Friday, February 20, 2009

Arguments XIX -- Hypothesis, Theory, and Law

[This one is out of order. I wrote it and accidentally saved rather than published it. So it's been sitting there like it was a post, but never put on the blog.]

Here is another common argument is a clear misunderstanding of the terms hypothesis, theory, and law, in a scientific context. I know, I've addressed the word Theory before, back in my post "Arguments I -- Theory". But the theme keeps re-occurring. Too many people have a poor understanding of these ideas, so I guess it's up to us to help educate.

So let's start from m the beginning. Someone sees something, a happening, an occurrence, and forms an idea about how or why it occurred. The famous apple dropping down on Newton's head is an illustration of this. As the person thinks about the idea, they formulate explanations. These are called Hypotheses. I've also seen them called "Working Hypotheses", but in any event that is the concept here. While they are not unformed ideas, they do not yet have any support or evidence.

Now while this may sound like an easy step, the promotion . . . for lack of a better word . . . of a hypothesis to a theory is not a foregone conclusion. Please note that when we use the term 'promotion', we are not talking about marketing, but support. Much time, work and energy go into discovery of support. Many hypotheses are discarded, changed, added to, and subtracted from, until you reach a point where it not only matches the evidence, but it proves its self to be predictive as well. The results are consistent, the explanation is stable, and while you may not have worked out every last detail, you have an explanation that meets what you current know about a particular occurrence. At that point it becomes a Theory.

Do you see what I am saying? Things do not become a scientific theory because someone claims it is a scientific theory. Evolution took decades, as did plate tectonics and thermodynamics. In some cases centuries passed before a hypothesis becomes a theory! You cannot even estimate how long, or how much work it will be to prove some hypotheses. For example Plate Tectonics was hypothesized in 1913. It wasn't until satellite mapping proved the continents were still moving away from each other before it became a theory, over 60 years had passed!

Now the part some folks have trouble with, a Theory is as high as you go in science. Theories DO NOT graduate into laws. We don't one day have a theory of evolution and the next have a law of evolution. Since nothing in science is ever really proven to 100% absolute, once something is a theory is remains so, unless disproven. And while the underlying details may get more and ore support, it still never gets 'promoted' above a Theory.

So what exactly is a law and how does it fit in. A scientific law is an application of a theory under very specific constraints, frequently expressed mathematically. For example the frequently misnamed "Law of Gravity" is actually known as "Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation" explains that the degree of attraction between two bodies with mass is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. It is part of the Theory of Gravity, not the other way around. The Four laws of Thermodynamics are part of Physics Theory. The relationship is pretty well established. Laws are not theories, but specific, repeatable, and consistent examples of theories under very precise conditions. The Law of Segregation and the Law of Independent Assortment are both part of Genetics.

Scientific theories are not just random ideas. They are well supported explanations of a given phenomena. They start out as hypotheses and, as long as they become well supported can become a theory. Laws are not the ultimate expression of a Theory, but the application of a theory under specific conditions. Theories do not 'graduate' to laws. Such a statement reveals ignorance of the process.

Another way to look at the process is an IDEA can become a HYPOTHESIS, which can become a THEORY, which can contains zero or more LAWS. As you can see there is a continuum here, just not the one some people expect. Evolution is at the Theory stage, as high as you can go in science. Many parts of Evolution, like Genetics, contain laws even though there are no 'Laws of Evolution' right now. Creationism/Intelligent Design are at the Idea stage -- as long as you disregard the marketing hype. If you want to be generous you might want to put them at the Hypothesis stage, but that would imply someone is actually investigating the science behind it and I have seen no evidence of that, lots more marketing, but no evidence.

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