Sunday, December 14, 2014

Theory Worth Considering

I try to emphasize, to my students in Theory Development, the importance theory plays in research and how fields of study (disciplines) are defined by the theories they produce.  One example can be found in England's new theory of life from Wolchover's (2014) article titled A New Physics Theory of Life in Quanta Magazine.

According to England's theory (Wolchover, 2014), Darwin's theory of natural selection may be more than one organism's ability to adapt better than another organism. England's theory expands the second law of thermodynamics stating that one organism may be more capable of dissipating energy than other organisms, thus leading to Darwin's natural selection. 

In Wolchover's (2014) article, the following was mentioned regarding England's theory:

"England's theoretical results are generally considered valid. it is his interpretation - that his formula represents the driving force behind a class of phenomena in nature that includes life - that remains unproven. But already, there are ideas about how to test that interpretation in the lab" (para. 10).

Theories must be relevant and rigorous (Van de Ven, 2007). Relevance determines how well the theory addresses real-world problems or issues (Van de Ven, 2007), whereas rigorous theories meet the requirements of being empirically validated and challenged. In the example provided above, England's theory has been accepted by those in the fields of physics, biology, chemistry, and others. By being accepted other researchers do not necessarily have to agree with the theory, however, they do agree that England's theory holds merit and should be subjected to further testing. This is evident from the last sentence in the above quote stating that 'there are ideas about how to test' this theory. 

This theory has meet two thresholds that every new theory needs to meet in order to be considered relevant: it has been deemed worthy to consider by other researchers and it's validity is being subjected to further empirical testing. This begins the theory validation / refinement stage which begins to place this theory as a formal theory for the field of study that stands behind this theory.  

Formal theories are constantly being tested and challenged through research. Sometimes formal theories are replaced with new theories that better explain current phenomena, other times formal theories withstand the continuous empirical scrutiny. In Wolchover's (2014) article there are two examples of this continuous refinement process. The first is the beginning phases of a new theory that is being exposed to empirical tests. If the empirical tests provide support for England's theory then this theory will begin to become a formal theory. Secondly, formal theories are constantly being tested and refined, ultimately providing the best description of a phenomenon. One example of this can be found by the use of the second law of thermodynamics that was being utilized in the development of England's theory. The second law of thermodynamics is being tested as well as being validated from this line of testing.

All-in-all, when presenting a new theory one needs to consider is it worth considering and by whom?


Van de Ven (2007). Engaged scholarship: A guide for organizational and social research. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Wolchover, N. (Jan. 22, 2014). A new Physics theory of life. Quanta Magazine. Retrieved from

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