Short Series about Science: #2 Theories

This struck Nutt as inflammatory in the circumstances. Perhaps, he thought, the ritual is that childish insults shall be exchanged until both sides feel fully justified in attacking, just as Dr Vonmausberger noted in Ritual Aggression in Pubescent Rats.
“Unseen Academicals” by Terry Pratchett

I think a scientist has two highly related key strengths: the development of theories and the testing of hypotheses derived from these theories. And actually, theories are the best thing you can have in science. Lewin once put it with:

“Nothing is as practical as a good theory”
Kurt Lewin

But what are theories and why should we care?

A scientific theory has nothing to do with the often heard criticism that something is “Just a theory.” In many cases where this criticism is used the issue is either an opinion, a hypothesis, or ignorance of the person using the criticism. McBurney defined a theory as:

“A theory is a set of interrelated concepts that explains a large number of facts in a particular area of study.”
McBurney, 1996

Thus a theory explains a lot of observations and abstracts from these observations. That makes it easier to apply the findings to other observations and understand why something occurred. A theory is what Faust was looking for when he said:

“Daß ich erkenne, was die Welt
Im Innersten zusammenhält,”
Goethe’s “Faust”

For example, in psychology, theories are used to explain, predict and control human experience and behavior.

To be considered a theory, the set of interrelated concepts must fulfill a number of quality standards. A theory must be (Asendorpf, 1996):

  • explicit: terms and assertions must be stated explicitly
  • empirically grounded: terms must relate to observational data (directly or indirectly)
  • consistent: assertions derived from theory must not contradict themselves
  • verifiable: assertions must open to empirical tests
  • complete: assertions should explain all known phenomenons of the area the theory applies to
  • parsimonious: theory should use as little basic concepts as possible
  • productive: theory should stimulate new research questions and advance research
  • applicable: theory should be applicable in practice

Take for example Pavlov’s theory of classical conditioning.

You have an unconditioned stimulus (US, meat) leading to an unconditioned reaction (UR, dog is drooling when it sees the meat).

If the US (meat) is combined often enough with a neutral stimulus (NS, dog bowl) then (after a while) the formerly neutral stimulus (dog bowl) becomes a conditioned stimulus (CS), triggering the same reaction as the US (meat) did — the dog drools when it sees the dog bowl. The drooling has become a conditioned reaction to the conditioned stimulus (dog bowl).

Sounds a little complicated, but we are not interested in dog drool. We are interested in learning and we can apply the same terms (unconditioned stimulus, unconditioned reaction, neutral stimulus, conditions stimulus, conditioned reaction) to countless other situations where the same principles are at work. From learning to like small white rabbits to fearing them, from some fetishes to physiological reactions.

That’s the strength of a theory, it goes beyond instance you have observed and allows you to generalize the findings to other situations and cases.

This is why a theory (and the arguments and empirical findings needing to develop them) is paramount in science. Or to put it differently:

“Some theories are wrong; some theories are better supported than others. But a theory cannot grow up to be anything else, because there is nothing better to become.”
McBurney, 1996


Short Series about Science

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