“Theoretically” is a Meaningless Word to Scientists

It’s time we stopped using the word “theoretically,” the word is an oxymoron unto itself, at least in the way we use it:

  • “Is it theoretically possible for science to someday create a real lightsaber? (source)”
  • “Antimatter galaxies theoretically possible, but unlikely (source)”
  • “Critics say the White House’s theoretical arguments may fly in the face of empirical evidence. (source)”
  • “…academics/media do a big disservice by raising issues that are theoretically possible, but not at all important in reality. (source)”
  • “Are MMORPG goods theoretically taxable? (source)”
  • “A science is most exciting when there are two or more strong, competing theories. (source)”

In science a theory is a “comprehensive explanation of an important feature of nature that is supported by many facts gathered over time.” A theory is not synonymous with fact, but it is the best approximation to it.

The way everyday people use the word theory is synonymous with speculation, and this leads to much confusion when debating scientific issues. People who don’t understand science argue that evolution and Anthropogenic Global Warming are only theories, not realizing that what they have actually said is that Evolution and AGW are only practically facts.

The word people should be using in the above examples is hypothetically. In science, we move from hypothesis through experimentation to theory.

There is no such thing as “competing theories.” This is an oxymoron. If they are competing, then they are hypotheses. If you have to ask if something is “theoretically possible,” then it probably isn’t, it’s merely “hypothetically possible.”

Remember Gravity is only a Theory.




7 responses to ““Theoretically” is a Meaningless Word to Scientists”