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Are Any Scientific Hypotheses Also Scientific Theories?

June 27, 2012

I have the unpopular opinion that caused someone to insult me. That opinion is that “scientific theory” is not mutually exclusive with “scientific hypothesis.” Not all hypotheses are theories, but all scientific theories are hypotheses. A theory is a good kind of hypothesis.

The person gave me this link: http://evidence-based-science.blogspot.ca/2008/02/what-is-scientific-law-theory.html

The link gave the following definition for hypothesis:

Hypothesis: This is an educated guess based upon observation. It is a rational explanation of a single event or phenomenon based upon what is observed, but which has not been proved. Most hypotheses can be supported or refuted by experimentation or continued observation.

This is what it says about theory:

Theory: A theory is more like a scientific law than a hypothesis. A theory is an explanation of a set of related observations or events based upon proven hypotheses and verified multiple times by detached groups of researchers. One scientist cannot create a theory; he can only create a hypothesis.

Those are not mutually exclusive. I agree with those definitions.

Some people want to define hypothesis to be mutually exclusive of scientific theory as “an educated guess based upon observation. It is a rational explanation of a single event or phenomenon based upon what is observed, but which has not been proved. Most hypotheses can be supported or refuted by experimentation or continued observation. AND it’s not a theory — it has not been verified multiple times by detached groups of researchers.”

I merely don’t want to add the extra bit at the end. I realize that scientists often refer to a hypothesis in that way. They often mean “non-theory hypothesis.” However, that’s not what it has to mean in every case. It’s like saying human beings aren’t apes because many scientists talk about “apes” and mean “non-human apes.”

The motivation to make them mutually exclusive seems to be that people want to tell skeptics, “Scientific theories aren’t just made up! You have to believe it!”  I actually have no problem with saying that.  My view is compatible with saying that. However, some people also want to say, “This isn’t a hypothesis! It’s a theory, so you have to agree with it!” I don’t think we need to phrase things that way. However, we could still say, “This isn’t just a hypothesis! It’s a theory, so you have to agree with it!”

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. June 27, 2012 11:15 pm

    Hypotheses are individual predictions, theories are integrated explanatory frameworks that also contain sets of predictions about future phenomena. In effect, theories are sets of hypotheses. Observations themselves are facts.

    • June 27, 2012 11:19 pm

      Hypotheses need not merely be individual predictions. For example, we hypothesized the existence of germs before we could observe them. Observations are our experiences. They are facts about how we experience things, but they can be biased and so forth.

  2. June 27, 2012 11:29 pm

    Ankur, hypotheses and theories are both supposed to be at least somewhat comprehensive. The theory of germs was not merely a prediction that we’d find microscopic creatures, but that they were making people sick, that washing our hands might help prevent disease from being spread, etc. In general, the more predictions a theory or hypothesis makes, and the more ways we can falsify a theory or hypothesis, the better.

    The ultimate unifying theory of everything might actually be very simple, but it will be able to explain/predict everything (be maximally comprehensive). There is a sense that more comprehensive theories make more predictions, even though you might be able to say it only posits the existence of one thing.

  3. June 30, 2012 11:09 am

    In my opinion, the whole hypothesis/theory terminology has become so confused that it should be abandoned altogether. ‘Theory’ has a meaning in science that is completely different from its meaning in everyday language. And the idea that a hypothesis is an ‘educated guess” is misleading.

    I think it’s much more profitable to talk about models and predictions that flow from them, the predictions being used to test the suitability of the models. Scientists don’t use ‘educated guesses’ -they devise models that attempt to explain phenomena, and then they do real world testing to find out whether the predictions made by applying the models fit the actual data.

    • June 30, 2012 7:46 pm

      Most people I know don’t have a hard time understanding the words, but some creationists certainly seem to have a hard time. Either way, we need to know which “models” are best, are more speculative, etc.

      Philosophers also use these words and they mean something similar in philosophy as they do in science. It would generally be wrong to dismiss a philosophical theory out of hand, even though they are usually more speculative than scientific ones.

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