Theory vs hypothesis

Discussions unearthing human history including cultural anthropology, linguistics, etc.

Theory vs hypothesis

Postby psionic11 on November 17th, 2013, 8:34 pm 

Forest, I need help clarifying a point of contention I have with my current Anthropology class, if you have time...

In the harder sciences, including biology, the idea of a theory seems to me to hold substantially more weight than a simple hypothesis. A theory is peer-tested, and often provides enough good explanation so as to be able to predict outcomes from provable causes. As such, it relies heavily on evidence and minimally on speculation. The theory of evolution is not a mere hypothesis, since it has dealt with many hypotheses, such as Lamarckian adaptation, and has instead (productively) arrived at a cohesive, comprehensive, and consistent intellectual framework upon which to base further hypotheses and research.

An hypothesis, on the other hand, is some idea someone has, even a metaphysical blabberer, that attempts to explain observed phenomena, but has not yet passed the rigorous tests that a theory must have.

Case in point: the current chapters I'm studying regard the formation of states in the agricultural era. There are many "theories" regarding the why and how, such as integrative models versus conflict theories. Shouldn't these be hypotheses, not theories?! The pre-Clovis hypothesis is NOT a theory, so why should these other blanket speculation models be called "theories"? Thanks.
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Re: Theory vs hypothesis

Postby Forest_Dump on November 17th, 2013, 11:57 pm 

Hi psionic

Hope your archaeology is enjoyable. As to your specific course, did you notice the thread on the Flannery and Marcus book, "The Creation of Inequality"? That one is a recommend by me on that very topic. I would also recommend Trigger's book on civilizations as well.

As to your point. Your critiques are perfectly correct to a point. As you note, many of the "harder" sciences are still rigid followers of what is known as positivism in science and positivists are definitely more concerned about that distinction between theory and hypothesis. Positivism certainly had its time in archaeology in the 60s and 70s (the real Binford era) but was heavily critiqued (which could come up in 6 or 7 theory courses in the upper levels and grad school) by post-processualists which includes everything from hard post modernists to remnant positivists/processualists who are the "darwinists" and behavioralists (following M. B. Schiffer). These latter two schools are more sensitive to the positivist language but most others use more informal language so that "theory" is used in the more informal sense. You might even find that some of the more post-modernist postprocessualists use theory to refer to some ideas they have that not only don't have any empirical support but don't even make much sense. These are the theoretical archaeologists that I refer to as in theory they are archaeologists. There are a lot of these around, even in university faculties.
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Re: Theory vs hypothesis

Postby psionic11 on November 18th, 2013, 9:16 am 

Thank you, Forest, that was very reassuring, knowing that I wasn't wrong on my assessment. I can see how the term "theories" can get tossed around casually, and used in the informal sense. I imagine sociology, psychology, and other soft sciences have plenty of hypotheses that are called "theories".

My favorite sentence from your post:

You might even find that some of the more post-modernist postprocessualists use theory to refer to some ideas they have that not only don't have any empirical support but don't even make much sense.

All my classes are online only through the local university. (Only happens for Computer Science majors, lucky for us full-time working students). I posted the same question in a Discussion section for the professor to answer. With your permission, I'd like to post your answer as a reply to my question on the class forum.
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Re: Theory vs hypothesis

Postby psionic11 on November 18th, 2013, 9:49 am 

Yes, btw, I'm finding archaeology and paleoanthropology very enjoyable, thanks. I did find much of the knowledge gained from my participation in this forum over the years VERY relevant. In a way, it's a justification for all the self-studying I've done here, being able to earn college credit for what I mostly already know. Specific areas that came up in the early chapters that I didn't even blink an eye at:

scientific method, subjective vs objective, the material record
record of the past (fossils, fossil localities, excavation and context)
evolution (Darwin, Lamarcke, Mendel, Wallace, natural selection, homology, mitochondrial DNA, speciation)
geology (plate tectonics, contintental drift, Pangaea, rift, orogeny)
paleontological time (Devonian, Cambrian, Paleozoic, Mesozoic, Pleistocene, Holocene)
pre-scientific schools of thought (catastrophism, uniformitarianism -- Genesis "days" as "epochs")
dating methods (relative -- stratigraphic, supraposition, vs absolute -- radioactive isotopes, dendrochronology)
early civilizations (Olduwan tools, ancient irrigation, Eqypt/Mesopotamia/Harappan/Mesoamerica)
molecular genealogy (cladism, mitochondrial DNA, Adam and Eve, out-of-Africa vs hybrid assimilation

Even in the dense chapter tracing the branchy path of hominid evolution was second nature. I wasn't afeared of Australopithecus or the recent Dmansi finds. I was already friends with Homo habilis, erectus, and ergaster. I even shared some of your reserve when I saw the Leaky name being mentioned, based on what I seem to remember you posting years ago about them.

As you can see, I have had great enthusiasm and much learned thanks to this forum and its patient scientists...
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Re: Theory vs hypothesis

Postby psionic11 on November 18th, 2013, 10:07 am 

One more thing --

I've had to revise or basically scrap my pet "theory" that early man also made it to the Americas from a different route than across Beringia.

I find it more improbable now that tribes of ocean-going early humans may have reached South America by gradual expansion across the tiny islands of the Pacific. The oceans may have been as low as 200 feet lower during the Pleistocene, exposing more islands over which to hop (from New Guinea eastward, going past Fiji then Tahiti on to the Easter islands and finally Galapagos to central America). Although they obviously did explore and settle many islands, it is doubtful they made it all the way to the Americas.

The main reason to drop this fanciful theory: ocean currents. Provided the major ocean currents were close to the same as they are today, the only hope polynesians had on their rafts and dugout canoes relied on the Equatorial Counter to push them eastward. Unfortunately, this band is relatively narrow, only 5 to 7 degrees north and south of the equator. Go any further north or south of that, and the North or South Equatorial will push you back westward, away from the Americas.

Ah well, so much for my "aerial archaelogy" using Google Earth...
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Re: Theory vs hypothesis

Postby Alan Masterman on January 11th, 2014, 2:02 pm 

Not to be picky, but I take exception to a couple of points in the discussion.

Firstly, which are the "harder" and "easier" sciences? Is it being suggested that in some sciences, intellectual rigour is less important? Or that the sciences are intrinsically less complex? That seems to me a highly questionable hypothesis, and I would be interested to hear the arguments...

With regard to the distinction between hypothesis and theory, I think we can amplify a little. A hypothesis (in any science) is an idea which appears, on an initial analysis, to fit most of the data, and form a working basis for prediction. It will have considerable room for development. A theory is a hypothesis which has already gone through a considerable period of development and confirmation by just such a process, to the extent that it appears unlikely that it could be proven fundamentally mistaken. Note that this is ONLY an appearance; many apparently unquestionable theories have been shown to be fundamentally mistaken, notably Newton's theory of gravity. As Feinstein so aptly said, everything we think we know in science is just an approximation!

Ptolemy's geocentric theory was an intellectual tour-de-force; it was a genuine scientific theory, by every criterion: underwritten by logical proofs, for a thousand years it explained and predicted the phenomena so well that no competing theory was thought necessary, until the emergence of modern scientific method began to show up its deficiencies. But nobody who has even glanced at his mathematical proofs can fail to be awed by his achievement.

It is important to remember that no theory, in any science, has yet succeeded in explaining all of the data, or forming a reliable basis for prediction in absolutely every case. Relativity theory, quantum theory, and Darwinian evolution theory all notably fail to achieve this criterion. To be accepted as mainstream thinking, it is only necessary that a theory should do so more comprehensively than any competing theory.
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