


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