Laws and Theories Among the Common People

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I guess it’s fair to say that the scientific community has not done so well in constructing its jargon vocabulary. That being said, it’s actually kind of sad how little people know outside of the scientific community, but are so prepared to argue for or against topics that they don’t know much about.

I came across an article today that talks about the discovery of a new dinosaur, from which birds may have evolved. You can read about it here: http://www.cnn.com/2013/05/29/world/asia/dinosaur-discovery/index.html?iref=allsearch

I always like to scroll through the comments just to read what others have to say about the topics I’m reading; but reading these comments was worse than nails on a chalkboard. Before I go on, I would like to point out that this post is not about whether or not the Theory of Evolution is true, but rather attacking the arguments that those outside of the scientific community make to justify their points. Here are just a few of the comments that I read on the article today:

“Technically reality itself is a theory.
We cannot prove conclusively that we are not all just programs running inside a big virtual reality machine.”

“[S]o is gravity, for that matter. whoops, dropped my drink, wait no I couldn’t have, it’s right here on my table in spite of the evidence of broken glass and water on the floor because it’s just a theory.”

Yes, technically it is a theory, because it has not been (and probably cannot absolutely be!?) proven – but the evidence is overwhelming, and its a lot better than the fairy tales that other people chose to believe.”

Just stop for a second and read those comments. Can you figure out what is wrong with what they are saying? All of them seem to be under the impression that a “theory” is something that can’t be proven, hence why we can argue that it doesn’t exist. Before we distinguish what a “theory” and a “law” is in the scientific community, let’s consider what society seems to think they are. The biggest misconception is that a theory is a guess; a hunch of some sort. Such as, “My theory is that she jumped from her bedroom window, and wasn’t pushed.” That, according to the English language, is indeed a theory; a guess (whether educated or not) as to what had actually occurred. In the scientific community theories are FAR from educated guesses, or a hunch. The next misconception is that theories are not proven, and thus they are not factual. The last main misconception is that once a theory is proven, then it becomes a law; so only laws are scientific fact.

FALSE. FALSE. FALSE. So let’s set the record straight.

A scientific law is a description of an observed phenomenon. For instance, let’s take a look at Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation, that states that every mass in the universe is attracted to each other by a force that is directly proportional to their mass, yet inversely proportional to the distance between them squared. Or in more visual terms:

F = G \frac{m_1 m_2}{r^2}\

This law describes how point masses will interact with each other by the force of gravity. It is a physical observation of the phenomenon. It tells us that the apple will fall from the tree to the ground, and gives us a means of calculating that, but it doesn’t explain why the apple will fall from the tree to the ground.

Theories, on the other hand are an explanation for the physical observation of phenomenon. For instance, unlike Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation, Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity explains why we observe the phenomenon seen in Newton’s laws. Both laws and theories consolidate a lot of research and successful testing before being categorized as such. Both can be proven and unproven. Take for instance Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity; which is a theory that was proven by predicting and observing the bending of light in an eclipse. To argue that theories are not facts is not necessarily true either. Did you know that the equations in Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity are used in GPS tracking, otherwise your GPS would be off by a number of kilometers. If you’re ever interested, here’s an awesome read about it: http://www.astronomy.ohio-state.edu/~pogge/Ast162/Unit5/gps.html

Long story short, scientific laws are meant to describe how things behave in nature, while scientific theories are meant to explain why things behave the way they do. Theories and laws go hand in hand, such that your theory must be able to accommodate the laws that are associated to it. It is false to think that theories become laws when they are proven, because laws and theories are two different concepts. Not to mention that both theories and laws can be (and generally are) proven and challenged. Arguing against a certain theory (such as the Theory of Evolution) because you believe that theories are not proven, scientific fact just makes you look like a fool…to us science folk at least.

Stay educated my friends.

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