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The Value of a Good Theory

We are often dismissive of theories on the grounds that they are divorced from reality and the solution to real-world problems. “It is just a theory” we often hear.

Yet, theories are vital to scientific progress and scholarly discourse. They help explain empirical observations (by uncovering underlying patterns and relationships) and, if formulated properly, should be falsifiable. As a set of interrelated concepts, definitions, and propositions, theories attempt to frame problems in ways that can explain and predict phenomena by positing relationships among variables.

Etymologically, the word comes from the Greek “theoria” (θεωρία) which is loosely translated as “contemplation” or a kind of “intellectual seeing.”

As a means of structuring and understanding data, it helps us make sense of the world. Nothing can be more vital not just to scholarly discourse but to better understanding the world and ourselves.

Here are my favorite quotes that capture the essence and usefulness of theories:

"Theories are nets cast to catch what we call 'the world': to rationalize, to explain, and to master it." - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

"Theories are like a staircase: you can climb them to reach new heights, but you must not cling to them, for they will restrict your vision." - Albert Einstein

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