What is theoretical science?



Check out this reddit post:

I only found this because I’m researching “theoretical neuroscience”. I was breaking the topic down and googled “theoretical science” and this came up. I feel like the both the Original Poster and the 1st commenter are correct in their definitions of the term, but was wondering what you thought?

Does “theoretical science” mean disciplines where experiments cannot be carried out to prove or disprove ideas and theories, but which are in themselves based on plausible and widely accepted principles? I can understand how “theoretical physics” fit into this because there is little, if any, scientific tools that can be used to carry out experiments on black holes or the Big Bang (at least that’s my understanding).

Many fields of science can be broken down into three categories:

  1. Theoretical Science: these are the scientists who develop new theories and hypotheses to explain natural phenomenon. For example, in astronomy, a theoretical scientist might say “I have formulated a theory to explain how planets form. My theory predicts that the Moon is made of cheese.”
  2. Instrumental Science: these are the scientists and engineers who develop and build the latest and greatest technological tools to test the theories. A instrumental scientist or engineer might read what the previous theoretical scientists said and respond with “That is an interesting theory with a simple test! We should see if the Moon is made of cheese! We need to build a special telescope and instrument that can determine if the Moon is in fact made of cheese!”
  3. Observational/Experimental Science: these are the scientists who test theories using experiments. An experimental scientist might hear about the new Moon theory and new technological innovations that will allow him or her to test this theory. He or she would perform an experiment or observation then decide if the data fits with the theory. The scientist might say “Yes, in fact the Moon is made of cheese! This supports the original theory!”

What do you think about “theoretical science”?


There is only “science”, not some “theoretical science” that’s different
from “other sciences”. Only #1, what the reddit poster calls
"theoretical science", or what Numenta does, is science at all.

The term “theoretical science” exists because some of the supporting
activities like observation or building instruments, which are
engineering activities at best and clerical activities at worst, have
been incorrectly included in the same category and a new term was needed
to distinguish “real science” from “scientific support”.

Observers or instrument builders are no more scientists than piano
tuners are musicians or paralegals are lawyers. Of course “observer” and
"piano tuner" describe roles, not people, and any person might play
several roles. A musician might tune their own piano or a scientist
perform their own observations, confusing an outside observer as to the


I’ve worked with a lot of scientists in my career, and very few of them were working on theory. Most were applying known science to create new technologies. By your definition, you would not call these people scientists?


its a shame what our world is coming too… anyone can come from the street, drop a fag on a floor drink some beer and tell his opinion on pretty much anything, from Brexit to Trump to science to crisis in North Korea. And also enforce you to be mediocre or punish if you are not, because the majority in this new world is mediocrity, brought together by internet and enacted by the democracy. and freshly realised ruling force always exterminate all old ruling forces as first business of order (human history).

contemporary scientist is part scientist part freeloader. some want to find cure from cancer but most just get there for grants and/or easy life and/or obsessive feeling of imaginary intellectual superiority. they cheat they steal and they pretend to be moral.

just come in shabby clothes, blurt something about global warming and saving penguins and you are a scientist…

today they question theoretical science. tomorrow its 2nd law of thermodynamics… day after - its the world turtle and elephants again. only this time there wont be Giordano Bruno (he is busy watsapping his friends and taking selfies)

as Peter Griffin said in Family Guy (when his wife asked why Mel Gibson jumped to his death) - Christians don’t believe in gravity…

thats where we are now.


Check out David Deutsch’s work on the theory of science for a broader view. He advances the view that, while you can narrowly define science as the process of falsifying hypotheses, what we’re really interested in is explanations, which is a much richer and broader idea than those around which science is typically defined. His book The Beginning of Infinity is the best place to find his ideas.

So I’m personally not that interested in definitions of theoretical or other divisions of science. We’re all ultimately engaged in pursuing better explanations, which transcend that pedantic nonsense. :slight_smile:


No, not at all.

Note that sometimes science – theory forming – happens when it’s not
obvious. IIRC for detecting those gravitational waves they built an
instrument of mirrors suspended in ways to eliminate vibration. To
arrive at the optimal suspension they came up with a theory describing
the interactions of mirrors, suspensions and vibrations. This makes them
scientists, albeit in the field of mechanics and not astronomy. With
your scientist co-workers it may have been the same.

The scope of a theory can of course be quite small. When you think of
"theory" what comes to your mind is probably “big theories” like general
relativity which is a theory of the universe, or HTM, a theory of that
includes all mammalian brains to begin with but the whole scope of which
we’re still trying to ascertain. A theory of mirror suspensions, in
contrast, is a small theory.

There is also some sort of cut-off limit as to the minimum scope that
the theory has to have to be considered science. You may have a theory
that your wife is cheating on you and test that theory by going through
her Facebook messages. However that theory only applies to a very narrow
range of people and time, so that doesn’t make you a scientist just like
drawing stick figures doesn’t make you an artist.


So how do you conclude that people who have been incorrectly labeled as scientists do not abide to that scope?


08/11/2017 12:42 AM, sunguralikaan wrote:

So how do you conclude that people who have been incorrectly labeled
as scientists do not abide to that scope?

I’m not sure I understand that sentence. Is my English bad or yours?

Are you asking how do I know that the self-proclaimed “scientists” that
@rhyolight was talking about aren’t really scientists, b/c the scope of
their theories, if any at all, doesn’t go past the threshold? It’s an
educated guess based on many similar “scientists” that I’ve worked with
myself. They don’t form theories or just kindergarten ones.


I found this quite interesting, especially the idea of micro vs macro theory.

While these ideas seem to be sourced back to sociology, it certainly could be applied to neurons instead of people.


From another point of view (since I’ve been working on semantic folding lately), words inherit semantic meaning by their usage in a society, and those semantics are not static (thus the reason there are so many world languages). If enough people communicate using a term like “theoretical scientists”, then the folks being referred to may in fact one day really be “scientists” :stuck_out_tongue:


Of course. Witness the euphemism treadmill and such. I’m trying to counter this decay but I’m not optimistic.