Sometimes I think that the word ‘theory’ has to be one of the most misunderstood, and misused, words in science.
A couple of science concepts that people often seem to have difficulty with are fact and theory: what the terms mean, and how we distinguish between them. One of my scientific heroes, the late Stephen Jay Gould, covered this very well in a 1981 essay. I’ve just been re-reading it & thought I’d post the most directly relevant section here.
In the American vernacular, "theory" often means "imperfect fact"-part of a hierarchy of confidence running downhill from fact to theory to hypothesis to guess. Thus creationists can (and do) argue: evolution is "only" a theory, and intense debate now rages about many aspects of the theory. If evolution is less than a fact, and scientists can’t even make up their minds about the theory, then what confidence can we have in it? Indeed, President Reagan echoed this argument before an evangelical group in Dallas when he said (in what I devoutly hope was campaign rhetoric): "Well, it is a theory. It is a scientific theory only, and it has in recent years been challenged in the world of science-that is, not believed in the scientific community to be as infallible as it once was."
Well, evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein’s theory of gravitation replaced Newton’s, but apples did not suspend themselves in mid-air, pending the outcome. And humans evolved from apelike ancestors whether they did so by Darwin’s proposed mechanism or by some other, yet to be discovered.
Moreover, "fact" does not mean "absolute certainty." The final proofs of logic and mathematics flow deductively from stated premises and achieve certainty only because they are not about the empirical world. Evolutionists make no claim for perpetual truth, though creationists often do (and then attack us for a style of argument that they themselves favor). In science, "fact" can only mean "confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent." I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.
You can read the entire essay here – or maybe in your local library – the original essay was reprinted in Gould’s book Hens’ teeth and horses’ toes (Gould, 1994).
Stephen Jay Gould (1981) "Evolution as Fact and Theory," Discover 2: 34-37