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Just a Theory

One of the most abused words in the English language must certainly be theory. Here are some common examples: 1. "I have a theory ..." 2. "Astrological theory explains how your birth date reveals the pattern of your life" 3. "It's just a theory" All three of the above are incorrect or sloppy uses of the word. Let's start with what a theory actually is. When scientists use it: it's an explanatory framework or set of interpretations of facts gathered through careful experimentation and/or systematic observation following established scientific protocols known as the scientific method. This scientific method includes hypothesis testing and/or the answering of specific research questions. When non-scientists use it: it sometimes refers to a hunch (#1 above), or an attempt at raising nonsense to the level of science (#2 above). When science resisters use it: it means a set of ideas that are not 100% proven and therefore easily dismissed because they don't fit one's beliefs (#3 above). If you read my blog last week, you know that science never says anything is 100% proven. Therefore, according to science resisters, we can dismiss pretty much anything, including aeronautics, cellular technology, climatology, modern medicine and all of the social sciences. And, believe it or not, I've actually heard anti-science arguments in relation to all of the above*. Within the field of policing, a version of #1 is heard most frequently in relation to arguments from experience. "Well, based on my 27 years of experience, I think we should do X." Whether you frame x as your pet theory or not, it doesn't matter. Either way, "your theory" and "your experience" are the same thing: personal observations conducted in a random, arbitrary and non-systematic way that leaves one susceptible to being wrong on a massive scale. I wish this was not true, because based on my rather limited experience, life is a lot better when people are allowed to buy jewellery without having to worry about credit limits. I have a theory about this. What can we do to get over the problems that beset #1? We can systematically test observations based on personal theories to see if there is any evidence to support them. If anyone would like to fund an experiment testing my pet theory about jewellery, please do get in touch. Over the years I have also heard versions of #3 within the field of policing, usually within the context of someone dismissing the research evidence in a given area because

a. it doesn't align with their experience;

b. it means changing practices that don't work;

c. it doesn't line up with their moral beliefs;

d. all of the above (and probably a few more).

Now, if someone wants to dismiss one singular study on a topic, I can't blame them. It's not much of an evidence base, and I like to know a lot more before committing to an idea. However, when someone hands you a systematic review of 54 studies on a topic and the majority of these studies report similar findings, it should be a bit harder to argue "it's just a theory." Unfortunately, that's not the case. How to sway that mindset? I have no perfect answers for this. What I do is to simply ask the person to provide the research evidence in support of their position. Usually what follows is an awkward, uncomfortable silence. Does it mean I’ve changed their perspective? No, not likely. But sometimes just planting the seeds of doubt can be a sufficient starting point for change. And sometimes that's the best you can hope for. *The exception is aeronautics, for some strange reason people who believe we are surrounded by electromagnetic fields that zap our brains never seem to worry too much when getting in an airplane to fly to Disneyland. If they did, we'd see them carting pink salt lamps they'd be furiously trying to find electrical plugs for on the plane**.

Frankly, I'm more afraid of what would happen to my brain AT Disney World.

**True story: I once endured a mini-lecture on how pink salt lamps remove EMFs from the air by a very nice, but decidedly odd lady who literally grabbed my arm to try to hug me upon entering a health food store for vitamins. I'm not exactly sure which was worse.

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