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Theories and facts, and the French

YHB knows he keeps pointing Gentle Readers towards the same few sites, but this note in the Language Log is quite long and appears on first glance to be devoted to making fun of the French, so even the occasional reader of that fine site may well have missed the interesting point.

Which point is, in fact, lifted from Adam Gopnik. He contrasts facts and theories, comically invoking the famous New Yorker fact-checker to come up with the brilliant idea of a theory-checker: “Just someone to make sure that all your premises agree with your conclusions, that there aren't any obvious errors of logic in your argument, that all your allusions flow together in a coherent stream -- that kind of thing”. There is a response that in a particular academic field, journal referees are more likely to check theories than facts; from what I have seen, this is true of most academic fields. And it isn’t particularly funny, either.

The thing YHB found to chew on in all of that is the sense of disconnect between fact and theory; the idea that for a theoretician facts are only the occasionally nourishing, occasionally annoying bits of grit in the gruel, while for a um, American theories are meringue, and not very nice meringue at that.

Is part of the problem that whatever is described by the word theory is described by the word ‘theory’? I wonder if ‘model’ or ‘principle’ or even ‘framework’ might have led academia in a different path, and led the perception of academia in a different one yet. What Mr. Gopnik describes as the American viewpoint that “the theories they employ change, flexibly, and of necessity, from moment to moment in conversation” depends on thinking of a theory as, to borrow from the American Heritage Dictionary, “An assumption based on limited information or knowledge” or even “A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena”. But that is not what he seems to be saying the French think of when they use the word.

The thing is this: a theory is, I think, a way of stringing facts together to make sense of them. This is as true of semiotic theory as it is of quantum theory. A theory, once adopted, changes the whole universe I perceive—it defines the universe. My religious belief is a theory. My political beliefs are theories. I happen to like them, and furthermore, I think that some of my theories make sense, and not only make sense of the facts I perceive, but of those you do as well. I suspect you think the same of yours, whether they are like mine or not.

You know the old science-fiction exposition mainstay of describing seemingly solid objects as consisting mostly of empty space? The atoms are far apart; the molecules are far apart; the structure holds them in place and gives them the sense of solidity. Facts are the molecules of this analogy; theories the structure. If you hadn’t guessed.



I personally don't think of "theory" as a bad thing, except in academia, and only there because I know it means "abstruse thing that no one outside the field will understand".

There are popular efforts from time to time to bring academic theory to the masses; dunno how successful they are. What did either the masses or the physicists think of Gleick's book about chaos? Or is that not even what I'm talking about?

I guess one problem is that laypeople can't tell what academic theoreticians are talking about, so it's hard for me to tell e.g. whether Gleick actually explained chaos theory at all well or not. What you need are academic theoreticians who think that explaining their theories to laypeople is a worthwhile endeavor...

Or maybe I'm just rambling because I need to get to work and am procrastinating. Fact or theory?

Another term that might apply to the kind of thing you're talking about: paradigm.

Also: I just saw "Once More With Feeling" again, and every time anyone says the word "theory" in my presence I immediately respond, without any conscious thought, "It could be bunnies."

Irilyth: i feel like we may be getting away from V's point here, but one issue in "bringing science to the masses" is the applied vs. theoretical divide. Take, for instance, my parents, who are mathematicians. They may study partial differential equations or chaos theory or whatever because they are intrigued by the chains of causation in terms of what can be proved about certain types of abstract structures. However, laypeople might be interested in PDE because it's useful in population modelling, or in chaos theory because it can (possibly) be used to model the brain.

So, there are mathematicians who write coffee table books (including, on occasion, my dad), but i think it's a fair question to ask: if you want academics to explain what they do to people outside of their field, should the academics explain what *they* get out of it, or should they explain how the reader might connect to the work (i.e. what the applications are)? Now, obviously, an already-interested reader can do the necessary research to bridge from one to the other. But i feel like there's not necessarily a very good mapping between "why this is so nifty i want to spend my life doing it" and "how this will benefit humanity", or whatever.

And when I think of "theory" I think of it in a very limited science-defined sense. A theory, in my understanding, is a hypothesis generally consistently supported by the evidence we have, obtained through repeated experiments and/or modelling under a variety of conditions.

This is a very skinny definition... and I probably learned in in 8th grade or something. I hadn't thought about how skinny until reading your post...

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