Thursday, September 29, 2011

Just a Theory?

As a pastor who was formerly a scientist, I enjoy opportunities to use both sets of skills at the same time. It has been over 15 years since I last set foot in a Chemistry lab, so my scientific endeavors these days are not as “experimental” as I might wish. (Which simply means that I haven’t blown something up in years!) Instead, I often turn my scientific pursuits toward gaining a deeper understanding of this world in which we live.

One of the hot scientific topics these days is climate change. Is human activity leading to some potentially catastrophic warming of the earth? Is talk of climate change a left-wing conspiracy? Is the answer somewhere in the middle---some climate change is clearly visible, but perhaps we don’t have the overall perspective to say for sure how significant it will be? Just the very mention of any of these positions will certainly lead to “warming” of one kind---the conversation will probably get “hot” within minutes of introducing the topic.

You don’t have to listen very long to one of these conversations before you will hear someone say, “I don’t believe in global warming---it’s just a theory.” And with that, any argument or evidence is dismissed by that person as mere personal opinion. For some, “theory” seems to mean “speculation,” “unproven assumption,” or “conjecture.” Seen from this perspective, a “theory” of global warming is just someone’s opinion of these things, of no more importance than anyone else’s opinion. After all, they say, it’s “just a theory.” I have mine and you have yours.

The problem is, scientific theory doesn’t work this way. In the world of science, a theory is an idea that has been shown through experimentation to explain observable things in the world around us. The theory might have begun as a “speculation” or “conjecture” in a scientist’s mind, but through the rigorous discipline of experimentation, has been shown to explain things. Scientific theories, then, are far from being mere conjecture; they are workable models through which the world around us may be understood and explained.

Does this mean that theories don’t occasionally get modified or disproven? Of course not. Just last week, scientists in Europe reported measuring a sub-atomic particle traveling faster than the speed of light. Albert Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity (introduced in 1905) says that this should not be possible. Does this mean that Einstein’s theory was disproven? Maybe, and maybe not. More experiments will determine that.

And that’s exactly the point when talking about scientific theory. The facts are determined through experimentation and observation. To dismiss them out of hand as “just a theory” misses the point entirely.