Of Theories and Theories: Scientific Inquiry in Popular Reporting

In today’s Los Angeles Times, Monte Morin writes a fascinating article, “Global Warming ‘Hiatus’ Puts Climate Change Scientists on the Spot.” Morin’s article offers a better example of science reporting in a major newspaper, but still contains mistakes of misunderstanding scientific nomenclature. For example:

The theory, which is gaining adherents, remains unproved by actual observation. Surface temperature records date to the late 1800s, but measurements of deep water temperature began only in the 1960s, so there just isn’t enough data to chart the long-term patterns, Xie said.

Scientists have also offered other explanations for the hiatus: lack of sunspot activity, low concentrations of atmospheric water vapor and other marine-related effects. These too remain theories.

In everyday speech, a theory is synonymous to a guess. We say something is “just a theory” to communicate we have, so far, little evidence supporting the guess. Often people use the term to cast doubt on an explanation, that is, to distinguish the explanation from an established fact. In science, however, a theory has a lot of confirming evidence supporting it. A theory in science is just a notch below a law. Because science is always provisional and always open to more data, the number of scientific laws are extremely few. Theories are therefore often our best sets of knowledge. In scientific inquiry, one would likely not use the term “just a theory” to cast doubt on an explanation for why something works the way it does. Researchers hope their findings and interpretations reach the level of a theory.

If these explanations for the hiatus mentioned above are lacking evidence,  in the scientific nomenclature they remain hypotheses. They have not reached the level of theory.

Reporters have a difficult time handling the discrepancy between how we use the term theory in everyday speech and how we use it in scientific nomenclature. Most readers will read the word “theory” and assume it carries the definition we use in everyday speech—they won’t assume it has a very specific and technical meaning. Certainly we as a populace can become better educated about scientific inquiry, but we’re not helped when the reporting of science in our major newspapers and magazines doesn’t use the terms accurately.

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The Mysterious Mysteries, or: Doing Right by Wonder

Today I was watching the episode, “Sunset,” from Breaking Bad, season 3. In one scene Gale Boetticher and Walter White discuss their mutual love of chemistry with hushed awe and Gale recites the Walt Whitman poem, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.”

For those who prefer to read the poem, here it is:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Whitman’s poem is such a beautiful reminder that the world we live in is wondrous and we must do right by that wonder when we study and describe it. Too often our descriptions of the way the universe works—or the way anything else works—sucks the wonder and mystery right out of the very thing we are discussing. In high school I was blessed to take biology from Nathan Whittington, a teacher whose love for the intricacies of life dripped from every lecture. His awe was contagious as he described the exactness of RNA replication. Many of my college professors of chemistry and biology never communicated that awe and would instead spend lectures describing the minutiae of their research. They were teaching how the universe works, how life develops, and yet they seemed to have lost their sense of wonder. When Mr. Whittington spoke about the cell, the whole world became larger and more amazing. When these professors spoke about chemical bonds, the world became thinner, colorless, reduced.

Whitman’s poem reminded me, however, that this tendency to lose our sense of awe is not only found in science lecture halls. We do this all the time in churches. Instead of walking together as a community, hoping to experience the presence of the God of the universe, we reduce God into a set of affirmations and propositions that any individual can easily digest. As one who has worked as a pastor of churches, I have made the mistake of thinking I should explain God in our worship service—such hubris—rather than humbly seek to create space where we as the community could encounter the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In reviewing a Sunday service, I would ask, “Did the sermon and music connect, were they relevant to us?” rather than, “Did we have an experience of the awesome and mysterious God?” I don’t think transcendence can be controlled or manufactured, but I do believe we can work with it, we can participate in it. We must kindle awe in ourselves. We must do right by that wonder. What could be more astounding and mysterious than the God of the universe? If Whitman poetically decimated an astronomy lecturer, the following quotation from Garrison Keillor should light a fire under all of us who call ourselves followers of Christ. It comes from an interview he gave to The Wittenburg Door years ago.

We don’t go to church to hear lectures on ethical behavior, we go to look at the mysteries, and all the substitutes for communion with God are not worth anyone’s time. . . .  If you can’t go to church and, for at least a moment, be given transcendence; if you can’t go to church and pass briefly from this life into the next; then I can’t see why anyone should go.  Just a brief moment of transcendence causes you to come out of church as a changed person.