What is the Difference Between Theory Testing and Theory Building?

Essentially, what do graduate students do when they conduct a research investigation? Do they follow specific guidelines in doing their research? Is there a difference between how a master’s degree and a doctoral degree student do their research? What are theory testing and theory building? The following article answers these questions.

Graduate students research two different ways. A master’s degree student engages himself mainly in research primarily aimed towards theory testing, while a doctoral degree student undertakes a much more challenging research task of theory building. What is the difference between theory testing and theory building?

Theory Testing and Example

Theory testing is relatively easier than theory building. The graduate student primarily applied theory testing, as the name suggests, to test whether a particular theory of his choosing is a plausible explanation for a phenomenon he would like to investigate. This article discusses the difference between theory testing and theory building.

To clarify the concept of theory testing, take the case of the Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) Theory. Anthropogenic refers to human-derived greenhouse gas emissions believed to be the main reason for the observed global warming in recent years.

Carbon dioxide comprises one of the greenhouse gasses. Carbon dioxide causes water on the surface of the earth to evaporate. Increased water vapor in the atmosphere can trap heat coming from the planet, thus causing global warming. Is this a good explanation for global warming?

If you are a master’s degree student, you can test the global warming theory by looking into the humidity levels associated with carbon dioxide emissions. That is because it was mentioned a while ago that carbon dioxide causes the water to evaporate. More significant carbon dioxide means more water vapor in the atmosphere measured using a wet and dry bulb thermometer. You will then have to find out if there is a correlation between temperature and surface humidity. This tests theory using specific factors to substantiate carbon dioxide effects on global temperature.

The focus of theory testing is to find evidence to confirm or refute a theory. In this instance, theory testing tries to find out if there is there sufficient evidence to substantiate the Anthropogenic Global Warming Theory.

Theory Building and Examples

Theory building requires the application of higher-level thinking skills compared to theory testing. Doctoral degree students or dissertation writers engage in this kind of research.

Why is this so? I expound some more on the difference between theory building and theory testing as activities of graduate students in the next sections.

Synthesis of Literature

Theory building requires the synthesis of a broad range of literature and studies to provide evidence or confirm explanations for a given phenomenon. Theory building is the graduate student’s or a veteran scientist’s attempt to explain something plausibly in a different light or perspective.

Take the case of areas that get inundated by seawater due to sea-level rise. How do coastal communities respond?

One of the coastal community responses to sea-level rise due to climate change is to build seawalls. This adaptation prevents coastal erosion as a result of advancing waters. This measure, however, could prove futile as this picture shows.

One of the coastal community responses to sea-level rise due to climate change is to build seawalls. This adaptation prevents coastal erosion as a result of advancing waters. However, it could prove futile, as this picture shows.

To further clarify the idea of theory building, take the previously discussed theory that tries to explain global warming, that is, the Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) Theory. The AGW Theory is just one theory that tries to explain global warming.

Six Other Theories on Climate Change

Bast (2010) enumerated six other theories on global warming. I list these theories below:

1. Biothermostat Theory

The theory proposes that negative feedback from biological and chemical processes on Earth offset negative feedback caused by increasing carbon dioxide levels.

2. Cloud Formation and Albedo Theory 

The theory advances the idea that changes in the formation and albedo (the proportion of light reflected by a surface) of clouds cancels all or nearly all the warming effects of greater levels of carbon dioxide.

3. Human Forcings Besides Greenhouse Gases Theory

The theory postulates that man influences climate is not only because of greenhouse gas emissions but likewise important human activities like clearing forests, irrigating deserts, and building cities.

What is the Difference Between Theory Testing and Theory Building? 1
The melting ice caps is an indicator of climate change.

4. Ocean Currents Theory

The theory explains that the variation of temperature worldwide was due to the slow-down of Thermohaline Circulation (a large-scale circulation of the ocean driven by differences in density due to changes in temperature and freshwater input) of the ocean.

5. Planetary Motion Theory

The theory attributes the recent global warming phenomenon to natural gravitational and magnetic oscillations of the solar system.

6. Solar Variability Theory

The theory suggests that global warming is due to changes in the sun’s brightness caused by bursts of energetic particles and radiation that periodically vary.

These are all theories that try to explain global warming. The graduate student needs to read a great deal of literature and gain insights to build theories. Further, you must note that these theories are not perfect explanations of global warming. Some of these theories may be substantiated or confirmed through time. On the other hand, further theory testing will show their weaknesses.

Whichever of these theories will stand rigorous scrutiny by researchers through further studies on global warming causes will come out as the best theory of global warming. That’s how science works.


Bast, J. L. (2010). Seven theories of climate change. Chicago: The Heartland Institute. 30 pp.


© 2012 December 24 P. A. Regoniel


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