There is no such thing as a scientific theory

We think of science as producing theories, the final result of scientist’s work. But when we try to identify what kind of thing a theory is, we run into a big problem: None of the accounts available seem to accurately describe what we know about how scientists work. Perhaps we should simply abandon the idea that science produces theories altogether and shift our focus on the actual practices of scientists. If we do that, we’ll not only gain a better understanding of the history and philosophy of science, but we’ll get closer to answering the biggest question of all: “How does science actually work?”, writes Steven French.

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I sure don’t. I think of science as producing knowledge.

Yes, that’s probably right. Philosophers of science tend to think of science as producing theories. But that’s a seriously mistaken view of science.

It’s true that we do not have a precise definition of “theory”. We probably don’t need one. Rather “theory” is a term of art used in science.

As I see it, science is driven by curiosity, by an attempt to better understand our world.

Yes, scientists use representations. The measurements and other data are the representations. It is just a mistake to see a theory as a representation. The theory is more of an interpretive framework that connects the representations to reality.

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I agree, but wouldn’t that also be said of pretty much any academic pursuit?

I feel similar about this one. Science should produce knowledge, but so do other disciplines, right? And sometimes what science tells us is that we really don’t know something … which is knowledge in and of itself I guess, but I don’t think it feels that way at the time. Sometimes grad school can feel like a process of trying hard to know more, only to reveal just how much we don’t know. And then there’s the very important aspect of doing science that is knowing how well we know something. I think one of the hallmarks of science is a dogged determination to assess the limits of our knowledge.

I perhaps agree with Steven French that focusing on how scientists actually work rather than assuming theories as the output of science is a good idea. The struggle that I see is that different areas of science often work so differently. I’ve never used a null hypothesis (or a formal hypothesis) in my life as a scientist, but some of my biology colleagues use that framework all the time. As an experimentalist I worked very differently from my theoretician friends in grad school. Then I think about how social sciences works and my brain explodes.

In the end, I tend to see “science” as sort of an emergent phenomenon that depends on certain attitudes, practices, values, and subject of inquiry. It seems to me “chemistry” is what a chemist does … which depends a lot on what they think chemistry is. I don’t see that much difference between a theologian, historian, or scientist except in what they study.


If we say, “OK, let’s abandon the idea that science produces theories, and let’s discuss what scientists actually do!”, does that actually change anything? Do we then retract Newton’s Laws of Motion, as emended by Einstein? And have something to replace them, maybe not now called a theory?

Or do we just change the names of the results we have, while keeping them the same? If so, what’s the big deal?


This is where the philosophy part of the history and philosophy of science kinda gets me. I’ve never really met a scientist that struggled to figure out what science was even though they often can’t give a very thorough definition (“you know, it’s biology and chemistry and physics, etc.”). I have a hard time imagining it really mattering a lot in practice whether a “theory” is an actual abstract object or a representation.

Where the “what is science” question does seem to matter is finding the dividing line between science and pseudo-science and with controversial science and science-like topics (vaccinations, origins, climate change, GMO, etc.). I’m not sure philosophy is going to save us there either.

As an undergraduate science professor I do find it interesting though how there is some process by which students go from decidedly non-scientific thinking/working to scientific thinking/working. At some point (hopefully) they start seeing theories as framework and not memorized truth, they see that reporting how well you know something is as important as reporting what you know, and that it’s very important to be skeptical of your own work. I’m not sure philosophy has much to say about that but to me those are the kinds of things that start “creating” science.


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