Discarding the terms “Hypothesis”, “Theory”, and “Law”

Rhett Allain at Dot Physics has proposed that we stop using the terms “Hypothesis”, “Theory”, and “Law” because people so abysmally misunderstand them. He proposes replacing them all with the term “model”.

Take out all three of these “science” words from introductory texts. They do more harm than good. The problem is that people have firm beliefs that they mean something other than what they are supposed to mean. I don’t think we can save these words.

We do have a word to replace them. Are you ready? It’s the model – or you can call it the scientific model if you prefer.

I’m not sure if the fact that people widely misunderstand these terms is the right justification for giving up on them. Also, a “model” is a thing that is not a hypothesis (for example) so replacing key terms that are at the center of scientific activity with another term that means something else may not be the best idea.

Having said that I agree that there are problems with these terms. Also, “law” (and Rhett forgot “rule” …. a term attached to a lot of models after several initial “laws” were worked out, possibly more often in biology related fields) may well be problematic.

One problem with “model” (and there is quite a bit of writing on this term) is that it has a number of distinct meanings that are in common use in science. It can be a law-ish thing that we use to work out physics problems, it can be a complex set of supposed interactions that we use to structure a climate simulation, or it can be a mouse (as in “model organism”).

Some of the problems Rhett brings up would be partly or largely addressed if we added the other terms that in some cases he’s already mentioned in his post. A hypothesis may well be an educated guess, but a “formal hypothesis” is a thing with a null hypothesis and test conditions, and a “testable hypothesis” is formal hypothesis that is not stupid. A “scientific theory” is a real live scientific theory while a “theory” is a thing we generally don’t believe to be true (“My cousin Nate said he’d be here on time for once … in theory….”)

Underlying much of this difficulty is the way things are taught in high school. Again and again I find HS science teachers trying to get these terms across to students as though they were well fixed, simply defined, exhaustive and exclusive fully understood agreed on descriptions of how science works, applied in the same way across all scientific areas. The formal definition of “hypothesis” and the way it is often used in textbook science would require that all the historical or observational sciences are not real science, because experiments are not set up to test hypotheses. So particle physics can be real science but not astronomy.

If, instead, the terms were taught in their historical context and the nuances brought out more, perhaps at the expense of learning some fact-based material the students may not need too much anyway, they would be better understood. In fact, newer science standards and newer textbooks and other teaching materials tend to do this more and more these days.

In short, a key desire for basic education in science (the stuff we want every citizen to be exposed to) is to develop critical thinking skills. So, starting with a critical, contextualized, nuanced look at the terms would good. As rule. In theory. Well, that’s my hypothesis, anyway.

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7 thoughts on “Discarding the terms “Hypothesis”, “Theory”, and “Law”

  1. Just because theory, hypothesis, and law are widely misunderstood and misused, I fail to see the benefit of replacing them with an ill defined all purpose term like model. In biology “law” is almost gone anyways. But the number of times you hear evolution is only a theory shows the level of science illiteracy. Part of the problem is that even science doesn’t use these terms in a consistent way just as medicine can’t seem to get the difference between disease and disorder correct.

  2. Language is invariably imprecise, so no matter what terms you use for what are now called hypotheses, theories, and laws, you will have problems. “Model” already has problems of its own: particle physicists refer to the generally accepted theory of how the various elementary particles are related to each other as the “Standard Model”, but for most other physicists, a model is something you code up on a computer and use to run simulations.

    There is at least one instance of the current scientific use of “law” being mocked in popular culture. Bugs Bunny strolls out along the underside of a tree limb and brags that in an animated cartoon, “You can even defy the law of gravity!” He promptly falls on his head (per the rule that cartoon gravity turns on when a character notices that it should have an effect) and quips, “Unfortunately, I never studied law.”

  3. Seems like many of these terms are used in science the way “robust” was used in statistics for many years: often and only rarely precisely.
    As an outsider to the scientific community (statistician), a question: how long would a change to wide-spread use of “model” take to be accepted? I can’t imagine it being quickly enough to make any practical difference, but I do tend to the cynical side.

  4. The use of adjectives should be encouraged when using the word theory: scientific theory is good; crackpot theory and conspiracy theory – not so much.

  5. Misuse of words like “theory” and “hypothesis” serve as red flags that let you know a bit about a person’s general scientific competence.

  6. Is that the angry atheists’ attempt at getting rid of God’s laws of nature? Evolution is only a model? Hmm, actually, maybe he has a point.

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