FACTS, HYPOTHESES, LAWS, AND THEORIES
How do you think scientists would rank the terms fact, hypothesis, law, and theory? How would you list these four from most important to least? Most people list facts on top, as the most important, followed by laws, then theories, with hypotheses being least important, at the bottom:
You may be surprised that scientists rearrange this list, as follows:
Why is there this difference? Clearly, scientists must have different definitions of these terms compared to how we use them "on the street."
I'll skip over the lengthy discussion of Facts, Hypotheses, and Laws, and go to Theories:
The word "theory" is perhaps the most misunderstood word in science. In everyday usage, the synonym of theory is "guess" or "hunch." Yet according to the National Academy of Sciences, a theory is defined as "a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses" (National Academy of Scineces 1998: 7). To explain something scientifically requires an interconnected combination of laws, tested hypotheses, and other theories. This reliance upon inferential reasoning is the hallmark of theorizing.
Many high school (and even, unfortunately, some college) textbooks describe theories as a tested hypotheses, as if a hypothesis that is confirmed is somehow promoted to a theory, and a really, really good theory gets crowned as a law. Unfortunately, this is not how scientists use these terms, but most people are not scientists and scientists have not done a very good job of communicating the meanings of these terms to students and the general public.
So when somebody says, "Evolution is a theory, not a fact," scientists say, "Damn right!" because a theory trumps a fact.
Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction
By: Eugenie C. Scott, Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education.
"Students are ill-served if in the name of 'fairness' or 'critical thinking' they are misled into believing that there is a controversy in the scientific world over whether evolution occurred. There is none. Although the teaching of evolution is often regarded as controversial at the K-12 level, the subject is taught matter-of-factly in every respected secular and sectarian university or college in this country, including the Baptist institution Baylor, the Mormon flagship university Brigham Young, and, of course, Catholic Notre Dame."
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