Thursday, February 25, 2010

Facts Versus Notions, Hypotheses, and Theories

The word theory is generally meant to express what is more technically referred to as a notion; an idea that people have that is either vague or grossly unproven. This gives rise to comments like; "it's just a theory".

In academic circles, a theory is an explanation for the relationship of all known example of something. For example, evolutionary theory accounts well for all known fossils- it gets refined when new examples appear. Darwin, for example didn't have a science of genetics to help explain how traits where passed on. He also couldn't as efficiently account for animals that looked similar. For example, Auks(living in the arctic) and Penguins(living in the antarctic) look similar but genetically are very different species. This fits nicely with the idea that a bird that adapts to living in cold regions might eventually take on the overall form shared by the two species.

A hypothesis arises when, after looking at a limited number of examples, a possible and testable explanation arises. Experiments and methods are used, adapted or devised to test the hypothesis. Early research is a bridge between a hypothesis and a notion. For example, in the current research I am involved with, we are looking at how people interact and behave when playing video games, especially Wii. If you ask, we haven't collected enough data to formulate a hypothesis. Some of us have some notions as to what kind of social behavior will arise, but we haven't nearly enough data collected to see real patterns emerging. In time patterns will start to appear and we will have hypotheses that we can test to explain the social behaviors that emerge.

At later stages, we may do things like creating digital games to see how people interact with the game and each other in specific situations. This will allow us to test those hypotheses and give explanations for the behavior that emerges. However, those theories will be subject to revision as new ways of playing games and social pressures cause new behavior to emerge in the future. In the hard science's Isaac Newton developed his theories of physics, and these work well for describing objects bigger than atoms and slower than about 6% of the speed of light. His theory is accounted for by the Einsteins' theory of relativity, that accounts for really fast motion, up to the speed of light. and Quantum theory, that describes actions from within the atom. As yet, no theory has been able to account for all three. The facts seem to contradict each other, but the behavior of very fast and very small objects have been seen and described.

"If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country."
-E.M. Forster