The becoming and evolution of a scientific theory

The process of becoming a scientific theory

The scientific method involves the proposal and testing of hypotheses, by deriving predictions from the hypotheses about the results of future experiments, then performing those experiments to see whether the predictions are valid. This provides evidence either for or against the hypothesis. When enough experimental results have been gathered in a particular area of inquiry, scientists may propose an explanatory framework that accounts for as many of these as possible. This explanation is also tested, and if it fulfills the necessary criteria (see above), then the explanation becomes a theory. This can take many years, as it can be difficult or complicated to gather sufficient evidence.

Once all of the criteria have been met, it will be widely accepted by scientists (see scientific consensus) as the best available explanation of at least some phenomena. It will have made predictions of phenomena that previous theories could not explain or could not predict accurately, and it will have resisted attempts at falsification. The strength of the evidence is evaluated by the scientific community, and the most important experiments will have been replicated by multiple independent groups.

Theories do not have to be perfectly accurate to be scientifically useful. For example, the predictions made by classical mechanics are known to be inaccurate in the relatistivic realm, but they are almost exactly correct at the comparatively low velocities of common human experience.[14] In chemistry, there are many acid-base theories providing highly divergent explanations of the underlying nature of acidic and basic compounds, but they are very useful for predicting their chemical behavior.[15] Like all knowledge in science, no theory can ever be completely certain, since it is possible that future experiments might conflict with the theory’s predictions.[16] However, theories supported by the scientific consensus have the highest level of certainty of any scientific knowledge; for example, that all objects are subject to gravity or that life on Earth evolved from a common ancestor.[17]

Acceptance of a theory does not require that all of its major predictions be tested, if it is already supported by sufficiently strong evidence. For example, certain tests may be unfeasible or technically difficult. As a result, theories may make predictions that have not yet been confirmed or proven incorrect; in this case, the predicted results may be described informally with the term “theoretical”. These predictions can be tested at a later time, and if they are incorrect, this may lead to the revision or rejection of the theory.

Modification and improvement

If experimental results contrary to a theory’s predictions are observed, scientists first evaluate whether the experimental design was sound, and if so they confirm the results by independent replication. A search for potential improvements to the theory then begins. Solutions may require minor or major changes to the theory, or none at all if a satisfactory explanation is found within the theory’s existing framework.[18] Over time, as successive modifications build on top of each other, theories consistently improve and greater predictive accuracy is achieved. Since each new version of a theory (or a completely new theory) must have more predictive and explanatory power than the last, scientific knowledge consistently becomes more accurate over time.

If modifications to the theory or other explanations seem to be insufficient to account for the new results, then a new theory may be required. Since scientific knowledge is usually durable, this occurs much less commonly than modification.[16] Furthermore, until such a theory is proposed and accepted, the previous theory will be retained. This is because it is still the best available explanation for many other phenomena, as verified by its predictive power in other contexts. For example, it has been known since 1859 that the observed perihelion precession of Mercury violates Newtonian mechanics,[19] but the theory remained the best explanation available until relativity was supported by sufficient evidence. Also, while new theories may be proposed by a single person or by many, the cycle of modifications eventually incorporates contributions from many different scientists.[20]

After the changes, the accepted theory will explain more phenomena and have greater predictive power (if it did not, the changes would not be adopted); this new explanation will then be open to further replacement or modification. If a theory does not require modification despite repeated tests, this implies that the theory is very accurate. This also means that accepted theories continue to accumulate evidence over time, and the length of time that a theory (or any of its principles) remains accepted often indicates the strength of its supporting evidence.

Unification

In quantum mechanics, the electrons of an atom occupy orbitals around the nucleus. This image shows the orbitals of a hydrogen atom (spd) at three different energy levels (1, 2, 3). Brighter areas correspond to higher probability density.

In some cases, two or more theories may be replaced by a single theory that explains the previous theories as approximations or special cases, analogous to the way a theory is a unifying explanation for many confirmed hypotheses; this is referred to as unification of theories.[21] For example, electricity and magnetism are now known to be two aspects of the same phenomenon, referred to as electromagnetism.[22]

When the predictions of different theories appear to contradict each other, this is also resolved by either further evidence or unification. For example, physical theories in the 19th century implied that the Sun could not have been burning long enough to allow certain geological changes as well as the evolution of life. This was resolved by the discovery of nuclear fusion, the main energy source of the Sun.[23] Contradictions can also be explained as the result of theories approximating more fundamental (non-contradictory) phenomena. For example, atomic theory is an approximation of quantum mechanics. Current theories describe three separate fundamental phenomena of which all other theories are approximations;[24] the potential unification of these is sometimes called the Theory of Everything.[21]

Example: Relativity

In 1905, Albert Einstein published the principle of special relativity, which soon became a theory.[25] Special relativity predicted the alignment of the Newtonian principle of Galilean invariance, also termed Galilean relativity, with the electromagnetic field.[26] By omitting from special relativity the luminiferous aether, Einstein stated that time dilation and length contraction measured in an object in relative motion is inertial—that is, the object exhibits constant velocity, which is speed with direction, when measured by its observer. He thereby duplicated the Lorentz transformation and the Lorentz contraction that had been hypothesized to resolve experimental riddles and inserted into electrodynamic theory as dynamical consequences of the aether’s properties. An elegant theory, special relativity yielded its own consequences,[27] such as the equivalence of mass and energy transforming into one another and the resolution of the paradox that an excitation of the electromagnetic field could be viewed in one reference frame as electricity, but in another as magnetism.

Einstein sought to generalize the invariance principle to all reference frames, whether inertial or accelerating.[28] Rejecting Newtonian gravitation—a central force acting instantly at a distance—Einstein presumed a gravitational field. In 1907, Einstein’s equivalence principle implied that a free fall within a uniform gravitational field is equivalent to inertial motion.[28] By extending special relativity’s effects into three dimensions, general relativity extended length contraction into space contraction, conceiving of 4D space-time as the gravitational field that alters geometrically and sets all local objects’ pathways. Even massless energy exerts gravitational motion on local objects by “curving” the geometrical “surface” of 4D space-time. Yet unless the energy is vast, its relativistic effects of contracting space and slowing time are negligible when merely predicting motion. Although general relativity is embraced as the more explanatory theory via scientific realism, Newton’s theory remains successful as merely a predictive theory via instrumentalism. To calculate trajectories, engineers and NASA still uses Newton’s equations, which are simpler to operate.[16]

Assumptions in formulating theories

An assumption (or axiom) is a statement that is accepted without evidence. For example, assumptions can be used as premises in a logical argument. Isaac Asimov described assumptions as follows:

…it is incorrect to speak of an assumption as either true or false, since there is no way of proving it to be either (If there were, it would no longer be an assumption). It is better to consider assumptions as either useful or useless, depending on whether deductions made from them corresponded to reality…Since we must start somewhere, we must have assumptions, but at least let us have as few assumptions as possible.[46]

Certain assumptions are necessary for all empirical claims (e.g. the assumption that reality exists). However, theories do not generally make assumptions in the conventional sense (statements accepted without evidence). While assumptions are often incorporated during the formation of new theories, these are either supported by evidence (such as from previously existing theories) or the evidence is produced in the course of validating the theory. This may be as simple as observing that the theory makes accurate predictions, which is evidence that any assumptions made at the outset are correct or approximately correct under the conditions tested.

Conventional assumptions, without evidence, may be used if the theory is only intended to apply when the assumption is valid (or approximately valid). For example, the special theory of relativity assumes an inertial frame of reference. The theory makes accurate predictions when the assumption is valid, and does not make accurate predictions when the assumption is not valid. Such assumptions are often the point with which older theories are succeeded by new ones (the general theory of relativity works in non-inertial reference frames as well).

The term “assumption” is actually broader than its standard use, etymologically speaking. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and online Wiktionary indicate its Latin source as assumere (“accept, to take to oneself, adopt, usurp”), which is a conjunction of ad- (“to, towards, at”) and sumere (to take). The root survives, with shifted meanings, in the Italian assumere and Spanish sumir. The first sense of “assume” in the OED is “to take unto (oneself), receive, accept, adopt”. The term was originally employed in religious contexts as in “to receive up into heaven”, especially “the reception of the Virgin Mary into heaven, with body preserved from corruption”, (1297 CE) but it was also simply used to refer to “receive into association” or “adopt into partnership”. Moreover, other senses of assumere included (i) “investing oneself with (an attribute)”, (ii) “to undertake” (especially in Law), (iii) “to take to oneself in appearance only, to pretend to possess”, and (iv) “to suppose a thing to be” (all senses from OED entry on “assume”; the OED entry for “assumption” is almost perfectly symmetrical in senses). Thus, “assumption” connotes other associations than the contemporary standard sense of “that which is assumed or taken for granted; a supposition, postulate” (only the 11th of 12 senses of “assumption”, and the 10th of 11 senses of “assume”).

Reference

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  15. See Acid–base reaction.
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  17. See, for example, Common descent and Evidence for common descent.
  18. For example, see the article on the discovery of Neptune; the discovery was based on an apparent violation of the orbit of Uranus as predicted by Newtonian mechanics. This explanation did not require any modification of the theory, but rather modification of the hypothesis that there were only seven planets in the Solar System.
  19. U. Le Verrier (1859), (in French), “Lettre de M. Le Verrier à M. Faye sur la théorie de Mercure et sur le mouvement du périhélie de cette planète”, Comptes rendus hebdomadaires des séances de l’Académie des sciences (Paris), vol. 49 (1859), pp. 379–83.
  20. For example, the modern theory of evolution (the modern evolutionary synthesis) incorporates significant contributions from R. A. Fisher, Ernst Mayr, J. B. S. Haldane, and many others.
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  24. The strong force, the electroweak force, and gravity. The electroweak force is the unification of electromagnetism and the weak force. All observed causal interactions are understood to take place through one or more of these three mechanisms, although most systems are far too complicated to account for these except through the successive approximations offered by other theories.
  25. Albert Einstein (1905) “Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper Archived 2009-12-29 at the Wayback Machine”, Annalen der Physik 17: 891; English translation On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies by George Barker Jefferyand Wilfrid Perrett (1923); Another English translation On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies by Megh Nad Saha (1920).
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