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Desert Diary


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We really need another word. We've all heard people say, "Oh, it's only a theory!" In fact, some of our politicians, who really should know better, have wrongly applied the phrase. The trouble is, informal use, of which even scientists are guilty, is very different from formal scientific usage. In the latter, it's the best scientific explanation that we have for some important phenomenon.

Nothing explains nuclear phenomena better than the atomic theory, nothing explains space/time better than the theory of relativity, and nothing explains the diversity and structure of life better than the theory of evolution. In short, a formal theory, far from being a pipe dream, is the best explanation for a phenomenon of the material universe.

So how did "theory" come to mean a fantasy? One likely explanation is the need people have for being taken seriously. Somehow, it sounds much better to say "I have a theory" than it does to say, "I have this wild idea". And thus the concept of theory has been so diluted. We really need another word!
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Contributor: Arthur H. Harris, Laboratory for Environmental Biology, Centennial Museum, University of Texas at El Paso.

Desert Diary is a joint production of the Centennial Museum and KTEP National Public Radio at the University of Texas at El Paso.