The Second Version

12/02/07

Words Do Matter

Discussing about semantics, the meaning and usage of words may seem like nitpicking, and sometimes it is. But on the other hand, a necessary assumption for discussion is that all those discussing give more or less the same meaning to the same words. Otherwise, it's just chaos.

I have already treated this issue in the past, but I keep running into semantic obstacles every now and then. The last case, one (leftist) guy on a blog asked me what's my idea of democracy (because I stated that democracy and marketplace of ideas are not synonyms). I replied with a list of links detailing the meaning of the word, and some philosophical discussion about democracy. He replied that he doesn't care about the links; what is my idea of democracy? This makes as much sense as asking "What is your idea of electrophilic aromatic substitution?" Well, there is only one electrophilic aromatic substitution - and there is no such thing as your personal idea of it.

There are many words being misused even in good faith, and one of them is theory.
Mrs DuToit wrote an interesting and accurate piece on nature vs. nurture in which, however, she badly misused the term theory.
You know what happens when someone posits a theory? You test it. You do experiments and studies to find out if it is correct.
No, this is not done to theories, but rather to hypotheses. An hypothesis, which is a conclusion reached after some research and/or observation, needs to be tested - and testing needs to consider both cases, what-if the hypothesis is right and what-if it is wrong.

If a hypothesis manages to pass a certain number of tests, it gets upgraded to theory. Why not to fact? Because scientists are aware that new discoveries and observations can disprove even long-held theories. Or, put in another way, it's because you cannot inductively prove something, but you can only have different levels of confidence in it.

So we have a transition-state theory to explain chemical kinetics. In practice, chemists use it as a fact, but if someone will eventually produce new compelling evidence and thus an alternative hypothesis and finally theory, we will switch to it.

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