No, You Can’t Just Refute A Scientific Theory

Updated on July 31, 2018

Scientific Theories

Whenever I try to explain the Big Bang or evolution, so many deniers tell me that it’s “just a theory”. This argument is frustrating because scientific theories are extremely reliable pieces of evidence. The word “theory” might be a little bit misleading. In our vernacular, the idea is often interchangeable with guesses, beliefs, or assumptions. However, in the scientific world, there is a big difference between a guess and a theory. There are guesses in science, which are commonly known as hypotheses. A hypothesis is just a conceivable explanation for an observation. For example, when you hold a pen a couple feet above the ground and then let go of it, it is going to fall. There could be a million possible reasons or hypotheses for why it fell. Perhaps a giant vacuum opened up underneath the ground. The pen got sucked towards the vacuum, but then the vacuum quickly closed up, so the pen just landed nicely on the ground. Before the scientific community goes around saying that a vacuum opened up underneath the pen, scientists will first run some tests on this hypothesis.

To test a hypothesis, a scientist is going to conduct a series of experiments and collect plenty of data. After a couple of experiments and making a few more observations during these experiments, a scientist may alter the hypothesis a little bit. After all, if a vacuum really did open up underneath the ground, then one would expect the entire ground to get sucked into the vacuum. Therefore, a better hypothesis designed to fit the observation might state that a very specific type vacuum opened up that only wanted to suck in the pen. Of course, scientists might realize that no such vacuum exists, so they have to fix their hypothesis some more and say something is specifically pulling the pen towards the center of the Earth without pulling down the rest of the ground. Eventually, scientists will call this phenomenon gravity. The pen moves towards the center of the Earth because it has enough mass to move towards something else with a lot of mass.

This force of gravity actually does have an effect on the ground, even if the ground is not going to collapse in on itself. It has an effect on many different things and Newton gave us a handy way of mathematically describing the effects of gravity. The law of gravity states that every single point of mass attracts every other single point of mass with a force that acts along the line that intersects the two points. This force is proportional to the product of the two masses and it is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between the two points of mass. We can all thank Newton for giving us more words and equations to memorize in physics class, but his law of gravity basically states that masses are attracted to each other and the strength of this attraction will depend on both the distance between the two masses and the size of the two masses. Therefore, bigger objects that are closer together are going to exert a lot of gravitational force. The pen is admittedly a rather small object, but the Earth is a relatively big object, so the gravitational force coming from the center of the Earth is going to pull that pen towards the ground.

Gravity is also more than just a law. It started as a hypothesis, meaning it was used to explain why your pen falls. However, it became much more than a simple guess about why something occurs the way it occurs. After all, we can use this explanation to understand a whole array of natural phenomena. We can also use this explanation to predict future phenomena. If a hypothesis successfully predicts future events and adequately explains past and current events, then it is considered an incredibly strong hypothesis. Once a hypothesis starts explaining enough events, scientists will start to call it a theory. The theory of gravity actually fits mostly within Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

Luckily, unless you believe the Earth is flat, you probably are not going to dispute that things fall towards the center of the Earth. Still, theories can never be fully proven. Since the theory of gravity has made a bunch of accurate predictions, it is difficult to disprove it. However, there is no way to show that there are not any specialized invisible pen vacuums opening up under our feet every time a pen falls to the ground. These vacuums exist within the realm of plausible deniability, meaning it is possible to deny it, but it is also possible to accept it. Of course, very few people are going to start denying gravity because of some irrational notion about vacuums. After all, if you accept the hypothesis about pen vacuums, you are definitely ignoring the mounting evidence that gravity is real.

Most scientific theories are just as tried and as tested as the theory of gravity. In fact, they would not be considered theories if they did not make sufficient predictions about the universe. However, somehow, people still find a way to deny theories under the assumption that plausible deniability is a valid argument. Unless you think a valid argument is one that has no solid evidence to back it up, you cannot use plausible deniability as an argument, which means that you are making a meaningless point if you say something is “just a theory”. Of course, the theory of gravity may not have that many opponents who claim that it is “just a theory”, but many people use this argument to deny theories like evolution and the Big Bang.

Evolution and the Big Bang obviously have something in common. They can test your religious beliefs. I can definitely appreciate it if you do not want to compare God to absurd hypotheses such as the pen vacuum hypothesis. The funny thing is that even Charles Darwin believed in God. He developed the theory of natural selection, which is the main driving force behind evolution. Without Darwin, we would not have today’s theory of evolution. Darwin was well aware of how controversial evolution would be for some religious people, which was probably part of the reason why he actually delayed publishing his work. However, his book subtly says that evolution does not contradict God. He never stopped believing in God and he never stopped practicing religion. In fact, it is actually incredibly easy to believe in both God and evolution. You obviously cannot take the creation story in the Bible too literally, but I am willing to bet that you do not take every word of the Bible literally. At some point, someone decided that creation was one of the foundations of faith, but it does not have to be. You can easily believe that God created a world where things like the Big Bang and evolution could take place. Darwin certainly believed in this version of creation.

The difference between religion and the pen vacuum hypothesis is that religion does not always stand against science. If the pen vacuum hypothesis were true, then the theory of gravity would completely fall apart. However, religion is a much vaguer concept that means different things to different people. Therefore, many different types of religion do not contradict science in any way. People have decided to create a false dichotomy between science and religion and, as a result, many scientific theories are not taken seriously. However, you cannot just dismiss a scientific theory without evidence against it. You can poke holes in it and force scientists to alter a theory. You can develop a new theory that seems to make better predictions about natural phenomena. You can argue that some of the scientists behind the development of a theory harbored certain biases. The scientific world is definitely open to debate. You just need evidence. After all, the scientists are going to be coming to the debate with piles and piles of data and evidence. If you are under the illusion that a scientist will not have the data, then you really have not spoken to enough scientists.

Questions & Answers

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      • profile image

        BradMasterOCcal 

        11 months ago

        BackOfTheClassThoughts

        I think we are in agreement on many things here.

        Our main difference is about the single point. Once committed to the single point the BBT is cast, and all of its finding are blueprinted with that mind set. The grand unification might change that theory, but we don't know because we don't have one.

        Gravity or the theory of gravity may hold additional knowledge. It is today pretty close to what we learned in high school physics. Of course, we have many more components identified in physics today. But none of them has broken the ideas formulated long ago.

        Many of our laws of physics have been formulated based on the BBT and its closed universe. Nothing can be added, and that is where we get matter cannot be created nor destroyed just changed. It is like accounting 101, the left and the right must equal each other.

        As for legal guilt, even though for crimes it has to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, it still doesn't mean it is a truth, So many convictions have been found to be wrong as proof contradicted the decision.

        The universe works on a more factual than subjective one. But when humans try to understand it they are not on the same level of understanding as the universe. In other words, we are looking at the universe through our brain, and we may not be capable of understanding it. For example, the human brain needs to be correct, and in doing so it fills in gaps to make its picture. This results in a lot of illusions. That try to make sense of what we are seeing, and yet what we are seeing doesn't make sense.

        We also have theories like the cat in a box. Is the cat dead or alive, don't know until we open it. I see this theory as when we look at something we could be changing it. Like a voltmeter with low impedance, the voltmeter then becomes part of the circuit destroying the real voltage in the circuit.

        Anyway, I appreciate you patience here. I tend to ask too many questions, and have too many of my own answers. Thus violating all that I said here about theories.

        Thanks

      • Bored Student profile imageAUTHOR

        BackOfTheClassThoughts 

        11 months ago from Massachusettes

        The Big Bang does not really address how and why the universe continues to expand. You are correct in saying that scientists still may not know why the universe expands, but the Big Bang Theory was originally hypothesized simply because Hubble (and others) observed that this expansion was occuring. The reason for this expansion remains a mystery, but scientists assert that the expansion had to start somewhere. We do not know why, we do not know how long it will go on, and we do not know what was there beforehand. In fact, talking about a time before the Big Bang is somewhat misleading because there was probably no such thing as time before the Big Bang. It is definitely difficult to conceptualize timelessness, but I digress.

        I just want to reiterate that our lack of understanding for the present/future of our universe is not a good reason to dismiss theories about its past. If we one day understand why the universe probably will not contract, then you are right in saying that this understanding will lead to the next breakthrough. Maybe this breakthrough will demonstrate that the Big Bang is a weak theory, but the evidence suggests that future breakthroughs will demonstrate that the universe as we know it probably started as a single point in time/space. You may ask what this evidence is, especially since the evidence of universal expansion is not fully understood. However, universal expansion is only one piece of the puzzle. I also already listed cosmic microwave background radiation as a piece of evidence. The abundance of light chemicals (such as helium) in the universe is also consistent with the Big Bang Theory. I am sure that you can read plenty of other books and studies that can add to the evidence.

        Again, while the evidence is relatively extensive, theories are impossible to prove. In fact, in technical terms, certain mathematical principles are the only things that can be proven, but even those rely on various axioms. In legal terms, guilt can also be proven. However, in the scientific world, nothing can be proven because nothing is ever 100% certain. We can have concepts such as Cell Theory, which states (among other things) that all organisms are made out of cells. However, it is possible that we might find some sort of lifeform that is made out of something completely different. Until we test every single living thing in the universe, we will never know if Cell Theory is right or wrong. Since it is impossible to know if we have successfully tested every single organism, Cell Theory will always remain unproven. Even things like viruses have muddied the waters a little bit, but the dilemma of viruses is actually a slightly different conversation. For now, however, scientists have no reason to stop believing that all organisms are made out of cells.

        The same goes for the Big Bang Theory. Until we can go back in time and literally watch the formation of the universe (assuming eyewitness accounts of this formation would be 100% trustworthy), we will never be able to prove the Big Bang Theory. In the meantime, there is no reason to dismiss it, but there is no doubt that trying to refute it can definitely lead to progress. In fact, there are probably scientists out there who are trying to find good evidence against it. However, I do not think you can refute the Big Bang Theory on the grounds that it is a theory. You can refute it by finding another theory to take its place because, yes, theories are a type of placeholder, but they are considered incredibly strong placeholders. Since they are placeholders, they can be replaced, but only if you can come up with a good reason. This good reason should not sound something like "it's just a theory". You should not dismiss a theory just because there is a slight possibility that it might be dismissed in the future by the discovery of actual evidence. If you have a problem with what theories do, then you definitely have a problem with scientific methods in general and I am happy to hear if you have an alternative way of pursuing knowledge.

        Additionally, I have no problem with you debating the Big Bang Theory with counter-evidence. Your counter-evidence seems to be about our lack of understanding for universal expansion, but I am failing to understand why this lack of understanding demonstrates the falseness of the idea that this mysterious expansion started somewhere. You also mentioned Newton's First Law of Motion and how we cannot explain why a single point of space/time would ever start expanding without being acted on by another force. I agree that I cannot explain what the force may have been, but the laws of physics only exist within this universe, which means there is a chance that Newton's First Law of Motion does not really apply here. Others have hypothesized that our universe is part of a larger multiverse, which means that something in this multiverse could have acted upon our universe to cause its formation. For all I know, some sort of deity could have caused the Big Bang.

        All the confusion about what caused the Big Bang should not convince anyone that it never happened. Again, we may not know why or how, but the universe is expanding. Since it is expanding, it must have originally been much smaller than it is today, so the Big Bang Theory simply states that the universe was once infinitesimally small. There probably are some grounds out there to reject this notion, but rejecting it simply because you may find grounds to reject it in the future is not reasonable.

      • bradmasterOCcal profile image

        Brad NOYFB 

        11 months ago

        Scientific theories may just be unprovable placeholders, but accepting or rejecting them is not supposed to be a complex choice between two well reasoned options. Rather, it is a choice between ignoring or accepting evidence.

        B:

        Your conclusion goes against your premise. "unprovable" and "evidence".

        Theories are good until a new one comes along that is better.

        --------------------------

        While the Big Bang Theory certainly has a couple of holes in it, most of the evidence suggests that the universe is expanding and did start out as a single point of space/time

        B:

        Using the word "did" is not evidence. And based on the BBT, scientists are baffled why based on it, the universe should be contracting back to that single point. This raises doubt about the BBT.

        Space Time is another theory. And there still isn't a grand unification theory, is there.

        Yes, science has come a long way since Copernicus and Einstein but where are we on the road to truth?

        --------------------------------

        . A couple decades ago, scientists believed that a Big Crunch would occur, meaning space would eventually begin to contract. However, now, some scientists believe that space is going to expand infinitely, perhaps ending in a Big Rip or Heat Death. There is certainly debate on how the universe is going to end. There is even debate on exactly how it began within the scientific community, even though the Big Bang posits the most likely scenario

        B:

        Again, more theories, some support it, some don't.

        ---------------------

        . However, there is enough enough data (including background radiation, the cosmological constant, and more) that scientists will tell you that it began as a single point of space/time.

        B:

        How can they be sure, when they don't know why the universe is still expanding, and they don't know anything before the "single point", do they?

        "An object at rest tends to stay at rest, unless" What is that "unless" in the BBT? Once the action started the BBT makes the change explosion like fast. Can you state how long it was at rest?

        ----------------------------------------------

        Other scientific theories also have various holes in it. Evolution, for example, cannot completely explain why bees and ants sometimes forgo the ability to reproduce. There are a couple of suggestions for why this behavior occurs, including Kin Selection. However, evolutionary biologists are still debating it and may always be debating it. Even though various aspects of the Theory of Evolution are up for debate, the data still points to the idea that life began as a single cell and evolved from there.

        B:

        And we are better able to research that because the trail is here, or is it? What have we learned about the pyramids in the last 100 years that unsettles any theories that existed before.

        -------------------------

        Even widely accepted theories are up for debate. The Theory of Gravity is not perfect since scientists continue to argue about the effects of gravity on an extremely small scale. However, we all still know that objects with mass are attracted to one another.

        b:

        That is the Einstein problem of grand unification. Big can be explained with one theory, but another theory has to explain small. But it would be nice to have one theory apply to both.

        -------------------------

        Every theory is going to have points that are not completely understood and no single theory can be fully proven. The point that I am trying to make is that choosing to reject a theory on the basis that it is a theory is not a cogent response to a scientist's assertions. You can argue with the data and, if your counter-data is convincing enough, you can convince the scientific community to alter or throw away theories. Again, scientists are down to debate with you, but to reject something that contains mountains and mountains of evidence, you are going to need some counter-evidence.

        B:

        Actually all the evidence is what they can't explain. That says your theory doesn't satisfy the truth.

        I am not really arguing against your premise, but I am saying the arguing against the finality of your theory is how we got new theories. The point is that the theory got us so far, but to get further we can rely on the theory, as the theory may be flawed in the exact area where we could make a breakthrough.

        Like the 4 minute mile, everyone was told it could humanly be beaten, and once it was beaten then everyone started beating it.

        Also, instead of define the speed of light, could you derive it from E and M? What about SR and GR?

        -----------------

        My comments were just my theories:)

        Thanks

      • Bored Student profile imageAUTHOR

        BackOfTheClassThoughts 

        11 months ago from Massachusettes

        Scientific theories may just be unprovable placeholders, but accepting or rejecting them is not supposed to be a complex choice between two well reasoned options. Rather, it is a choice between ignoring or accepting evidence.

        While the Big Bang Theory certainly has a couple of holes in it, most of the evidence suggests that the universe is expanding and did start out as a single point of space/time. A couple decades ago, scientists believed that a Big Crunch would occur, meaning space would eventually begin to contract. However, now, some scientists believe that space is going to expand infinitely, perhaps ending in a Big Rip or Heat Death. There is certainly debate on how the universe is going to end. There is even debate on exactly how it began within the scientific community, even though the Big Bang posits the most likely scenario. However, there is enough enough data (including background radiation, the cosmological constant, and more) that scientists will tell you that it began as a single point of space/time.

        Other scientific theories also have various holes in it. Evolution, for example, cannot completely explain why bees and ants sometimes forgo the ability to reproduce. There are a couple of suggestions for why this behavior occurs, including Kin Selection. However, evolutionary biologists are still debating it and may always be debating it. Even though various aspects of the Theory of Evolution are up for debate, the data still points to the idea that life began as a single cell and evolved from there.

        Even widely accepted theories are up for debate. The Theory of Gravity is not perfect since scientists continue to argue about the effects of gravity on an extremely small scale. However, we all still know that objects with mass are attracted to one another.

        Every theory is going to have points that are not completely understood and no single theory can be fully proven. The point that I am trying to make is that choosing to reject a theory on the basis that it is a theory is not a cogent response to a scientist's assertions. You can argue with the data and, if your counter-data is convincing enough, you can convince the scientific community to alter or throw away theories. Again, scientists are down to debate with you, but to reject something that contains mountains and mountains of evidence, you are going to need some counter-evidence.

      • bradmasterOCcal profile image

        Brad NOYFB 

        11 months ago

        I am sorry, because after reading your article I am not convinced that a theory is just a theory. It is a placeholder until another theory replaces it.

        For example, the theory or scientific law, that Matter cannot be created nor destroyed only changed is a result of the closed system from the big bang theory. That may be true or it may not be true. It depends on whether the big bang theory is true.

        The scientists right not are concerned with the universe seems to be expanding, because they were expecting it to be contracting. This alone means that there might be something missing from the big bang theory.

        What if a modern day Copernicus has a different theory?

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