I must begin my reminding that theory and practice are partners out of necessity, if not out of love. And like I mentioned in my last post, a reasonable definition to theory is “a systematically related set of ideas used to describe and/or explain a phenomena”. However, to understand what makes a good theory, that definition could be too broad. I must caution here that there is very little agreement on the definition of ‘theory’, but since I am not here to fight anyone, I give myself the freedom to place what I see as simple.
So, what we might do to arrive at a slightly improved definition is–breakdown the word ‘phenomena’ into smaller fragments. Phenomena should essentially have a ‘trigger point’ or ‘input’, and a ‘termination point’ or ‘outcome’, and something happens in between. In research terms, they call the ‘trigger’ or ‘input’ as ’cause’, and the ‘termination’ or ‘outcome’ as ‘effect’. Together, in social sciences research, they are also called ‘variables’, because they are continuously changing . The observer who is intending to develop a theory has to carefully look for these points. What happens in between them is the ‘process’; but again, in research terms, they call it ‘interaction’.
Take for example this article on scientific american which claims that consuming chocolate might improve eye sight. The phenomena scientists (observers) found here was that ‘what we eat’ (input/trigger/cause) can influence ‘what happens to our eye sight’ (outcome/termination/effect). If you think carefully, it is not hard to realize that ‘what we eat’ is a ‘variable’, because we eat lots of things (a range of foods: unpredictable); and ‘what happens to our eye sight’ is also a ‘variable’, because it can get better or worse (unpredictable); and then lastly, somehow, the scientists figured out that ‘eating chocolate’ and ‘eye sight’ have some ‘interaction’ between them that leads to ‘improvement in eyesight’.
Now, here is the question for the day: Is that a good theory? If so, how do you know?
There were several things that debated (still are) about what makes a good theory. I was reading a scholarly publication on what makes a good theory, and it took me a day to understand some eight things they mentioned. But I realized that a good theory is one that is convincing, and stated simple.
So here is my little attempt to give you what I understand.
First things first. There has to be a description about how the stated phenomena was observed. After all, the observations cannot be too casual. There has to be a method to observing. For example, it may not be great to say, ‘I have a couple of friends who told me that their eye sight improved after eating chocolate’, or ‘I tried it on me and it worked’. Those statements are what you might often hear from celebrities in advertisements, but it would be dumb to imagine that they were really serious observations. By experience, I found that in good theories, the motivation to observe the stated phenomena precedes the method of observing. Also, the method is carefully designed to appeal to common sense. They call it ‘research methodology’ or ‘research design’, but you will find it sometime soon that it is not so hard to digest.
Second, there has to be a fair description of what exactly is being observed, and what is being looked for. Observation does not just mean you keep staring at something till one day there might be an enlightenment. Instead, there is learning in the process of observing. And, the first observation may not be the same as the last observation. So, it is imperative that the observer mentions what he has found at each step. Whether the theory being stated is logical or not can be made out from the amount of detail in this part. I can tell you, this is like your grad school lab work (if you have been in a mechanical engineering laboratory, you know how many times you switched the power buttons on and off, and recorded whatever the assistant told you ).
Up to this point, it appears easy and smooth. That was all describing the phenomena! But here we go, where we talk about explaining–and here is where you need your own set of ideas (perspectives).
Now that you are already motivated to observe a phenomena, ready with a method to observe, and probably observed and recorded also; the question is about ‘how do you explain what you saw/found?’. Like in our chocolate example, the question is ‘how do the scientists know that eating chocolate improves eye sight?’. You could be sucked into stating the obvious here. i.e., ‘haven’t I observed and recorded the phenomena already, just for this?’. But that is not an explanation! Think again. A set of observations are still observations alone. Instead, a good theory can answer the question ‘why something is happening the way it is’. This part requires imagination, in-depth study, and some times a bit of luck too!
Gravitation is a popular example. The credit for this theory goes to Newton; but have you ever thought why nobody else had the question that Newton had–’why doesn’t an apply fly?’. It would be foolish to believe that Newton was the first to get such a question. There were ages of men who might have thought about it. If you were to ask the human being who first walked on the planet if he had a theory to explain why the apple never flew, he might tell you, ‘that is by god’s design’. That isn’t a bad theory, but for the time we are in, we are aware of what Newton said, ‘that there is gravitational force–earth is like a giant magnet and pulls us towards it’. What I want you to observe here is that imagination of two different people leads to two different explanations. Are they both right? Are they both wrong? May be Yes, May be No. There are several factors that influence the validity of a theory, but we will talk about validity in another article. For now, let us conclude this section here by understanding the need for luck such as apple hitting Newton’s temple.
For a moment, let us get back to our question: what makes a good theory? By now, we understand that a good theory should have good description and reasonable explanation. But is that it? Or is there something more? All I have written so far still sounds too mundane. And you could come out with a theory that says, ‘when you read an article 1500 words long, you get bored’. But that is stating the obvious (or is it!?).
So, here is the real deal. A good theory should have two properties. First, it should state something new–it could just be a small finding, large finding, revolutionary finding, anything goes but newness is necessary. Second, it should be useful–bringing findings that help make predictions, that can lead to actionable items, that are directly useful to a section of the society.
When theories are made just for the heck of making theories, the process remains mundane and the art of building theories becomes lifeless. But when theories are tied to these two factors, that is to bring in some contribution that was not already known, and become useful, theory building becomes exciting. After all, we make theories for others to appreciate and accept. The objective has to be to make the life easy for the audience to our theory.
In even simpler terms, a theory that feeds into practice is a good theory.