Exposing PseudoAstronomy

December 21, 2008

Terminology: What Scientists Mean by “Fact,” “Hypothesis,” “Theory,” and “Law”

Filed under: terminology — Stuart Robbins @ 11:59 pm
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I’ve decided to write this post so that I have something to refer to and don’t have to constantly re-define these words: Fact, Hypothesis, Theory, and Law.

This may seem silly. “Why,” you may ask, “would you have to define such simple little words?” The reason is that the colloquial use of these words by the general public is very different from their usage by scientists. And let’s really just jump to the chase here: Calling something “Just a Theory” shows both the ignorance of Cobb County, Georgia public school administrators and anyone else who tries to use that phrase to belittle a scientific conclusion.

Colloquial Use

To use math expressions, the general use of these words goes in order of importance as: Fact > Law > Theory > Hypothesis.

“Fact” in Everyday Language: A “fact” is something that is true. Whether you like it or not, “facts are stubborn things” (thank you, John Adams … or, “facts are stupid things” courtesy of Ronald Reagan). In general use, a “fact” is the strongest thing that can be said about, well, anything.

“Law” in Everyday Language: In everyday language, a “law” is generally on the same level as a fact. A law is something that is true, that generally explains or answers lots of different things. However, outside of politics, “law” is rarely used unless actually referring to something scientific.

“Theory” in Everyday Language: This is where the supposed insult to scientists comes in when you call something “just a theory.” Outside of scientific circles, a “theory” is more of a supposition. “I have a theory that my cat will meow when it hears someone at the door.” It may or may not be “true,” but it’s a supposition I have that is probably supported by at least some sort of observation. But it’s really “just a theory” and is just as likely to be shown wrong at any given time as it is to be shown right.

“Hypothesis” in Everyday Language: A “hypothesis” is sort of on the same level as a “theory,” if slightly below. To most people, they can be used interchangeably, though most will just resort to “theory” because “hypothesis” is an extra syllable longer and makes you sound like a nerd.

Scientific Use

In science, the order of importance of these is almost reversed: Theory > Law > Hypothesis > Facts. In addition, each term has a specific, well-defined use.

“Fact” in Science: It may surprise you to know that a “fact” is generally used the same way – it is an observation – but it is very specific. For example, if I drop a ball while holding it in the air above a surface, it is a fact that it will fall to the surface. This term is usually not used, however — we resort to “observations.” For example, I observe that when the wind blows, a flag will flutter.

“Hypothesis” in Science: This is an “idea” that is formulated to explain observations (or our “facts”). In the above to examples, I might hypothesize that there is a force that pulls on the ball, counteracted when I’m holding it. Or that the wind exerts a force on the flag that causes it to flutter. The purpose of a hypothesis is to explain one or more observations in a cogent way. A good hypothesis must be testable – it must be able to make predictions about what would happen in similar situations – otherwise a hypothesis can never be verified nor refuted … and it remains “just a hypothesis.” At present, String “Theory” is really just a hypothesis.

“Law” in Science: Laws are a descriptive generalization about how some aspect of the natural world behaves under stated circumstances. For example, Kepler’s Three Laws of Planetary Motion are (1) Planets travel in ellipses with one focus being the Sun, (2) planets sweep out equal area in equal time, and (3) a planet’s period-squared is proportional to its semi-major-axis-cubed. Laws are generally made from many facts/observations and are effectively an “elevated” level from a hypothesis. Another example are the Laws of Thermodynamics. Because a Law is just a description of how something behaves and it does not explain why it behaves that way, it is usually considered to be below the level of a theory.

“Theory” in Science: A theory is really one of the pinnacles of science – what nearly everyone strives to make out of their hypotheses. A hypothesis is elevated to a theory when it has withstood all attempts to falsify it. Experiment after experiment has shown it sufficient to explain all observations that it encompasses. In other words, a “theory” has never been shown to be false, despite – usually – hundreds if not thousands of separate attempts to break it. It explains the observations with one or more mechanisms and, because it provides that mechanism, it is considered to be above the level of a Law. Examples these days are the Theory of Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, the Germ Theory of Disease, and yes, the Theory of Evolution.

I should note that theories are usually conglomerations of several different hypotheses, laws, facts, inferences, and observations. For example, while the Theory of Evolution is a theory, various mechanisms for it are generally still hypotheses, such as Natural Selection (though some may quibble with me over that).

Another good example of a Theory is the Standard Model of Particle Physics. This describes how fundamental particles and forces interact. It is based upon countless experiments and observations and it rests on solid mathematical framework. It has many different laws in its make-up (such as how particles behave, or how forces interact) as well as many observations (such as the mass of the proton, or the energy of a tau neutrino).

A third example was partially mentioned above – Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion. Tycho Brahe and Johannas Kepler made many detailed observations of planetary positions over the course of many years. Kepler formed a hypothesis about how planets moved based upon the data. From the hypothesis, he made predictions on where planets would be later on. When these were confirmed, his hypotheses were elevated to laws. Later, Isaac Newton came along and with his Theory of Gravity was able to provide a physics-based framework for why and how those laws worked.

Finally, it should also be noted that nothing in science is “forever.” It is always subject to further tests and observations. In many cases, people really do try to do this since that’s how you make a name for yourself. If you’re the scientist who has verified for the 123,194th time that a ball and a feather fall at the same rate in a vacuum, so what? But, if you’re the scientist that has found evidence that gravity itself is not a force emitted by an object but rather a bending of the fabric of space itself, then, well, you’d be Einstein – a household name.

(I make this note because a common argument you’ll see from creationists is that they say materialists always want to uphold the status quo.)

Final Thoughts

That’s really about all I wanted to do with this post – clarify these terms and what they actually mean in science. I’m not naïve enough to think that now suddenly this’ll clear everything up and no one will ever say something’s “just a theory” again, but at least now I’ve gone through all these terms step-by-step so that I can refer back to them when need-be.

Edited to Add: I think my post on “the final epsilon” is a relevant follow-up to this one. If you’re interested in the concept of how classical mechanics can still be a theory even though it disagrees at some level with the theory of relativity, I recommend reading it.



  1. I wanted to make a comment to my own post. I just now came across a page on the Answers in Genesis website (a young-Earth, literal Bible, everything-is-in-Genesis group) where even they say that claiming evolution is “just a theory” is a very bad argument to make:

    “Evolution is just a theory.”

    What people usually mean when they say this is “Evolution is not proven fact, so it should not be promoted dogmatically.” Therefore people should say that! The problem with using the word “theory” in this case is that scientists use it to mean a well-substantiated explanation of data. This includes well-known theories such as Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and Newton’s Theory of Gravity, as well as lesser-known ones such as the Debye–Hückel Theory of electrolyte solutions. It would be better to say that particles-to-people evolution is an unsubstantiated hypothesis or conjecture.

    Comment by astrostu206265 — January 22, 2009 @ 6:41 pm | Reply

  2. In other words, a “theory” has never been shown to be false, despite – usually – hundreds if not thousands of separate attempts to break it.
    What about the phlogiston theory or the ether theory?

    It took a long time to break the down but it happened.
    Also, Aristotle’s ‘Earth , Air Fire , Water’ theory held good for over 2000 years.

    Comment by Paul — February 2, 2009 @ 12:36 pm | Reply

  3. “while the Theory of Evolution is a theory, various mechanisms for it are generally still hypotheses”

    How can something be elevated to a theory while various of its basis are still hypotheses? Doesn’t it sound like making a conclusion way too early?


    Comment by Sid — April 4, 2009 @ 3:10 am | Reply

  4. Sid –

    To answer your question I’m going to grossly simplify the actual ideas involved, just for brevity. The Theory of Evolution is about change through time and common ancestry. In other words, one species turning into another. That’s what Evolution is. The question then is how that happened – the mechanisms of how evolution works – that are still somewhat in question, and those are natural selection, non-selective drift, or rates of change (gradualism or punctuated equilibrium), etc. Also in question is what the pattern of evolutionary change is. For example, differentiating between common ancestry or convergence upon a similar feature because it’s useful despite no common ancestry for that feature (I think the panda’s thumb is an example of the latter). So all because we haven’t worked out the kinks in the actual mechanisms for something, the broader picture is not in question.

    Here’s an analogy: You watch things fall. You know that if you hold something up and let go, it will fall. That, in this simplified example, could be your theory (that when you release something it falls). Now you have your theory that this event happens, but you may not know the mechanism. You may think it’s because of air pushing on it. Or you may think it’s because God is pulling it down. Or you may think it’s due to the curvature of space-time. Regardless of whether you have the exact mechanisms worked out, the Theory of Falling is still a fundamental principle of the world around you and hence, when used like that, it is a Theory. (In actuality, it would be a “fact” because it is an observation that you would use to build a larger theory, but we’ll ignore that in the above example.)

    Comment by astrostu206265 — April 4, 2009 @ 9:32 am | Reply

  5. The “theory” of evolution is neat and rational, but whilst some form of evolution is definitely correct, there are many problems with the theory as it stands. For instance, it requires slow change, whereas evidence suggests something different.
    There appear to be periods of fast change interspersed by periods of no change at all. If this could be tied with periods of fast change and no change at all in the environment, all well and good, but science cannot prove this.
    Similar problems arise with the evidence to prove evolution. For instance, only 10% of the fossil record has been found, leaving huge gaps in the evidence. Hence, science’s evangelical approach to the ‘truth’ of evolution is misplaced.
    Of course, evolution was much more than a theory of life. The idea of the ‘survival of the fittest’ was a perfect philosophy and for the strongest to prosper. As such, Nazism and modern capitalism are based on the premise.
    Opposing evolution is Creationism and the idea of ‘intelligent design’ within life. The two stances seem so contradictory that there is no possibility of tying the two ideas together. However, this is not the case.
    Computer programs have now been devised on the concepts of evolution. Over many ‘generations’, the programs evolve to be better programs, adapting through natural selection. However, this is not the whole picture.
    In order to know in which direction evolution must go, the programs are given a ‘basic design function’, without which they could not work. This is a form of intelligence within evolution. It is not inconceivable that a similar process could lie in evolution proper. It is the challenge of theology and science to study the possibility rather than bicker.

    Comment by Anthony North — June 1, 2009 @ 2:59 am | Reply

  6. Maybe someone can help. The main problems I have with evolution (apart from ‘it requires slow change which could just be a mathematical anomaly in population dynamics, see chaos theory) is two fold

    a) It seems to require some concept of WILL to survive, even at Dawkins genetic level where would this WILL come from in a mechanistic system.

    b) The progressive development of improvement is apparently by random gentic mutation although this has never repeat never been observed in any situation. If you keep hitting computers with a hammer sooner or later one will be improved??

    Any ideas to clarify a or b please.

    Comment by Mick — June 1, 2009 @ 5:17 am | Reply

  7. QUOTE
    “about 13,000 years ago we were near an ice age. Doesn’t seem to have much to do with anything cosmic. (Astrostu)

    “scientists use it (theory) to mean a well-substantiated explanation of data.” (Astrostu)

    Astrostu, By your ‘scientific rules’ would you please clarify whether the first statement quote is a fact, a law, a theory or an hypothesis?

    Comment by Mick — June 2, 2009 @ 4:36 am | Reply

  8. Anthony – I am not going to debate evolution versus creationism on this blog nor in its comments as that is not the purpose and I am not an expert. I will say (a) that the pace of evolution is not required to be “fast” or “slow,” relatively speaking, for evolution to actually occur. (b) The fossil record’s completeness has long been a totem to which creationists flock, but there are very good reasons for it not to be complete (e.g., not everything fossilizes, soft parts don’t fossilize, and Earth has active geology). But evolution predicts that we will continue to find transitional forms, which we do, whereas there is no such prediction from creationism. (c) Bringing up Nazis in relation to evolution is another common tactic, though one that I normally see from ID proponents as opposed to creationists, and it is really a “poisoning the well” fallacy. For example, every time I mention Christians I could bring up the crusades and the Inquisition along with dogmatic persecution throughout Europe during the middle ages and early Renaissance and thus have the same effect. If you wish to debate this further, however, please go to a blog such as Pharangula.

    Mick 1 – I don’t see how (a) is necessary at all. That’s the point of natural selection. (b) Is not correct. The best example that I know of is of Richard Lenski’s E. coli long-term evolution experiment, where three separate random mutations occurred to allow one colony of bacteria to thrive on a food that it previously could not metabolize.

    Mick 2 – The first statement is neither. It is a response to your hypothesis that there was a cosmic cause to the ice age and it will repeat soon. You made a claim – you stated a hypothesis. You need to be able to back it up with observations, data, theory, etc. for it to advance anywhere. In the meantime, my statement that there isn’t a link runs with the status quo, the scientific consensus.

    Comment by astrostu206265 — June 3, 2009 @ 12:00 am | Reply

  9. Astrostu
    “I don’t see how (a) is necessary at all.” That’s the problem. If you did you would see the flaw in the evolution theory. Even evolution theorists ‘see the problem’ Darwin for example, but evolution is the best but incomplete theory we have. You ‘not seeing the problem’ just makes you irrelevant to the discussion until you understand the problem. See Antony’s point “In order to know in which direction evolution must go, the programs are given a ‘basic design function’, without which they could not work.”

    Your subsequent comment “Even though it was just in the news that A COMET may have been the cause (of YD), it is still far from conclusive.” follows from you first comment “about 13,000 years ago we were near an ice age. Doesn’t seem to have much to do with anything cosmic.”

    If YD corellates with ice age of same proceeding period then THERE is the cosmic cause of the ice age.

    “my statement that there isn’t a link runs with the status quo, the scientific consensus.” No it doesn’t’ it’s just that you are not an expert in this area but don’t acknowledge this fact. (again)

    I am not really interested in arguing these specific scientific points, the point is that your reasoning throughout this site is careless. You don’t make any BIG mistakes (often) just many small ones which ruin your case every time. It is frustrating for top rate scientists when third rate thinkers argue their case, it feeds the ridiculous debates about Creationalism for example and reduces science to a ‘my opinion is the concensus’. Is there nothing you can do about your contributions, you are like a footballer that thinks he can play ALL positions well enough so he looses his team place because he failed to focus on his own!!

    It is the damage to science that concerns me. If society falls into your trap of cavalier science we will be put back 1000 years to pre ‘age of reasoning’ days and the religious beliefs will resurge. Or is that what’s happening already?

    Comment by Mick — June 3, 2009 @ 4:58 am | Reply

  10. For another example

    “Recent work by biologist Richard Lenski has looked at the role of potentiating mutations in historical contingency. The ability for multiple neutral mutations to add up and eventually allow for a beneficial mutation.”

    Why does this imply that the mutations are random as opposed to driven by a meta process of constructive mutation.?

    Comment by Mick — June 3, 2009 @ 6:20 am | Reply

  11. Mick –

    (1) Could you point me to any legitimate, scientific source that says the will to survive is any part of evolutionary theory? I spoke with over a half dozen scientists today and none of them had any clue as to what you were referring (and yes, half of them do study evolution). Anthony is referring to computer code for evolution. Speaking as a computer modeler myself, we cannot model everything precisely, and we have no way of knowing what evolutionary pressures would have existed to create the speciation we see today. In addition, the only two models that I am familiar with to try to show this were created by Intelligent Design proponents, and given their track record with twisting much of the evidence, someone who really knows the field would need to comment on that, not I.

    (2) I am familiar with the comet ideas that were floated in the news a few months ago. Last I heard, the jury is still out on those, and it is far from a scientific consensus. However, regardless of that, you are missing the bigger point: My comment, which you quote-mined, was in direct response to your comment (reproduced below):

    However…. something happens to the earth every 13,000 years (see ice core data on comic debris) we Simply must be missing some other alignment or factor. You are right the sun earth galactic centre does occur twic e a year but the signficance of this alignment occurring on dec 21 is what seems it distiguish it. Why?? Dec 21 ‘rotates’ around the sun every 26,000 years and hits the alignmen line evry 13,000 years. This cannot be a coincidence, can it?

    My response, in full context to this, was:

    If I recall correctly, about 13,000 years ago we were somewhere near an ice age though around 8,000 years ago. Doesn’t seem to have much to do with anything cosmic, as the cycle didn’t repeat 13,000 nor 26,000 years before that.

    Within that context, a comet impact repeating every 13,000 (or 26,000) years and THAT being the greater cause of the cycle that YOU were arguing for is up to YOU to backup. That greater picture was your hypothesis, and that is something that you need to find significant supporting evidence for and theoretical justification. And, for the record, I am familiar with a few papers that have tried and failed to convince scientists of the validity.

    But no, I am not an expert in that particular “field,” nor do I claim to be, and so I read the published papers, form my own opinions as to their validity based upon the evidence they present and then compare that with what the consensus opinion is as well as how the consensus arrived where it is. And that’s what I report on – what the consensus is AND if my opinion differs, what my own take on it is (such as in my second post on the Jupiter-creationism argument). Oh, and it’s “creationism,” not “creationalism.”

    (3) The point of the mutations is that evolutionary theory predicts that over successive generations, mutations will occur that may lead to the species flourishing. That’s what happened in that experiment. Perfectly explainable within the context of evolutionary theory. However, due to the nature of Intelligent Design, it is of course easily explainable by that, too: “The intelligent designer decided to guide the bacteria to those beneficial mutations.” Similarly, it’s explainable from creationism: “God gave those mutations to the bacteria.” Among other things, the problem is that neither of those statements is falsifiable and so it is not how science operates. And, to nip your follow-up complaint in the butt before it’s made, that is about the extent of my philosophical understanding of modern, evidence-based science, and so if you want to argue that point further, do so elsewhere.

    Comment by astrostu206265 — June 3, 2009 @ 9:53 pm | Reply

  12. Hi.

    1)Anthony is using ‘computer code for evolution’ as an anology for ‘basic inbuilt driving force for evolution’ I used the anolgous term ‘will’. Or to put it simply, why should anything bother to survive?, it cannot be a mechanistic drive unless the drive is a meta process with some origin.

    2) I was not saying a comet impact every 13,000 years (although for some reason some do) I was pointing to the fact that comet DEBRIS was found (evidence) in YD layer with ice age onset (evidence) around then (frozen mammoth (evidence) etc.)The ‘comet ideas that were floated in the news’ were based on evidence of world wide comet debris at YD. As a consequence scientists are looking for possible sources of the debris and ‘Doesn’t seem to have much to do with anything cosmic, as the cycle didn’t repeat’ isn’t really much use as a contribution to the debate. There is some iridium (evidence) of a repeating cycle but it is scant at present.

    3) ‘Mutations are a random process’ is not falsifiable either.

    My statement was ‘The progressive development of improvement is apparently by random gentic mutation although this has never repeat never been observed’.
    You state ‘(this) Is not correct. The best example that I know of is of Richard Lenski (ref).

    This reference does NOT support your claim that my statement is incorrect. It is still not apparent whether mutation is random or whether there is a benficial meta process.

    The intelligence that is driving evolution is possibly the species own individual intelligence not some big deity. We have not found a mechanism for intelligence to modify the zygote genes though. But Newton didn’t believe in gravity as there was no medium through which it could act.

    Scientific dogma is no better than religious dogma. If scientific reasoning is poor or flawed it is not science, it is dogma under the guise of science. If you wish to continue with your conclusion based mental activity fine, but don’t call yourself a scientist. I can think of a word.

    Comment by Mick — June 4, 2009 @ 4:41 am | Reply

    • Mick –

      (1) See natural selection / survival of the fittest. Other than that, I am not going to address evolution anymore after this post. I do not study it, I am not an expert, but it sure sounds that what you are describing is simply explained by natural selection: If a rabbit is born that has a mutation that allows it to jump farther and faster than other rabbits, it is more likely to survive and pass along that mutation to its offspring.

      (2) You are missing the point from your original claim. I refer back to that, and our final discussion on that topic where we reached an impasse where you are not going to be able to convince me without further evidence, and I obviously could not convince you.

      (3) My understanding is that Occam’s Razor comes into play in this situation. The mutations can be explained by random processes. They could also be explained via guidance from an external, intelligent source. The materialistic/naturalistic explanation hence sides with random, un-intelligently-guided processes over a background intelligence. This is akin to the argument by ID proponents these days who argue that consciousness cannot be explained just by the mind, that there has to be something else behind it. Neuroscientists, however, do not agree, and claim that the lack of present-day ability to explain the exact nature of consciousness is a god-of-the-gaps leap to say that therefore there must be a dualistic nature. We simply do not need that added layer of complexity at the moment to explain the situation. And, just like point 1, discussion of this issue is beyond my expertise and I will not debate it further.

      Comment by astrostu206265 — June 4, 2009 @ 2:27 pm | Reply

  13. Hi

    Good points. Thankyou.

    You will realise that it is not the individual scientfic arguments that I am trying to ‘win’ or ‘lose’. Your Occam’s Razor point seems valid.

    My general argument is that the perceived scientific process is not the process that true scientists use. If you were in a pit and there was no ‘evidence’ that getting out would improve things, why would you get out. The answer is imagination. Imagination finds a new way forward, after that evidence paves the way for others to follow.

    Stopping the development of contributors imagination by saying ‘there is no evidence to support that’ yet (academia) stifles the embrionic stage of scientifc advancement and does science no service. This is the issue I have been expressing about your responses on this site.

    Newton did not crave status through consensus he craved imagination. Imagination is the child of intelligence.

    Occams Razor ?? this MAY lead to staying in the pit, as it is the simplest response.

    Take care.

    Comment by Mick — June 5, 2009 @ 6:02 am | Reply

  14. It must be wonderful for the Scientific community to have their own definitions on certain words as though they have reach a strata or elevation of superority. Or it is really because the theories have very little basis of foundation to build a home on? Newton could have called his ideas theories and as a matter of fact they were until new material proved otherwise and updated the concept. If a fact is a fact is a fact, it is not subject to the relation of the emergence of surroundings. The World is Flat Theory stood for some time until sailors did not sail off the earth.

    Charles Darwin’s Hypothesis is not reached the lotfy heights of even a Theory; because his only observations have never been proven by FACT, only discussed by those whom think their opinions are gold-plated than the ‘common folk.’ It sounds a bit like the end of the Dark Ages, where the dominant religion of the time squashed out all Creative thinking, whether it be in the Scientific or Religious areas. Many who pushed the envelope then were pursecuted, hated, censored and killed. Has the Scientific Arm (speaking generally) who has written their own definitions, become the Ruling Religious Class, smashing all others which oppose their elevated Hypothesis?

    By the way, even some of Einstein’s theories, and they were termed ‘theories’ have come into question by cosmologists and astrophysists. So what do we do now? Devaluate the ‘FACTS.’

    Charles Darwin’s house of cards is about to come crumbling down. Why? Because he failed to look at the smallest element he built his ‘false’ observations on. The smallest creatures on the earth, with so intricate mechinisms that had to be in totality or the other would fail. Please feel free to explain that through your elevated definitions of words. I would love to hear you ‘Windfoggery’ on that. That is a little contribution by Theodore Bernstein who wrote “The Careful Writer.” (I can read.)

    Comment by Walter D. Wright — September 13, 2009 @ 1:00 am | Reply

  15. One of the problems is that the scientific community does not use the ‘pure scientific logic’ processes that it claims to use. It cannot afford to because it has to consider (and becareful of) the scientific community (so would you). Every community does the same, art, music politics etc. Science is what scientists do, the question is ‘What do they really do?’ They are trying to become ‘the Ruling Religious Class’ but what other mechanisms of progress do you suggest? It is not science that you are objecting to but the communities that ‘do’ science. But how do you solve this ‘problem with communities’. It’s like saying the music could be better if it wasn’t for the record companies. I suppose you could download but no-one gets paid. And there is the crux of the science community problem, ‘some one has to pay your wages’. Survival of the fitest?

    Comment by Mick — September 14, 2009 @ 5:15 am | Reply

  16. astrostu206265 has it right. Great explanation on the difference of theories, laws, facts, and hypothesis. Now I’m just waiting for some of the bloggers to evolve to the point where they can understand what your saying. Some of the bloggers didn’t get the “intelligent design”, they got the other design. No worries though, survival of the fittest, will gradually eliminate their ideas.

    Comment by Den — November 26, 2009 @ 6:59 pm | Reply

  17. […] and “Final Thoughts” sections. Back in December 2008 in one of my first posts, I talked about what a scientist means by “Theory” because it’s very different from the general public. The post is reasonably well-used with […]

    Pingback by What’s a Theory? Dictionary versus Science « Exposing PseudoAstronomy — April 30, 2010 @ 1:02 pm | Reply

  18. […] particularly illuminating account can be found at the PseudoAstronomy blog, which contrasts the colloquial and scientific use of some of the […]

    Pingback by Science, truth without certainty | Code for Life — June 12, 2010 @ 3:08 am | Reply

  19. Francis Bacon developed the inductive method of science because he was frustrated that people were assuming their concepts to be right and manipulating data to prove their beliefs. The inductive method is effective because it leaves no room for manipulation. A hypothesis is brought into a controlled environment an observed. Whatever the observation renders based on multiple, repeated experiments is recorded as a theory. The theory is then cut loose from the laboratory and observed in a natural environment. The observed natural processes are then identified as factual. No observation in the natural world – no fact. No observation in the laboratory – no theory. The only possible definition of “evolution” and it’s opponent “intelligent design” is hypothesis. Therefore, the only basis for adhering to either view is faith. Neither views can prove their validity. That is not saying they do not have the potential of being an accurate description of truth, it is just saying neither can be proved by a scientific method. We walk by faith wether we walk in theistic explanations of life or atheistic explanations. Both views require systems of faith and neither side can be ethical claiming scientific proofs. The only fact of the matter is the absence of fact. Neither side can be proved, only believed.

    Comment by Keith — October 30, 2010 @ 10:21 am | Reply

  20. Response to Keith, who says regarding “evolution” and it’s opponent “intelligent design,” that “Neither side can be proved, only believed”…

    I cannot think of any way of ever confirming “intelligent design” experimentally – in this world – maybe we could in the the next world!.

    However, “evolution” is easy to confirm. All we have to do is observe living creatures for a very long time!
    Obviously, when I say “we”, I mean the human species and direct descendants.

    For example, suppose we observe two groups of dogs such as pedigree Great Danes and pedigree Pekingese, which we know can interbreed (with assistance).
    According to Darwin, because they are separated for some reason, then eventually, they would be unable to interbreed.
    In this case let’s say they are separated because their owners never cross breed them (they want to preserve their characteristics).

    When they are unable to interbreed, then technically they would become two separate species.

    This can easily be tested by assisted mating experiments (but never allowing any viable offspring to breed by neutering). If, after many generations, no viable pups can be produced by crossbreeding experiments, then they would be classed as separate species. In other words, evolution will have been observed. On the other hand, if the two separate groups can shown in experiments to be capable of interbreeding, despite waiting many generations, then evolution would not have been observed and therefore not confirmed. Scientists, in the latter case, would either continue waiting or give up.

    When does a scientist give up? I don’t know, but I suspect cost is a factor. It’s a case of flogging a dead horse.

    Comment by mark6336 — July 21, 2012 @ 4:11 pm | Reply

  21. When unable to prove a point scientists/liberals wish to change the definition of words to fit their arguments.

    Comment by Ed D — October 22, 2014 @ 12:32 pm | Reply

    • Actually Ed, it’s conservatives and the religious who changed these terms to suit their desires. I draw your attention to “Evolution is just a theory” and rest my case. These terms were in use by scientists long before they were co-opted by others.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — October 22, 2014 @ 12:56 pm | Reply

  22. I’m studying Epistemology and the Philosophy of Science (for personal interest). Thanks so much for your lucid, concise explanations!

    Comment by Adam — March 12, 2016 @ 8:05 pm | Reply

  23. Re: your comments about Francis Bacon, which describe the Scientific Method, it would be helpful to contrast the limits of inductive reasoning, versus classical deductive reasoning. When people criticize the Scientific Method, they often seem to cite as its Achilles Heel, “Well, your experiment simply proves that X isn’t false. But you haven’t proven that Y cannot be true.” That is a misunderstanding of the purpose and power of the Scientific Method, i.e. “lots of observation” + induction.

    Comment by Adam — March 12, 2016 @ 8:13 pm | Reply

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