Fact vs. Theory

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Genie Scott’s new edition of Evolution vs. Creationism is especially useful for people in the trenches in this so called ‘debate’ because Scott manages to touch on virtually every point of argument you will run into if you are, say, a life science teacher. For instance, the role of ‘theory’ vs. ‘fact’ and ‘hypothesis’ and so on is generally misunderstood by students and the general public … and this misunderstanding then exploited by the creationists. So, this issue is dealt with clearly. Have a look. The top list is how many people rank these terms in importance, and here Scott contrasts the popular view with what scientists would generally do.



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0 thoughts on “Fact vs. Theory

  1. For instance, the role of ‘theory’ vs. ‘fact’ and ‘hypothesis’ and so on is generally misunderstood by students and the general public

    I suggest you have this upside-down, and that this attitude this contributes to the problem by implying that the masses are at fault. They are not.

    The reality is that scientists want the general public to use some of these terms in ways different and more restrictive from what they’ve been accustomed to. And in fact, scientists are not consistent; it’s not tough to find a scientist using “theory” in the colloquial sense.

  2. “For instance, the role of ‘theory’ vs. ‘fact’ and ‘hypothesis’ and so on is generally misunderstood by students and the general public … ”

    Personally, I think much of the confusion is fomented by scientists: even as a grad student in upper division classes, I often hear professors use “theory” when they should be saying “hypothesis.” Though maybe that’s because I’m in a department with a bad case of teh post-modern.

  3. You guys are hanging around with a bunch of sloppy thinkiers. Hey, my wife is a HS biology teacher, and she is totally on top of this. Her students don’t get out without getting this. I’ve always been careful in my teaching.

    There probably is some cleaning up that needs to be done among the edumicators. But I’m not entirely sure that the general ignorance of the masses is totally attributable to the educators. In theory, anyway.

  4. In theory, anyway.


    Yes, it’s tough for some people to get a mental grip on a Theory of Everything including a Law of Gravity supported by hypotheses and facts… The nomenclature isn’t second nature to the general public. How many times have we all heard, “It’s only a theory!”?

  5. Reminds me of a survey I saw in Analog magazine some decades ago. They asked people to rank a list of things from most dangerous to least dangerous. Nuclear power and flying in planes was ranked most dangerous, while driving a car and smoking was ranked least dangerous, while the reality is actually the complete opposite.

  6. My theory is that most lay people equate hypothesis with wild ass guess, and think that facts are immutable (when, in fact, they are subject to interpretation according to hypotheses, known laws and theories).

    They somehow also have the impression that laws are somehow fixed and unchanging – despite their own non scientific evidence to the contrary! (Do we still have statutes demanding tithe to the crown, and that we burn witches?)

  7. I would have thought (in reverse order):
    4. Facts
    3. Laws (tying two or more sets of facts together in a relationship).
    2. Hypotheses (initial explanation of how the laws/facts tie together).
    1. Theories (tested, unfalsified hypotheses that predict further tests which might provide more facts).

  8. Tony: Yea, but those are different kinds of laws. But here’s a question for you: The “laws” of science are mostly old, nineteenth century or even older. Later, in the early 20th century, there are a few “laws” but “rule” is staring to come into play more. Now, people don’t really define scientific laws.

    Is that because the laws were all discovered early or is that because of a change in approach in how science works?

    2,000 words, justify your answer, include references.

  9. Greg

    Not disagreeing – merely commenting on the social use of those terms versus the technical use. People are intrinsically sloppy (i just thing we’re built that way, ‘cos real world processes rely on sloppy to succeed)

    regarding the term ‘law’ versus ‘rule’: In a few words, I think this is the visible effect of an ongoing transition from a dogmatic ‘perfection is attainable’ scientific worldview to a much looser and less hubristic worldview (that happened to coincide, in part, with QM and ‘uncertainty’ & c).

    That and the fact that people who learn from TV generally have a much poorer grasp of nuanced language than those more formally schooled.

    Just sayin’ 😉

  10. Good model. Maybe some day it will be a theory, and with a couple of margaritas in the right company, maybe it will be an idea!

    (sorry for the mixed allegories!)

  11. Who cares what scientists say? I think most Americans have learned these terms by watching Gilligan’s Island:

    Professor: I’ve got a theory–Gilligan is stealing coconuts because he’s a sub-moronic twit.

    Mr. Howell: There oughta be a law against stealing coconuts from rich people!

    Ginger: Hey, Skipper, check out my hypothesis!

    Skipper: Little Buddy, the fact is I am not gay!

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