Despite the efforts of education and media, most people still do not know or understand much about science and scientific research. The understanding I am referring to does not involve facts and figures so much as activities, aims, and rationales. Research in theoretical science is particularly viewed and rejected as being a total waste of money and time. Those mistaken viewpoints are largely due to an absence of knowledge about the usefulness of theories in science. This article tries to illuminate the value of theoretical research so you will understand how it plays an important role in the advancement of science.
Theories in science!
Science wants to know more about everything! Most research in biomedicine, chemistry, or physics deals with subjects and activities that can be examined directly or indirectly (e.g., animals or cells, polymers or monomers, and, minerals or atoms). Theories in all branches of science deal with subjects that are not able to be examined directly or indirectly, but can be investigated at the level of what is known already, what could be possible, what can explain something that is not understood, what would happen if and when, and, how can some valid estimate be made for something that cannot be measured directly. Theories in science basically use what is known to try to investigate or explain something that is unknown and unavailable for direct studies; their validity is judged on the basis of evidence from research experiments.
Theory versus practice!
Scientists usually are very specialized, but all can be divided into being either theorists or experimentalists. The boundaries of this division can be changed with time, when more new knowledge by experimentalists is discovered. A good example of this dynamic occurred recently when research probes and very special research instruments began to be sent far out into space (e.g., see: “The New James Webb Space Telescope!” ); all of a sudden, astrophysicists working only at the level of theoretical physics had to confront their theories with real data! Some of their theories about planets, stars, galaxies, and dark holes were validated, others had to be modified, and some were disproved. Note that even established theories that are later shown to be invalid still had been helpful for temporarily filling gaps within scientific knowledge about outer space; by proving or disproving a theory, the newly acquired experimental data advances the scientific search for truth.
My own thesis advisor was an experimentalist in cell biology, and once told me that he had seen a certain senior professor walking along a walkway on campus with his head bent forward looking only down at the pavement. That individual was a pioneering theoretical biologist who analyzed subjects with mathematics; anyone could readily imagine all kinds of equations bouncing around his head as he walked along! My advisor said all that was very well so long as the theories agreed with practice (i.e., with direct experimental data). I then asked him what he meant. He answered that this theoretician had developed a mathematical study of eukaryotic cell division, and had come up with an extensive conclusion about how that activity operated, including that the entire process took place in 24.3 seconds; this number does not match actual direct observations with microscopy showing that it takes some hours!
What is the value of theories for science?
Theories are good for science because they provide discrete points of study for new research, can give estimates where direct measurements cannot be made, and, help understand complex activities and relationships which are impossible to examine directly. For science, theories are useful as targets for research questions and for designing new experiments.
Scientific theories are more than just fanciful ideas. They are somewhat similar to large conclusions from direct research studies in that they: (1) always are subject to revision (i.e., due to new research results), (2) often last a long time, but some vanish when they are completely disproved, and, (3) stimulate new directions for experimental researchers to work on.
A classical example of the value of theories for science is the heliocentric theory of Copernicus, proposing that the Earth revolves around the Sun, unlike the older standard theory that the Sun circles around the Earth. As time passed, more and more experimental research data provided evidence that the standard theory is wrong and the heliocentric theory is correct. Many modern researchers in astronomy and space science now follow what has developed from the ancient theory of Copernicus.
Another good example is Darwin‘s theory of evolution. That complex proposal cannot be directly examined today because the eons of time during which it operated are unavailable. This extensive theory can explain very many observable details about similarities, differences, and specializations in animals, plants, microbes, and fossils. The large amount of solid evidence from research for the validity of this classical theory does not prevent ongoing questions and criticisms from being raised. That is good and is essential for science’s mission to find the truth based upon evidence from research results!
Everything can and should be questioned, even well-known theories, dogmas, or popular sacred cows! Science always seeks to evaluate and test accepted conclusions, concepts, and theories when new research experiments make additional data available. Theories and research in science are complementary, and both are very useful!
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