Sunday, March 13, 2011

Theoretically...Wait, I Meant Hypothetically

I think this post is just going to enhance my image as a science geek. But this has really, really been bothering me lately, and I know I can't be the only person.

Lately I've heard the word 'theoretically' thrown around. Some of these people have no science background so I can forgive them. Other people have no such excuse. Theoretically this, theoretically that. Blah, blah, blah.

Hey people - what you're talking about has nothing to do with a THEORY.

Let me elaborate for those of you who don't know what I'm talking about. To understand what a theory is, let's start with a hypothesis. A hypothesis is an educated guess based on observations and can be proven or disproven using well designed experiments. In other words, it may or may not be true but it's what you think will probably happen. In contrast, a theory is an explanation of a related observations from proven hypotheses verified multiple times by independent groups of researchers. In other words, a theory is generally accepted as having been proven and is true.

Do you see the difference? A hypothesis is maybe true, and a theory is accepted as true.

Now to those of you who know better - tossing this word around in an informal, conversational way, only serves to confuse the general public when you're trying to get them to understand science. Hypothetically and theoretically are NOT interchangeable. They mean very different things and shouldn't be used interchangeably. If we want people to understand science and understand what may be true and what is accepted as true we have to be consistent. Science is becoming a major component in the average person's life. We see more science based stories on the news and the media, or even your neighbor, may asks you about this or that study they heard about. They need to understand when they hear something is "just a theory" it doesn't mean it's a guess and unproven - it in fact means the opposite.

So for those of us who are involved in educating the public on science - please pay attention to what you say. Theoretically is not the same as hypothetically.

Thank you!

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