Quite often, I hear people use the word “theory” as it applies to different contexts. One person may speak about a social science theory, another about a legal theory, yet another about a conspiracy theory, and the inevitable person who postulates the existence of a personal theory about any given topic.
Regarding this matter, I reflect upon my Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) training during which one trainer admitted to being a “stickler” for proper word usage—someone whose perspective with which I identify. Therefore, I think it’s important to parse the different uses of the word “theory.”
Different uses of “theory”
One definition of theory relates to a plausible or scientifically acceptable common principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena that often incorporates scientific hypothesis and scientific laws, and which is rooted in the scientific method.
The scientific method involves a number of steps which include observation and questioning, researching a topic area, forming a hypothesis (educated guess or proposal), testing the hypothesis with experimentation, analyzing data from testing, reporting conclusions, and reexamining the original observation and questioning topic.
Through the process of the scientific method, a theory may be formed from evidence. Per one source, a theory is “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.”
Another definition of theory concerns the analysis of a set of facts in their relation to one another. From a legal perspective, jurisprudence is the term that centers on philosophical or theoretical aspects and theory of law.
Constituting the principles and body of rules which are enforceable under the law, practitioners of legal theory may use a critical approach to abstract arguments. While jurisprudence tends to focus on the philosophy of law, legal theory highlights law in practice—function and operation within a particular construct.
According to one source, “[L]egal theory is concerned with the relation between law and justice, law and religion, law and public policy, and all those other outside standards by means of which attempts are made to measure law.”
An alternative definition of theory describes a belief that some secret but influential organization is responsible for an event or phenomenon. This term often involves the act of plotting and working together to bring about a particular result, typically to someone’s detriment.
Unlike scientific theory that is concise and evidence-based, or legal theory which examines the application of law, conspiracy theory suggests broad and potentially unfalsifiable claims. Per one source:
Conspiracy theories are generally designed to resist falsification and are reinforced by circular reasoning: both evidence against the conspiracy and absence of evidence for it are misinterpreted as evidence of its truth, whereby the conspiracy becomes a matter of faith rather than something that can be proven or disproven.
Over time, some conspiracy theories may be considered accurate (e.g., Operation Paperclip) while others will likely not be taken seriously (e.g., nuclear weapons aren’t real). Because of their often unverifiable and abstract nature, it can be difficult to discern the sincerity of people of propose or subscribe to some conspiracy theories.
Yet another definition of theory expresses an unproven assumption, guess without evidence, or an untested hunch. This appears to be the most common colloquial use of the word “theory.”
Unlike a hypothesis that is a proposed explanation which can be tested, a hunch may not be subject to rigorous evidence-gathering and examination. From an REBT perspective, a personal “theory” can be viewed as little more than a belief—that which doesn’t require evidence to support its existence.
Highlighting the lay language use of “theory,” one source proposes that “to the average Jane or Joe, a theory is just an idea that lives in someone’s head, rather than an explanation rooted in experiment and testing.”
Because I think the words we use matter, I find it a relevant use of time to highlight the differences between scientific theory, legal theory, conspiracy theory, and personal or common use of the word “theory.” These terms maintain distinct meanings.
As I most commonly encounter the oft-misused version of “theory,” I find that it can be quite challenging to dispute unsubstantiated irrational beliefs when people mistake their hunches for scientific or legal theory. This can be a particularly onerous affair when addressing conspiracy theories.
Some people cling tightly to unreasonable ideas, and simply rejecting their preciously-held assumptions may be an ineffective use of time. I find that many people require persuasive techniques in order to let go of one “theory” in favor of a more helpful set of ideas.
If an individual values an un-evidenced personal “theory” as much as scientific or legal theories which have been tested, retested, and shaped by evidence—because the hunch is perceivably synonymous with proper uses of the term theory—it may be a laborious affair trying to refute an irrational belief.
This is the benefit of work with an REBT practitioner. I am trained and have experience working with so-called theories people use to disturb themselves.
In theory, a person can learn to use more flexible and effective beliefs which better serve one’s interests and goals. As such, the value of REBT is to help a person get better, not merely feel better, so that the individual can enjoy improved functioning and quality of life.
If you’re looking for a provider who works to help you understand how thinking impacts physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements of your life, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.
As a psychotherapist, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues ranging from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.
At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!
Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW
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Enriquez, A. (2021, October 25). Q. How does fair use work for book covers, album covers, and movie posters? Penn State. Retrieved from https://psu.libanswers.com/faq/336502
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Wikipedia. (n.d.). Conspiracy theory. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conspiracy_theory
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Wikipedia. (n.d.). Operation Paperclip. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_paperclip
Wikipedia. (n.d.). Sagan standard. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sagan_standard