A scientific theory is "a hypothesis that is widely accepted by the scientific community." The qualities of a scientific theory include: "A scientific theory must be testable. It must be possible in principle to prove it wrong. Experiments are the sole judge of scientific truth."
In "Why Science Will Triumph Only When Theory Becomes Law," Clive Thompson contends that many people don't understand this. He points out that "in science the word theory means an explanation of how the world works that has stood up to repeated, rigorous testing. ... But for most people, theory means a haphazard guess you've pulled out of your, uh, hat."
Thompson refers to "Belief and knowledge—a plea about language" by Helen Quinn. She makes the same point that laypeople don't understand what scientists call a theory:
We also use "theory" in a way that is far from the everyday usage (where a theory is pretty much a hunch), particularly when we talk of "the theory of . . ."; examples are relativity, electromagnetism, evolution, plate tectonics, the standard model of particle physics. ... These theories are far from guesses; they will survive no matter what new evidence is accumulated. They are complex constructs that incorporate and explain a significant body of evidence. They have demonstrated predictive power as well as descriptive power.
So if laypeople don't understand what a scientific theory is, then what should such a profound understanding be called? Thompson and Quinn propose that, for the purposes of the public at large, scientists should describe such well-established science as "law." People understand laws--like the law of gravity--and understand that they're always true, are not going to change, and are silly to debate. Since that's what scientists mean when they describe these well-tested theories, then they should describe them the way the public will understand, as laws.
So are people really this stupid, that they don't understand what a scientific theory is? If so, how are we supposed to have any sort of intelligent discussion about anything remotely based on science? Guess that explains the kind of public discourse we have these days that passes for "discussion." This really seems like more Idiocracy and Truthiness and the Triumph of Opinion over Expertise.