I read widely across quite a few topics. I suspect I am not alone in this practice. I am fascinated by particular tidbits of science that are far from any level of expertise I might have. Recently an article caught my eye; the topic was that the ambient temperature we experience affects our emotions. When we feel warm we tend to be more open and generous. When we feel cold we tend to be more suspicious. Interesting.
The article then continued with “The big question, of course, is why? Why are physical and psychological temperatures linked in the first place? There are two theories …”
Can you see the word I have a problem with? Yep, the word theory. What the researchers had as the result of their work were: hypotheses, guesses, hunches, whatever, but theories, no. The word I prefer is “conjectures” as a better word than “speculations” in a case like this but I wouldn’t quibble much over speculations.
This happens in ordinary conversations: someone asks “Why is President Trump acting that way?” and you answer “Well, I have a theory….” No you don’t. The best you have is a wild ass guess. But this is a game you cannot lose which is why you play. You espouse your “theory” and if it turns up being right, you get props from your fellow travelers later. If it turns out to be wrong, there is no penalty.
I suggest that if anyone wants to propose a theory, they should be willing to put money on it.
A theory has to do one of two things to qualify as a theory: it has to be able to predict yet unknown facts or it has to make good sense of what we already know, aligning the topic of the theory with other fields of investigation, for example.
If you want it to be a scientific theory, there are additional requirements. To make a scientific theory, you have to make testable predictions. There have been any number of beautiful theories that turned out to be non-testable, e.g. God created the Earth. Since the claim is not testable, it is not a scientific theory. It is a claim, an supposition, a conjecture, etc. but it is not a theory.
So, the next time you hear someone ask “Why …” and you want to answer, you might say “I have a hunch …” or “I have an idea …” or the equivalent, but unless you have a full-blown scheme that makes complete sense out the source of the question or can make predictions, you do not have a theory.
So, please just stop with the theories.