Only a theory?

When scientific terms are misunderstood and misused

One of the more deep-seated human weaknesses is the desire to sound knowledgeable about things one has absolutely no clue about. Although traces of this are found in almost everybody, some individuals demonstrate it more than others. To their own detriment, of course, because all they do when they talk about things that they do not have the foggiest idea about is show how foolish they are. Especially when it comes to scientific and technical terms, it is better to leave them alone unless one knows what one is talking about.

Of course, words can have various meanings, and it is the context that makes all the difference. An example would suffice for illustration of this. While in everyday life it is all right to use the words ‘tension’, ‘stress’ and ‘strain’ to mean the same thing – that is, emotional/mental distress or uneasiness – when it comes to engineering, they are quite distinct terms that can never be used interchangeably. One cannot be too precise when it comes to scientific and technical terms.

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Probably the most frequently misunderstood and misused scientific term is ‘theory’. One periodically hears people contemptuously dismissing something by saying: ‘But that is only a theory!’ This verdict is delivered with a finality that does not allow for any more discussion on the issue. Sometimes the response is a little more elaborate than that. For example: ‘That is just a theory, not a fact,’ or ‘That is only a theory as opposed to a law.’ Among laymen, there is an unbelievable amount of confusion regarding scientific facts, scientific laws, and scientific theories. That said, it is not exactly rocket science; and can be learned by anybody who is even reasonably intelligent. With a lot of readily accessible material available on the subject, interested parties can educate themselves easily. Until they do so however, they can do worse than using these terms casually. Suffice it to say here that a scientific theory – being much more elusive and respectable than a fact or a law – can never be summarized as ‘only a theory’. The theory of relativity and quantum mechanics are not ‘just’ theories. They explain physical phenomena in two large and important spheres of physical observations. Neither will be the so-called theory of everything – the holy grail of physics – ‘only’ a theory if (when) it is realized. Theories are the biggest deals there can be in science – and are therefore nothing to be scoffed at.

Probably the most frequently misunderstood and misused scientific term is ‘theory’. One periodically hears people contemptuously dismissing something by saying: ‘But that is only a theory!’

Einstein and Newton happen to be the favourite targets of our simpleton friends. On many occasions I have had the fortune (or misfortune) of hearing Newton’s third law and Einstein’s theory of relativity interpreted in exceedingly peculiar ways by armchair scientists of this ilk. First the theory of relativity: Time is relative, not absolute. Because the passage of time seems slower when one is having an unpleasant time, and faster when one is enjoying oneself. While this interpretation is extremely interesting, it suffers from the minor fault that it has nothing whatsoever to do with Einstein’s theory of relativity, which is about how time passes and not about how it ‘seems’ to pass. Newton’s third law of motion: Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Therefore, if you irritate somebody, he is sure to irritate you back and in equal measure. Any wife would tell you that that is not true. Furthermore, (and what concerns us more today) this has nothing to do with Newton’s law, which is for inanimate objects and not for sentient beings capable of choosing or not choosing to behave in a particular way. Of course, it depends on whether one includes husbands in the category of sentient beings – no doubt a tough call. Be that as it may, a scientific law is not a law in the legal sense where it is up to an individual to follow it or otherwise (albeit with its consequences: jailing, etc). A scientific law is a relationship between quantities that always holds; takes one back to the need for brushing up on scientific facts, scientific laws, and scientific theories.

My purpose here is not to discourage anybody from creative thinking and giving free rein to his or her imagination – far from it. By all means, go ahead and express your insights and any brilliant thoughts you are struck with from time to time. But do not involve poor Newtons and Einsteins in it. They are long dead and therefore in no position to defend themselves. Present your findings as your own. There is way too much gloom in the world; and quality entertainment is always welcome.

Hasan Aftab Saeed
Hasan Aftab Saeed
The author is a connoisseur of music, literature, and food (but not drinks). He can be reached at


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