The Development of Scientific Theories

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  • 0:00 Explaining Scientific Theories
  • 0:47 Starting with the…
  • 1:32 The Method Continues:…
  • 3:01 Theory vs. Law
  • 3:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lisa Roundy

Lisa has taught at all levels from kindergarten to college and has a master's degree in human relations.

It takes quite a bit of time to develop a scientific theory, and it is a rigorous process. This lesson will describe what scientific theories are and how they are developed by scientists.

Explaining Scientific Theories

Do you want to know how scientific theories are developed? Well, we'll get into that in a moment. First, we need to make sure we understand what a scientific theory is and what it is not. In a casual discussion with a friend, you may say an idea you have is just a theory to imply that the idea may or may not be correct. In other words, it's speculation that you can't really back up with solid evidence.

However, the word theory has a significantly different meaning when it's used in science. A scientific theory is a tested and accepted explanation of why things happen; it is knowledge that has been through rigorous testing and found to be a reliable explanation of a phenomenon. It's not just a guess!

Starting with the Scientific Method

Now, let's talk about how scientific theories are created. Put simply, a scientific theory is created by following the scientific method. First, a scientist observes a phenomenon. Next, they research all known information about this phenomenon. Then, the scientist will develop a hypothesis, or a possible explanation of the phenomenon based on what they have observed and researched. The hypothesis will be tested and a conclusion will be reached stating that the hypothesis can either be disproved or cannot be disproved through testing.

Most likely, you have created a science project in school and have had some experience with the scientific method up to this point. What you might not realize is that this is only one piece of what takes place.

The Method Continues: An Example

Let's imagine that, through research and observation, you developed the hypothesis that rats with longer tails are more intelligent. You ran an experiment to test rat intelligence and found that your hypothesis was not disproved. Congratulations! You have accomplished the first step toward developing a scientific theory.

Now, you need to make your research public so it can be reviewed and tested by other scientists. Two things may happen at this point: other scientists reproduce similar results linking rat intelligence to longer tails, or other scientists cannot find evidence to support that rat intelligence is linked to longer tails. If other scientists don't support your research, it won't be considered valid. However, if the work of other scientists supports your research, the evidence will continue to accumulate.

If no evidence is found to contradict your research and enough evidence is accumulated, you could be credited with developing the long tail theory of rat intelligence. The down side is that you might not be alive to celebrate your accomplishment because it takes a great deal of time and review for research to achieve the status of scientific theory.

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