Thrawn Rickle 13
What is a Theory?
© 1994 Williscroft 

Have
you ever heard two people argue about what color a flower is? The flower is
in front of them. They both see it. The frequency of the light waves
emanating from the flower (we call this “color”) is a fact that is independent
of their perceptions. So why are they arguing? In
fact, their argument is not about the flower’s color. They are trying to
decide what name to give the color—but neither of them is aware of this. They
honestly believe they are discussing the color. This
kind of misunderstanding is the source of a deepseated, bitter rift dividing
today’s society. What
is a theory? I recently asked this question of a relatively learned friend. He
answered by comparing theory to fact, stating that a theory was a
nonsubstantive explanation for a set of facts. As more facts become known,
he said, theoretical explanations give way to factual ones. Ultimately, a
theory may be vindicated—proved by fact; or partially vindicated—partially
substantiated by fact, but also partially disproved; or overturned. In one
sense my friend is right. When a historian uses this word, one can assume he
gives it my friend’s meaning. And when a poet uses the word. And a writer. Almost
any nonscientist, in fact. On the other hand, when a scientist or engineer
means what my friend defined, he uses the word “hypothesis” or “hypothetical.”
When he uses the word “theory” or “theoretical,” however, he means something
entirely different. In
scientific usage “theoretical” is the opposite of “empirical.” In measuring
the speed of sound in sea water, for example, researchers frequently use an
equation that consists of a long series of increasingly smaller functions of density, salinity, temperature, and pressure. This
equation is the result of measuring the speed of sound in sea
water under a very large number of differing situations, and then deriving
the equation from these data. It is called an empirical equation. Another
approach to the same problem is to create a mathematical model of the ocean,
and to derive an equation for the speed of sound that depends upon the mathematical
structure of this model. This equation is called a theoretical equation. Both
equations are real. One is derived empirically, the other theoretically. Each
is subject to error, and each is only as good as its ability to predict the
actual speed of sound in any given situation. Ultimately, scientists attempt
to replace empirical equations with theoretical ones, as they gain a deeper
understanding. Einstein’s
Theory of Relatively is a set of theoretical equations derived from a
mathematical model of the universe. They explain many things in our daily
lives: why transistors work, for example. Quantum Mechanics is another theory
in physics. It explains why nuclear reactors work. These
theories are real and highly accurate, because they predict events with great
precision. They are theoretical—and they are true. When
an individual applies the historian’s definition to the scientist’s use of “theory,”
the result is confusion and misinformation. While the scientist distinguishes
between modelderived and empirical solutions, the lay person believes he
distinguishes between assumption and reality. For
the layman fact ultimately displaces theory; for the scientist, theory
ultimately explains fact. 
