Occasionally I lose socks. This usually happens at laundry time. I think that when nobody is watching, sock gnomes break into the washing machine or tumble dryer and steal socks. I think they use them to make little suits out of to keep themselves warm.
I’ve just covered the first two steps of the scientific method.
- Determine the problem: Why do socks go missing at laundry time?
- Make a hypothesis: I think sock gnomes are stealing my socks. (in layman’s terms this could be called a “theory” which is why there is often confusion between hypotheses and theories. More on that later.)
Now if I’m going to prove my hypothesis, I need to experiment. What I’ll do is install a small camera in my washing machine and record what happens when the machine is left unattended. If there are sock gnomes, the camera will catch them (unless they’re invisible sock gnomes; ut oh my experiment needs fine tuning, possibly involving a bag of flour).
Of course a key piece of the scientific method is replication. If I do see sock gnomes in my washing machine, that won’t be enough for most scientists because they are suspicious and skeptical by nature. They will want to reproduce my experiment on their own washing machines and see the sock gnomes for themselves. If everyone sees sock gnomes, then my hypotheses has been validated.
Once we have data from many experiments (not just with cameras, those scientists are smart, they will come up with different ways to detect the sock gnomes, maybe even catch one!), then we can analyze the data and come up with a scientific theory.
There’s that theory word again. This is where people get confused. In layman’s terms, a theory is a hypothesis, something you might say to your mates over a few beers. “I reckon if you tied a piece of bread butter side up to the back of a cat, then dropped the cat, it would float”. That’s a hypothesis, and your average non-scientist might call it a theory.
It is not the same as a scientific theory. Aerodynamics is a scientific theory. We don’t say “I don’t believe in aeroplanes, aerodynamics is just a theory!”. That’s because a scientific theory is the conclusion of a repeatedly tested and validated hypothesis. A scientify theory has a wealth of analyzed data and observation backing it up. A scientific theory is something we can rely on.
So can a scientific theory be wrong? Well sadly yes it can, but the chances are, if the theory has experimental data backing it up, it is at least partially right. It might need tweaking here and there, it might be missing some crucial details, it might need refining, but that data tells us we have a firm foundation.
Evolution is a scientific theory. It is the conclusion of repeatedly tested and validated hypotheses. It has a wealth of experimental data and observations backing it up.
Sadly my sock gnome hypothesis will probably never become a scientific theory. Sock gnomes could exist and could be stealing my socks as we speak, but I doubt I could get funding for a serious research project into the sock gnome hypothesis. There is as much proof for my sock gnomes as there is for Creationism.