Kirby called to complain about the reporter Nell Greenfieldboyce's use of the word "theory." The past existence of two moons was not a theory, as the reporter called it, he said. It was a hypothesis.
I groaned as office intern Andrew Maddocks relayed the conversation to me. Who cares? I was reminded of sleeping through tenth grade biology, though I did briefly flash on the memory of the perky brunette who was my lab partner.
"Colloquially, a theory is when someone has this wild idea," Kirby had said, but in science it's something more substantiated. A hypothesis, on the other hand, he said, is more like an educated guess, which is what he figured the idea of two moons to be.
I must have looked like I was falling asleep again, because Maddocks had this explanation for why most of us get it wrong: "Ask a friend an impossible question like, 'So why do you think true love is so hard to find?' and they'll probably say, 'Well, I have this theory ...' "
That got my interest, but Maddocks is a young man and so perhaps his hormones were controlling his mindset, I thought. So, I went to science senior editor Alison Richards.
True love was simpler, it turns out.
A hypothesis is a theory, she wrote to me last week, but there is a difference between theories with a small 't' and a capital 'T.' Now, this isn't a definition that you will find in a dictionary, but I think she was trying to humor me.
"For all general listeners, the word 'theory ' — with a small 't' — conveys essentially what scientists mean by the term 'hypothesis': that is, an educated guess or a tentative explanation."
"For scientists, the term 'hypothesis' carries a stricter meaning," she said, "in that a hypothesis has to be testable by observation or experiment. This implies a certain rigor of argument, but it still boils down to an educated guess. So in the case of the moon story, the use of the word 'theory' is both correct and appropriate. The context also made it very clear that it was a 'hypothesis', and not a theory with a capital T."
OK, I got that. Now comes the part with the capital T:
"A Theory with a capital T, such as Einstein's 'Theory of Relativity,' DOES mean something at odds with common usage. It refers specifically to a generally accepted explanation that accounts for all the data gathered so far, and is backed by large amounts of evidence (and there is no evidence to dispute it). This usage can occasionally be confusing for non-scientists. That's why creationists like to say that Darwin's Theory is 'just' a theory. In this case, we would underline the distinction to avoid misunderstanding."
This was when I had my "Eureka!" moment: If there is so much confusion over what theories are, then either linguists or scientists are failing the American people, and NPR and the news media are co-responsible. I wondered if another language—Italian or German?—might be better at parsing different kinds of theories than is English.
I make light to get you, dear readers, this far into a seemingly arcane discussion. But this may be more profound than what two moons mean for love and war. Over the last weekend alone, I read an essay in The New Yorker on the Roman philosopher Lucretius and his book-length poem, "On the Nature of Things." It was lost in the Dark Ages but, re-discovered, became a central inspiration behind the Renaissance and the ensuing march to modernity. And then I stumbled on another piece in The New York Times. Both essays bemoaned our turn away from scientific thinking.
As Neal Gabler of the University of Southern California wrote in the Times: "It is no secret, especially here in America, that we live in a post-Enlightenment age in which rationality, science, evidence, logical argument and debate have lost the battle in many sectors, and perhaps even in society generally, to superstition, faith, opinion and orthodoxy. While we continue to make giant technological advances, we may be the first generation to have turned back the epochal clock — to have gone backward intellectually from advanced modes of thinking into old modes of belief."
No wonder: today's scientists seem generally to be thinking small (Gabler's concern) and communicating poorly (my concern).
This is no criticism of Richards or Greenfieldboyce. Their use of the word "theory" was correct, according to my Merriam-Webster. It's just that the dictionary has six definitions. As a marketer would put it, having so many meanings is mixed messaging. Any one message is lost. For science, this contributes to the danger of its falling into a virtual black hole, as far as the public is concerned. Already, how many of us know the name of a single living scientist?
But what do I know? I am just a scribe who slept through biology. You are welcome to invite me to go back to dreaming of love. Or give your own, more serious thoughts on how science might be better communicated.