How important is this: A short description of scientific words like theory law and fact.

Deep thought
Deep thought | Source

Why?

This is inspired by some recent arguments I've read between creationists and people with a solid understanding of science.

It became obvious that the arguments are, well, complicated by each side using different language. On the whole, the creationists either deliberately twist either the meaning of a word or extrapolate too much from part of its real meaning.

So I've written this as a point of reference.

Theory

This is the biggie. The word theory gets downgraded and misused especially in creationist language.

What they mean by: "It's only a theory" is that a theory is somehow inherently untrustworthy, and should not be relied upon. The implications are that a theory is somehow fragile and subject to sudden collapse on a whim at any time. That can be true of poor theories. It can be true of theories that are not based on fact. It is true of a belief that is presented as a theory, but it it not true of good, powerful well tested long-standing theories supported by thousands and millions of observations. However, the rules of logic dictate that even a well proven theory is constantly under scrutiny.

The real scientific meaning is as follows:

A theory is an explanation.

That's a pretty easy statement to understand. So what is the fuss? Well, before I continue, we need to understand some more words properly.

Statement.

A statement is a collection of words that we can evaluate in order to get TRUE or FALSE.

For example, these are all statements, all of which are FALSE

"A cat is a house."

"No frog can hop."

"Purple is a flute."

"You cannot place things on any table."

"The Earth was created in seven days."

Axiom

An axiom is a statement that is self-evidently true. It is considered so obvious that further statements, theorems and proofs thereof may be constructed and also taken to be true... which leads me to:

Logical argument

A logical argument is a way to combine statements to create new statements. An example is:

  1. Dogs are mammals.
  2. Most mammals give birth to live young but the rest lay eggs.
  3. Dogs do not lay eggs.

Therefore, Dogs give birth to live young.

The tricky bit about logical argument is that the introduction of a false statement affects the truth of the conclusion. I had to be careful to QUALIFY the statement about mammals giving birth to live young. If I omitted the word 'Most', then it would be ambiguous and a useful statement cannot be ambiguous. If I had said, "ALL mammals give birth to live young." This would be incorrect".

Furthermore, a conclusion, even if true might not be a valid conclusion if the argument is not true for every step. It's possible for two or more false statements to cancel each other out.

Another related example is:

  1. Dogs give birth to live young.
  2. Every animal that gives birth to live young is a mammal.

(1.) is true.

(2.) is false and so we cannot conclude that a dog is a mammal based only on this line of reasoning.

In this case a third observation about the world invalidates (2.), namely:

3. Most sharks give birth to live young.

Logical arguments based on axioms are obviously subject to the ultimate truth of those axioms. This is why an axiom should be chosen as self-evident and obvious.

Fact

Facts are statements that are true. Statements that are true become fact when every experiment, every observation and all valid reasoning supports the truth-i-ness of the statement. Theories are built around facts, otherwise, they are not theories, they are beliefs.

If a statement is made and declared true, then it is declared universally true. There is no cop-out that can be swept away or ignored. Either a statement is true, or it is false. Just because it is declared true is not a guarantee of that status. You need to validate the truth of the statement (or prove it if possible).

If a theory works for most but not all observations, then scientists know that the theory is either wrong or incomplete, or there is an error in the exceptional observations. Even if a theory has such problems, providing you state certain reasonable assumptions, it is still worth using and developing until a better one is found.

Validation

Validation is the application of supporting evidence to a statement. Let's take the example:

"All mammals lay eggs."

This is supported by the presentation of the Platypus as an evidence. We know the statement is false, but if there is only limited evidence, then it may appear true. Under no circumstance would we declare this an axiom or a fact because it is not self-evident or obvious and there is not much supporting evidence. To support the truth of this statement, we need lots of evidence from diverse sources under many conditions over a long period of time. It can be hard to strongly validate the truth of a statement.

Falisfy

The statement "Mammals lay eggs" can be falsified by thousands of observations. However, we only need one to do the job. "Cows are mammals that give birth to live young". We can now use syllogism to conclude that "All mammals lay eggs." is FALSE, even though you could never have seen ALL mammals giving birth. The one cow that gave birth to live young is evidence enough to falsify the statement.

Law

As supporting evidence builds up, a statement might become incredibly well supported over a long period of time. If the truth of a statement is validated so well then it becomes possible to use it to invalidate other statements to a high degree of certainty. A law is also endowed with elegance and simplicity.

A law is almost axiomatic, but not self evident and must benefit from lashings of supporting evidence. The 'law of gravity' is one such law.

Realm of validity

A law underpins thousands of theories. But a law need not be absolute. It is a law because thousands of theories that have thousands of supporting observations of many years reply on it. If you find an exception to a law within its realm of validity, then ALL theories that rely on it must be thrown away. If someone invalidated the law of gravity, this would certainly crush tens of thousands of theories. It would be the biggest upset in all of science.

BUT as in the case of Newton's law of gravity which has a realm of validity for everyday observations, scales and non-relativistic speeds, within an extended realm, such as speeds near c, and near extremely massive objects, the law of gravity is cloaked by a new theory to explain those extreme cases. Einstein did not invalidate Newton's laws of gravity. He created a new theory with a more far reaching realm of validity that incorporates Newton's laws. It's incredibly important to understand this. Einstein did not prove Newton's laws wrong. He found a theory that works over a wider realm of validity.

If one single case found within Einstein's theory invalidates Newton's laws of gravity within its respective realm of validity, then it is not Newton's laws that would come crashing down, it would be Einstein's theories.

You can't easily argue with a law. It has been declared a law because of the inability to argue with it.


So what is a theory then?

Any theory is an attempt at an explanation. There are probably millions of people every day clinging to their own private theories to explain what they experience. This might be a private theory about why their spouse squeezes the toothpaste at the top of the tube, or some whacky theory that life on Earth was seeded by aliens.

But a tested scientific theory is much more. A tested scientific theory is an explanation that makes sense of a class of observations. It is based on facts. It does not break laws. It can be presented as a logical argument where every step is supported by evidence or logical conclusion. A scientific theory is always under review. A scientific theory is our best explanation and is capable of acting as a model.

A theoretical model is successful if it is a good enough approximation to reality that it is possible to play with the model and make predictions about reality.

Evolution is an observation which has been observed thousands of times and may be considered fact.

A theory of evolution attempts to explain the natural world, and it does so spectacularly well. It does not violate the laws of nature, and it guides further investigation in a predictive manner to find out more about the world. No observations since the inception of Darwin's theory of evolution has come close to invalidating the theory.

As such, our understanding that is a theory of evolution is among the most reliable and well tested scientific theories of all time.

That is an amazing and exalting achievement for something that is 'only a theory'.

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Comments 28 comments

Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore

Manna, this is so clearly worded and explained. I'll now have somewhere to direct creationists too when they misuse/misinterpret those words.

Thanks!


Manna in the wild profile image

Manna in the wild 5 years ago from Australia Author

Mission accomplished!


Baileybear 5 years ago

Well done. I've been getting tired of explaining what a scientific theory is and isn't, so this will be useful to link to.

Here's a hub about "just a theory": http://hubpages.com/hub/Evolution-Unintelligent-De...


Joyus Crynoid profile image

Joyus Crynoid 5 years ago from Eden

Thanks Manna--this is crystal clear and needed to be said. I will link to this in my upcoming hub on evolution as fact and theory.


Austinstar profile image

Austinstar 5 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

I will bookmark this hub for future reference. Very well explained, Manna! I learned something new today.


Manna in the wild profile image

Manna in the wild 5 years ago from Australia Author

Please feel free to link your respective hubs from here too.


Austinstar profile image

Austinstar 5 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

yeppers, I need to do that. Is there some way to mathematically correct time travel so I can go back and get some spare time? And have time travel make you skinny at the same time!

What we need to do is add your RSS feed, I think.


Manna in the wild profile image

Manna in the wild 5 years ago from Australia Author

I don't think time travel is possible - not unless you are willing to be a microscopic short-lived virtual particle that lives on borrowed energy. Sooo sorry. See http://hubpages.com/education/flt


Austinstar profile image

Austinstar 5 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

Well, just stick with the skinny part. I already know the formula. Pretty crappy math. I have to burn more energy than I take in. Sounds simple, doesn't it? Did I mention that I'm REALLY bad at math?


Joyus Crynoid profile image

Joyus Crynoid 5 years ago from Eden


Rod Marsden profile image

Rod Marsden 5 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

This hub works for me! Good one, Manna.


James A Watkins profile image

James A Watkins 5 years ago from Chicago

While I appreciate your more lengthy explication of these terms, it is not true that Creationists are so dumb they don't know what a theory is. I have three dictionaries and I can read.


Manna in the wild profile image

Manna in the wild 5 years ago from Australia Author

Who said this -- "The Truth is that it is ignorant to claim a theory is more than a theory. Anybody with a dictionary or a computer can look up the definition of a theory. Evolution IS just a theory. That is a fact." ?

You did, and it's confused.

The point is, a good well tested theory is a very important thing. It's more important than a fact and makes absolutely no sense at all to downgrade a theory by turning it into a fact. That's a nonsense statement because facts are merely observations while a good theory is the pinnacle of contemporary understanding. Theories are not proven because they must always be open for testing, just in case a new observation comes along that provokes a slightly better understanding. A good theory gets stronger as time goes on and as more observations are explained by it. A fact on the other hand is rather bland.

It's one thing to read and regurgitate a web/book definition, and quite another to *understand* it. My article was an attempt to explain rather than define.

I'm puzzled why you felt the need to post a comment using the word 'dumb' as nowhere can I find any implication about anyone being 'dumb' in my article or any comments to date.


Baileybear 5 years ago

Manna - James seems to have a distorted view of reality, and resorts to name-calling. He called me Beelzebub on my evolution of christianity hub


Joyus Crynoid profile image

Joyus Crynoid 5 years ago from Eden

Manna--methinks we touched a nerve! It's telling when insults are perceived where none are given.


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 5 years ago from The English Midlands

Hi!

Very useful! I'll link it to my hub :)


Manna in the wild profile image

Manna in the wild 5 years ago from Australia Author

Thank you Trish. I'll take a look at your work.


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 5 years ago from England

Hi, great list and explanations, there are so many terms that people get muddled up with this will certainly help, cheers nell


Manna in the wild profile image

Manna in the wild 5 years ago from Australia Author

Thank you Nell.


GodTalk profile image

GodTalk 5 years ago from Kentwood, Michigan

I have no problem with evolutionary theory when it comes to explaining why we have so many different varieties of a species in the world. It is well documented that species adapt and change to be better suited to their environment. But there have been no documented cases of various species slowly changing into others over time. As a matter of fact the Cambrian Explosion would be evidence to the contrary.

Also, I have heard the absolute insane argument from people who espouse evolution that this theory eliminates the need for a god completely. My guess is that the arguments for evolution would not be nearly as bad if the scientists would stick to the things which are verifiable and not try to use it in ways that it cannot be used.

Another example of this is the fact that evolution cannot account for the beginnings of even the simplest forms of life. There is merely speculation but nothing that can be verified in a laboratory. Even though this theory never claims to account for this, there are those who use it in order to boost their atheistic beliefs of life apart from a god. It is not the theory itself that the average person of faith objects to as much as what it is being used to try to prove. Maybe not by many, or even by most. But by a loud group of a few.

My advice to people of science is, not to become so dogmatic in your beliefs that you close yourself off to the possibility that you don't know everything. I keep hearing from atheists that I don't know much about science, but they won't even listen to scientists who have just as much knowledge of this field as they do but , at the same time, don't agree with the politically correct view of the day. They simply blow them off as deluded and they question their credentials. It seems to me that science, in this area, is becoming as closed minded as you say fundamentalist Christians are.

Evolution does not give us all the answers to the mysteries of the universe as some would want us to believe. And we cannot make it do what it is ultimately incapable of doing, and was not designed to do.


Manna in the wild profile image

Manna in the wild 5 years ago from Australia Author

@godtalk, thank you for your thoughtful comment. I appreciate the effort.

On this:

"But there have been no documented cases of various species slowly changing into others over time."

You say that as if evolutionary theory predicts it but it does not. Imagine a story told to a family and they

pass this story down over many generations. At some point, the story might get slightly changed and

for reasons of need or context, some of those might survive as a slightly different version. Over many

such minor changes, hundreds of generations later, you will find quite different stories surviving in

parallel, yet there will be no evidence of any single story changing into another. (For this analogy we impose a restriction to prevent cross-communication between groups - as it is with species who cannot inter-breed). It's not possible because

the chances of every compond change of one instance of thte story happening to turn into another exisiting

version is for all intents, zero. However, you will still be able to find similarities between those surviving versions, just as we can in fact with various religious texts today.

"As a matter of fact the Cambrian Explosion would be evidence to the contrary."

You will have to show me the examples.

"Also, I have heard the absolute insane argument from people who espouse evolution that this theory eliminates the need for a god completely."

I agree that that is insane. The 'need' for a god is a personal one. Evolution stands independently, and the theory of evolution is our best description of the observations.

"Another example of this is the fact that evolution cannot account for the beginnings of even the simplest forms of life. "

True - and it does not need to. If anyone says otherwise then they are wrong. What caused life is a different problem

with an answer outside of the theory of evolution.

"My advice to people of science is, not to become so dogmatic in your beliefs that you close yourself off to the possibility that you don't know everything."

I don't know any proper scientists that are like that. In fact the scientific theory is based on the premise that there are forever flaws and gaps

in knowledge. It's one of the few professions where you actually get paid to try and break the rules. A real scientist is excited to break his or her own theory with new evidence.

"It seems to me that science, in this area, is becoming as closed minded as you say fundamentalist Christians are."

I don't think that is true.

"Evolution does not give us all the answers to the mysteries of the universe"

Of course not. No more than chenistry tells you the mysteries of being a great chef or chromo-dynamics tells you how to be an artist.


soumyasrajan 5 years ago from Mumbai India and often in USA

Hi! Manna

Very admirable article indeed! So clear and complete and still in so simple terms, it is a pleasure to go through.

I discovered you only today, though I think I saw your comments several times. I have to go through your other articles - many of them - and very carefully. I enjoy them even more like one on travelling faster than light and then one on cryptography etc.

You consider yourself "in the wild" but it seems you live in a very ordered world with quite a bit of exactness and expressions expressed in very cool manner. Reminds one of style Einstein had adopted.

Though of course may be it has no contradiction with the wild. Even wild may have some exactness.

I enjoyed your distinguishing Laws and axioms. Though initially I was a bit puzzled when you said axioms are self-evident true statements. "Self-evident" word can make things vague. I always think of axioms more as statements which you assume and you make those statements because evidence suggests that many objects follow those laws. So aim becomes to build up a theory with assumptions of these axioms so that one can predict and understand behavior of those bodies. In other words I think of axioms are in a way boundary- time being I am going to study only behavior etc. of objects which follow these axioms, and main tool will be rational arguments and observations. If one starts seeing some objects which do not satisfy these axioms then one builds up a new theory with some old or new axioms. It does any way not invalidate any old theory, each has its own purpose.

You perhaps call them laws and axioms you use for a little more common such laws. May be it helps in making things easier to understand.

I think still creationists may not be much impressed. One of the problem with them is they practically start with an axiom that God created the universe or God is there. There is no harm in saying that clearly that this is my axiom and I do not want to study any thing which is outside that axiom (I hope at least good ones among them know this clearly).

But many of them perhaps neither know this clearly, nor they have inclination to sort out what exactly they are doing. Problem is even magnified further when some of them who perhaps even know this well still will not admit it and most of them not only do not want to study themselves much, possibility of things being outside their world restricted to their axioms but also prevent any body else from doing the same.

But some times I also wonder why even a lot of people in Science world and/or so called rationalists who know that this is the state of affairs, still get into useless duels with such people and an unnecessary abusive game.


Manna in the wild profile image

Manna in the wild 5 years ago from Australia Author

Thank you soumyasrajan for your nice words, careful comments and insightful thoughts.

Axioms are assumed to be true and cannot be derived, otherwise they would be redundant. Hence the term 'self evident'


soumyasrajan 5 years ago from Mumbai India and often in USA

Ok! that is essentially the same as what I was conveying.


TahoeDoc profile image

TahoeDoc 5 years ago from Lake Tahoe, California

Great and very important. The word 'theory' needs to be understood in the scientific context when discussing scientific principles. Sometimes people are unaware of the scientific meaning (sad state of science education in this country) and sometimes its willful ignorance or flat-out dishonesty that leads them to make that argument that "it's just a theory". Using or pretending to use the looser, everyday interpretation of the word becomes a smokescreen and an excuse to ignore the validity of evolution.


Manna in the wild profile image

Manna in the wild 5 years ago from Australia Author

Thankyou TahoeDoc for the feedback. I've seen some mainstream popular science programs on TV that muddle the waters too.


slcockerham profile image

slcockerham 4 years ago from Tallahassee, Florida

Hey Manna, Interesting hub, although I don't agree that evolution is a great theory. Lucy and Nebraska man are disproven facts that supposedly support this thery. As well as the circular reasoning of the millions of years needed for evolution. Circular reasoning is not very scientific method, would you agree?


Manna in the wild profile image

Manna in the wild 4 years ago from Australia Author

Hi slcockerham. You have to be very careful trying to tear down a well established theory with a couple of isolated incidents, i.e. mistakes of which "Nebrask man" is an example. What's wrong with Lucy?

Proof as such in science is not really the same as a mathematical proof. In the latter, if you are trying to get a universal truth, and find even a single contradictory sequence of logic, then that is then a disproof of the theorem. Theorems are not theories. Don't get them confused. So in practice, one might gather 1000's of pieces of evidence where one or two are misinterpreted, or even deliberately fraudulent in claim. Do they instantly invalidate the theory? No, of course not. If that were the case, anyone could commit a fraud or make a mistake, and it would tear down a theory. That's ridiculous.

What you must consider is the overwhelming body of peer-reviewed evidence and continuously weed out that which is weak, and retain that which is strong evidence. This is the case for evolution. There is a massive body of strong peer-reviewed evidence to bolster the theory.

Circular reasoning is indeed an issue, but evolution is not based on a circular argument is it? Empirical observation independent of a theory of evolution leads us to the conclusion that the universe is 14.6 billion years old. From this observed fact, you can conclude that there is a lot of time for the Earth to be available for the development of life. This is about 4.54 billion years which is another observable fact independent of any theory of evolution. The theory of evolution came about by observation of the animals and plants on the Earth today, and the knowledge that there have been billions of years prior on Earth. Darwin carefully looked at the similarities and differences between species, their environments, and distribution and worked out that over millions of years, animals had sex, reproduced, fought for life, and lived or died according to their characteristics where those characteristics gave even a tiny advantage to have sex and reproduce, life "evolved" to fit the environment. He matched the adaptations and characteristics to various environmental pressures, and concluded that it was very likely that two similar species had a common ancestor millions of years ago. He eventually worked out a sort of tree-structure. Yes - you need millions of years to do this but millions of years have in fact been available. That's not a circular argument is it?

A great theory is one that stands up to scientific scrutiny, makes predictions, and is continually overwhelmingly supported by new evidence. The theory of evolution certainly fits this criteria. Evolution is a FACT in the same way that we can say that a particular leaf is green. The theory of 'green-ness' of that leaf is to probe *how* the leaf is green -- ie the mechanisms involved in light absorption and reflection. The theory of evolution is to probe *how* evolution works. Even if, but some chance someone showed our current theory of evolution to be wrong or incomplete, then 'evolution' would still be there as a fact, out in the open to look at, while a new better theory replaces it.

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