Saturday, November 27, 2004

Time For Definitions

This story about putting warning labels on science books is almost too silly for words. Evidently those doing the labeling know very little about science, as well as seeming to be proud of the fact.

The problem is a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between facts and theories. Facts are incontrovertible. For that reason it takes a lot to get to that level. Nothing beyond single observations can truly be called fact, and even those might not be if the observation methodology is challenged, but that's another post. A theory, on the other hand, is an attempt to apply an organizing principle to facts. It is said that theories destroy facts. I prefer the analogy that theories consume facts.

For instance, if you have observed that a bus has stopped at a given spot at 10:00 am, 10:20 am, 10:40 am, and 11:00 am, you can say that a bus stops at the spot at 20 minute intervals. The specific observations of times are facts, while the statement of the twenty minute interval is a theory. You could test the theory by observing if a bus arrives at 11:20 am. All future facts within the scope of the theory must fit for the theory to remain valid. This is why it is often said that theories are of a higher order than facts, like "book" being of a higher order than "page". If the bus does not arrive until 11:30 am, then the theory must be ammended. (Assuming of course that the busses run on time, a tall stretch in virtually any town.) A theory can be simple (20 minute intervals) or complicated (20 minute intervals until 11:00 am, whereupon the busses run on 30 minute intervals).

So, strictly speaking, my assertion that the people that want stickers on science books are proud of their scientific illiteracy may be incorrect. That people want to put stickers on science books is a fact. That they are proud of their scientific illiteracy is a theory. I would welcome further facts to test my theory.

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