Tests for a Theory

The Mass Comm Muse

Your best companion for testing theories.

So how the hell do we know if the idea that just occurred to you over a frosty cold one at the bar is a theory? Simple. Ask someone smart. But on the off chance that I’m unavailable we can always go to Chafee & Berger and run it through the seven tests of a theory. Seven?? Yes, seven. Here we go…

According to the criteria for evaluating theories as lain out by Chafee & Berger  there are seven criteria against which a theory or model is testable. Theories, in general, tend to be simple, easily understood, and satisfy the criteria of theory; specifically: explanatory power, predictive power, parsimony, falsifiability, internal consistency, heuristic provacativeness, and organizing power.

The first criterion for a theory or model is that of explanatory power. To satisfy this standard the concept must “provide plausible explanations for the phenomena it was constructed to explain. Also considered here is the range of phenomena that the theory explains; the greater the range, the more powerful the theory.” So, a theory about your dog, not so much. Everyone’s dog, and you’re on to something.

The second criterion is that of predictive power, or the ability for the theory to suggest future events or outcomes, according to Chaffee and Berger “this criterion assesses theoretical adequacy by measuring the theory’s ability to predict future events” however they do add this caveat “It is, however, possible for theories to predict but not be able to provide plausible explanations.” In this way, based on a specific set of circumstances or event, a theory should be able to predict some possible outcome of a given situation.

Parsimony or simplicity is the third of the criteria that a theory must satisfy to be considered as valid. Within this standard there is certainly some breadth of how simple a theory must be, usually judged in relation to the complexity of the idea or interaction which it seeks to explain. In the case of all theory, “simple theories are preferred to more complex ones, assuming that both predict and explain equally well. The complexity of a theory is directly related to the complexity of the reality it seeks to explain.”

The fourth criterion of falsifiability, or the ability to be proven false is pretty self-explanatory. If you can’t figure that one out you have no place in higher education. Ha-ha. Only kidding. Or am I?

Internal consistency is needed if a theory or model is to fulfill the standard for evaluation of a theory. This tenet dictates that “the internal logic of a theory can be assessed independently of empirical tests. Theoretical propositions should be consistent with each other.” This idea conjectures that a theory or model must be logically consistent and should not contradict itself.

Heuristic provacativeness, the sixth criterion states simply that “good theories generate new hypothesis, which expand the range of potential knowledge.” Theories and models in this case, need to serve a function within the area they address. A theory which exists in a silo is for all intents and purposes a worthless theory. With the ability to be applied to a situation or question the value of another theory does a theory prove its worth.

The final test under the Chaffee & Berger criteria for evaluation is that of organizing power. This criterion states that “useful theories not only generate new knowledge, [but]…are able to organize extant knowledge.” Under this tenet a theory or model must be able to function as a framework for understanding and organizing already discovered knowledge.

So there you have it – the tests of a theory. Should you commit these memory? Probably. Unless your counting on me not going insane and deleting my blog late one night all the while screaming “McLuhan was right!!” with a crazy look in my eye. Only a slight chance that might happen… slight. -g.d.

Special thanks to Tyler Crane for his help in the post.

This article is based largely on : ChaffeeS. H., & Berger, C.R. (1987). What communication scientists do. In C. R. Berger, & S. H. Chaffee (Eds.), Handbook of Communication Science (pp. 99-122). Sage: Newbury Park, CA. Look it up for a much more in-depth discussion of the testable criteria of theories. A great read, albeit a little long winded, although can you blame them? How many Comm scholars can write succinctly? 😉