Remember fifth grade science class? You had to present a scientific theory to the class. Then you had to use insane amounts of poster board and other office supplies to try to prove it.
You may or may not have covered law vs theory back in grade school. But it can be useful to know the difference. Facebook fights are a superb example of the practical application of this knowledge.
So, let’s take a look. Theory vs law – what’s the difference?
Law vs Theory: The Scientific Method
If you remember the science fair, you probably remember bits and pieces of the scientific method. Here’s how it usually goes.
1. A scientist (or fifth grader), makes an observation about the world.
Hmmm… I’ve noticed that every time my son leaves his cereal bowl on the table, it starts to stink.
2. Then, he starts to ask questions.
- Why does it smell so bad?
- Is the cereal causing the milk to spoil?
- Is it the cereal that reeks so horridly?
- Why does it do that on the table, but not if I put the bowl in the fridge?
- Why are kids so disgusting?
3. After much pondering, the observer begins to formulate hypotheses.
- Maybe it’s because of the sugar in the cereal.
- Or maybe the milk spoils because of the heat.
- Maybe the whole lot has been infested by mouth bacteria.
4. Our scientist really wants to know how the bowl gets to smelling so badly. So he then carries out experiments. We’re not going to get into control groups, or the proper way to conduct an experiment. But these are a few of the variables which could be used in this particular test:
- Just a bowl of milk, on the table.
- A bowl of milk on the table which the son has injected mouth bacteria into.
- Just cereal, left on the table
- Just cereal and milk, also left on the table.
- Each of these variables replicated and placed in the refrigerator.
5. Data is gathered. Which bowls of cereal or milk spoiled? At what temperatures did they spoil? Did the milk or the cereal alone begin to smell bad? Experiments may be altered to expand the experiment, or to refine it. More data is gathered.
6. A theory is formed.
Law vs Theory: Okay, so what’s a theory?
Here’s what a theory is not. A theory is not an arbitrary announcement that, say, cereal causes milk to spoil. It’s not until after many experiments are conducted, and empirical data is collected, that a theory is formed.
Most people confuse the word theory with the word hypothesis. That’s just not so. The hypothesis is the starting point to a scientific investigation. It’s a suggestion.
Conversely, a theory is something which has some substance behind it. The observer determined that the bowl of milk spoiled just as quickly without the cereal as with. The bowl of cereal did not spoil at all; it only collected ants.
In this experiment, there were several hypotheses. That the cereal was causing the smell, and that the mouth bacteria was a catalyst, for example. But there was only one resulting theory: milk spoils when left on the table in 72° temperatures.
A scientific theory, however, is not the same as a scientific law. A theory is tested and re-tested, over and over. At that point, what happens? Well, usually it remains a theory. Many people think that a theory is “promoted” to law status with repeated testing. That’s not the case.
Let’s look at the theory vs law difference a little more by defining scientific law.
Law vs Theory: What’s a Scientific Law?
Hypotheses, theories, facts and laws are all part of the scientific process. And none are upgrades of another. The terms, though, are commonly misused. They have different definitions in science than they do in everyday life.
An example of a fact is, for example, “this bowl of cereal starts to smell horrible when left on the table.” It’s little more than an observation. “The ocean has tides” is a fact. It’s observed that the tides come in and out. But in both cases, the “why” is not explained. The same applies to things like hauntings. An observation is that it was cold, or even that you felt/saw something unexplained. It doesn’t mean that what you saw was a bonafide ghost or poltergeist, and until you can prove otherwise, the observation remains so but the law doesn’t change beyond that feeling.
Hypotheses are formed, and theories are proposed. Scientific law, on the other hand, is very specific. It’s also dependent upon situation. Let’s go back to the cereal bowls.
These bowls of cereal get really funky.
The milk in the bowls is spoiling.
I’ve tested them, and the bowls only spoil when the air temperature is warm.
After repeated testing, I’ve determined that bowls of milk will spoil after 4 hours at an air temperature of 72°, regardless of whether they contain cereal or not.
Can laws change? You betcha. The above law may be changed by, for example, the presence of insects in the room, or by the fat content of the milk. Laws are always subject to change. That’s the beauty of science.
Law vs Theory: Which is More Acceptable
Well, the answer is, simply, neither. Science is always changing, and will always continue to do so. Some laws have remained intact since they were discovered. For example, “for every action there is an equal and opposing reaction” is still true today.
That’s known as Newton’s Third Law, and it’s pretty much considered to be just the way things are. But it can most certainly change. In the future, we may determine that it doesn’t apply deep under the ocean. Or far away in space, where other laws of motion may prevail.
Humans are constantly developing new laws and theories, too. As recently as 2016, new theories were proposed to explain dark matter, and the movement of stars in space. These discoveries challenged even Newton’s Laws. You can read that to mean that we are literally challenging the laws of gravity.
Law vs theory makes for a great social media war. Global warming, for example, is frequently debated. The evolution vs creation theory debate is another. Feel free to go ahead and troll your friends. Just make sure you understand the theory vs law difference first.