Reporting on science

According to the Associated Press, a new “theory” has been devised to explain Saturn’s rings.1 The rings have baffled science for centuries, and I don’t believe we have any concrete idea on how they were formed. We know what they are, being composed of about 95% ice, with the remainder being mostly rock. But how they were formed is an interesting mystery unto itself, kind of like why Venus is spinning “backward”.

But my concern with the article isn’t with the idea being presented, it’s the word choice. When reporting on scientific findings, journalists need to be discriminating in their word use. This means they need to avoid using the word “theory” in its conversational connotative sense as it is the improper word to use.

The proper word to use in reporting new findings is always “hypothesis”. This is a new idea that has stood up to some criticism and peer review, and it’s only been recently published in a scientific journal. It’s bound to generate a lot of discussion within the science community as well. The question is how well this hypothesis will hold up to future observations and discussion.

A “theory” in science, such as the theories of gravity and evolution, are well-supported explanations that encompass facts, hypotheses and laws. They have withstood challenge from many angles, make testable predictions on what we should expect from future observations and experiments, and provide a new level of understanding of the world around us. In many cases, a theory is also a field of study: evolutionary biology, music theory, and economic theory, for example.

A single hypothesis, however, will not become a theory. A hypothesis explains a small set of observations. Hypotheses give rise to new hypotheses, and if a consistent pattern is observed, it may give rise to a scientific law – something that is always true given a set of circumstances. Theories encompass many hypotheses and laws.

So a note to the Associated Press and other press organizations, please watch your terminology. It’s not only with science I’ve seen the issue, as misuses of terms seem to be very common in journalism. After all, how many times have journalists misreported that “cookies”, in the realm of computers, are “programs”? (Google “cookies are programs” and you’ll see the extent of this nonsense.)

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References   [ + ]

1. Borenstein, Seth. (2010, December 12.) “Saturn’s rings: Leftovers from a cosmic murder?”. Associated Press.