A scientific theory is a specific type of theory used in the scientific method. The term "theory" can mean something different, depending on whom you ask.
"The way that scientists use the word 'theory' is a little different than how it is commonly used in the lay public," said Jaime Tanner, a professor of biology at Marlboro College. "Most people use the word 'theory' to mean an idea or hunch that someone has, but in science the word 'theory' refers to the way that we interpret facts."
The process of becoming a scientific theory
Every scientific theory starts as a hypothesis. A scientific hypothesis is a suggested solution for an unexplained occurrence that doesn't fit into a currently accepted scientific theory. In other words, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a hypothesis is an idea that hasn't been proven yet. If enough evidence accumulates to support a hypothesis, it moves to the next step — known as a theory — in the scientific method and becomes accepted as a valid explanation of a phenomenon.
Tanner further explained that a scientific theory is the framework for observations and facts. Theories may change, or the way that they are interpreted may change, but the facts themselves don't change. Tanner likens theories to a basket in which scientists keep facts and observations that they find. The shape of that basket may change as the scientists learn more and include more facts. "For example, we have ample evidence of traits in populations becoming more or less common over time (evolution), so evolution is a fact but the overarching theories about evolution, the way that we think all of the facts go together might change as new observations of evolution are made," Tanner told Live Science.
The University of California, Berkley, defines a theory as "a broad, natural explanation for a wide range of phenomena. Theories are concise, coherent, systematic, predictive, and broadly applicable, often integrating and generalizing many hypotheses."
Any scientific theory must be based on a careful and rational examination of the facts. Facts and theories are two different things. In the scientific method, there is a clear distinction between facts, which can be observed and/or measured, and theories, which are scientists' explanations and interpretations of the facts.
An important part of scientific theory includes statements that have observational consequences. A good theory, like Newton's theory of gravity, has unity, which means it consists of a limited number of problem-solving strategies that can be applied to a wide range of scientific circumstances. Another feature of a good theory is that it formed from a number of hypotheses that can be tested independently.
The evolution of a scientific theory
A scientific theory is not the end result of the scientific method; theories can be proven or rejected, just like hypotheses. Theories can be improved or modified as more information is gathered so that the accuracy of the prediction becomes greater over time.
Theories are foundations for furthering scientific knowledge and for putting the information gathered to practical use. Scientists use theories to develop inventions or find a cure for a disease.
Some think that theories become laws, but theories and laws have separate and distinct roles in the scientific method. A law is a description of an observed phenomenon in the natural world that hold true every time it is tested. It doesn't explain why something is true; it just states that it is true. A theory, on the other hand, explains observations that are gathered during the scientific process. So, while law and theory are part of the scientific process, they are two very different aspects, according to the National Science Teachers Association.
A good example of the difference between a theory and a law is the case of Gregor Mendel. In his research, Mendel discovered that two separate genetic traits would appear independently of each other in different offspring. "Yet Mendel knew nothing of DNA or chromosomes. It wasn't until a century later that scientists discovered DNA and chromosomes — the biochemical explanation of Mendel's laws," said Peter Coppinger, an associate professor of biology and biomedical engineering at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. "It was only then that scientists, such as T.H. Morgan working with fruit flies, explained the Law of Independent Assortment using the theory of chromosomal inheritance. Still today, this is the universally accepted explanation (theory) for Mendel's Law."