This is an example of a good paper (it received an A) from a previous year. The first paper then required the students to write something about the distinction between “fact” and “theory.” The paper and some of my comments (in red) follows:
14 September, 2004
[Writing: Good. Gets to the point without meandering, without awkward constructions. Good use of paragraphs, no bad sentences, no over-reliance on passive voice.]
[Argument: Very good. Well-thought out; about as sophisticated as I can expect with a short, basic paper. Takes a strong position and lays out a clear case for it. A reader might disagree, but they won’t dismiss it out of hand.]
The Facts on Theory
“Evolution is just a theory – it isn’t a fact.” If you have ever debated with someone over the theory of evolution, you are likely to have either heard this argument used against you or used the argument yourself – depending on where you stand on that particular issue. But regardless on what your beliefs on evolution are, does this statement really make sense? If something is a theory, does that mean is [> it] can be simply dismissed? What, in essence, is the difference between fact and theory? That depends on how you are using the word “theory”. [> “theory.”] [Good opening. Uses a concrete example (evolution as theory) to set the stage.]
One problem with the word “theory” is that its everyday use differs so greatly from its use in the scientific world. In science, a theory is a statement that uses deductive reasoning to predict a conclusion based on a given set of conditions and some assumptions about the way the world works (Schick & Vaughn 2002, 163-167). [Good use of a reference, and correct citation format.] However, in everyday use, many people use the word “theory” as a synonym for a conjecture or guess (in fact, while typing this essay I pulled these words out of Microsoft Word’s built-in thesaurus under “theory”). This is why people so often justify their doubt in a scientific theory simply by saying “Well, that’s only a theory” – and they often face no objection when they use this argument. However, it is not a sound argument because it assumes that scientific theories are only “guesses”, and that they are somehow less true than facts. (Sometimes people go so far as to use “theory” as an antonym of “fact”!) The truth, though, is that scientific theories are used to predict facts, and they are so successful at doing so that we often take their predictions as facts without requiring any further evidence.
In science, a theory is much like a mathematical formula. A formula takes input, performs operations on it, and outputs a result. A theory takes conditions that we know about the world and uses logical deduction to arrive at a conclusion. Whether the theory is sound or not depends on whether its logical deductions are sound, and whether all of the assumptions are valid. Furthermore, if there is ever a case observed where the theory predicts the wrong conclusion for a given set of conditions, then it must be concluded that there is something fundamentally wrong with the theory. In this case, we must either change the theory to account for the new anomaly we have found, or sometimes throw out the theory altogether and look for a new theory that explains the anomaly. The important thing to note is that unlike most assertions that need to be backed up by evidence in order to be considered true, theories can be considered true until evidence is found that they are false. This is because theories are based on established facts – they merely build upon these facts logically to arrive at a new fact. As long as the established facts are true and the logic is sound, there is no reason to doubt that the theory’s predictions will be correct. [Not entirely correct, but pretty good at this introductory level.]
Anyone who has taken an introductory physics course should know that it is possible to predict how long it will take for a ball to fall back to the ground after it has been thrown in the air. To do this, we need to use the theory of classical mechanics. To use the theory, we need to know some pre-established conditions: the acceleration due to gravity, and the speed and angle at which the ball is being thrown. As long as you know these three things, you can use the formula x – xo = vot + ½ a t2 (along with some trigonometry if the ball isn’t being thrown in the same direction as the acceleration) and solve for t to find out how long it will stay in the air before it hits the ground (“Projectile Motion”, n.d.). [“n.d.” for non-dated; when a reference has an uncertain date.] As long as there isn’t too much wind or air resistance (this equation doesn’t account for those factors), this formula will always give you a very accurate prediction – and if you have taken a physics course, then you have probably done this sort of calculation and tested it, finding it to be accurate. In fact, millions of physics students all over the world have tested this theory over and over again and have consistently found it to produce accurate results. Engineers have used similar (though often more complicated) methods that are derived from the same theory, but no one would accuse them of basing their work on mere guesswork. It would be silly to make such an accusation because the theory, like so many others, is sound. So we can see how a sound scientific theory can be trusted to produce results accurate enough to be taken as fact.
So does this mean that every scientific theory is infallible and we should always assume them to be true? [Good question, raised at the right point in the paper.] It would certainly seem not. Throughout history, many scientific theories have been proven to be incorrect or not completely correct and thus have had to have been either modified or abandoned altogether. There was a time when the theory of a geocentric (earth-centered) universe was accepted among scientists, but it has long been disproved by evidence and now we know that neither the earth nor the sun is the center of the universe. Even the theory of classical mechanics that we spoke of earlier was found to not apply at either large speeds or small distances and the theories of special relativity and quantum mechanics have since been formulated to make up for those shortcomings. We create theories to understand how the universe works, but since we will always have a limited amount of knowledge, we can never know for sure that our theories are correct. The best we can do is to assume that our best explanation is correct until we find evidence to the contrary. Unlike factual assertions which [> that] normally require evidence of their truth in order to be considered sound, a theory is considered sound as long as it is our best explanation, and until evidence can show it to be false. [Good. This is reasonably sophisticated, especially since the student writing this was not a philosophy major.]
Now that we have seen that scientific theories should not be dismissed purely on the basis that they are theories, we can see the fallacy in the argument that is so commonly used against the theory of evolution. Unfortunately, because the same word is used in a different context to mean a simple guess, there will always be misunderstanding by the general population about what a scientific theory really is. This sort of semantic dilemma is not something that can be easily solved, and it will continue to help people to promote ignorance through the misinterpretation of scientific theory. All that we can hope to do in order to help prevent this from happening is to teach others what a scientific theory is and why they cannot simply be dismissed as guesses. Education is the best medicine for misunderstanding, and as more people are educated and become aware of the scientific meaning of the word theory, it will be much harder to lure people into disbelieving a theory using the “it’s just a theory” argument. [Good closing paragraph. Not a mere summary of what came before.]
“Projectile Motion.” <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory>. Last accessed September 12, 2004. [Note that web citations must be clickable, and that they must include a “last accessed” date.]
Schick, Theodore and Lewis Vaughn. 2004. How to Think About Weird Things. Boston:
McGraw-Hill. [You should cite your textbook when you use it.]
[Only two references, but that was quite enough for this paper. You don’t need a lot of references unless you need to bring in a good deal of background information.]