Stages of acceptance in science

“It’s only a theory.”
“It’s been proven scientifically.”
“It can’t go against the laws of science.”

The public view of science tends to be pretty favorable, aside from pockets of dispute concerning favored accounts of human origins. Even in secular settings, science is often embraced with quasi-religious fervor, since it’s the basis of the modern technocratic civilization that we all enjoy.

Popular use of the terminology seems to imply stages of certainty, from “hypothesis” to “theory” to “law.” We look to science for guarantees.

However, by-the-book scientists will always be modest about any claims to “guarantees.” Even when they use the word “law,” it’s pretty loose. You can usually hear the quote-marks around it. It’s a rare scientist who will go so far as to claim “proof” of anything.

For one thing, they want to keep some wiggle room for the next time somebody’s “laws” get shredded, sort of like what happened with Newton’s tidy world when Einstein came along. Now Einstein’s work is getting poked and picked at. Notice it’s seldom called “The Law of Relativity.” At best, “The theory,” and often, “The principle.” Twice shy, perhaps.

So hypotheses do go through phases of more and more experimental support, gaining acceptance over time. “Theory,” contrary to the popular way the word is used in the sense of “hypothesis,” or even “conjecture,” actually refers to the model that ties together related hypotheses and observations; after enough experimentation, theory starts accounting for the observed data, and hopefully, starts making predictions.

For instance, there is the wave theory (model) of light and also the particle theory. Both models are used, depending on the circumstance, and both are useful for making valid predictions. Both are explanatory, while neither makes any claim to be “the real one.”

The empiricist philosopher David Hume pretty much blew up the notion that causality is real. Causality is a metaphysical assumption that we make as a kind of convenience. Getting into philosophy of science, you soon find that science doesn’t do metaphysics — scientists never “prove” anything, they just support hypotheses with more and more experimental data. A long-standing, well-supported hypothesis eventually becomes “accepted,” but never “proven.”

It may seem like a cop-out, but the well-schooled scientist, when asked about “proof” and “reality” will quietly point you to the nearest philosopher.

There’s a good overview called Philosophy of Natural Science by Carl Hempel that I’d recommend highly. Online, you might want to check here for Hempel. I know it’s not everybody’s favorite thing, but personally, I love this kind of stuff.

Now, wasn’t there a bottle of red wine around here somewhere?

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