Exposing PseudoAstronomy

May 26, 2013

Properly Designing an Experiment to Measure Richard Hoagland’s Torsion Field, If It Were Real


Warning: This is a long post, and it’s a rough draft for a future podcast episode. But it’s something I’ve wanted to write about for a long time.

Richard C. Hoagland has claimed now for at least a decade that there exists a “hyperdimensional torsion physics” which is based partly on spinning stuff. In his mind, the greater black governmental forces know about this and use it and keep it secret from us. It’s the key to “free energy” and anti-gravity and many other things.

Some of his strongest evidence is based on the frequency of a tuning fork inside a 40+ year-old watch. The purpose of this post is to assume Richard is correct, examine how an experiment using such a watch would need to be designed to provide evidence for his claim, and then to examine the evidence from it that Richard has provided.


Richard has often stated, “Science is nothing if not predictions.” He’s also stated, “Science is nothing if not numbers” or sometimes “… data.” He is fairly correct in this statement, or at least the first and the last: For any hypothesis to be useful, it must be testable. It must make a prediction and that prediction must be tested.

Over the years, he has made innumerable claims about what his hyperdimensional or torsion physics “does” and predicts, though most of his predictions have come after the observation which invalidates them as predictions, or at least it renders them useless.

In particular, for this experiment we’re going to design, Hoagland has claimed that when a mass (such as a ball or planet) spins, it creates a “torsion field” that changes the inertia of other objects; he generally equates inertia with masss. Inertia isn’t actually mass, it’s the resistance of any object to a change in its motion. For our purposes here, we’ll even give him the benefit of the doubt, as either one is hypothetically testable with his tuning fork -based watch.

So, his specific claim, as I have seen it, is that the mass of an object will change based on its orientation relative to a massive spinning object. In other words, if you are oriented along the axis of spin of, say, Earth, then your mass will change one way (increase or decrease), and if you are oriented perpendicular to that axis of spin, your mass will change the other way.

Let’s simplify things even further from this more specific claim that complicates things: An object will change its mass in some direction in some orientation relative to a spinning object. This is part of the prediction we need to test.

According to Richard, the other part of this prediction is that to actually see this change, big spinning objects have to align in order to increase or decrease the mass from what we normally see. So, for example, if your baseball is on Earth, it has its mass based on it being on Earth as Earth is spinning the way it does. But, if, say, Venus aligns with the sun and transits (as it did back in July 2012), then the mass will change from what it normally is. Or, like during a solar eclipse. This is the other part of the prediction we need to test.

Hoagland also has other claims, like you have to be at sacred or “high energy” sites or somewhere “near” ±N·19.5° on Earth (where N is an integer multiple, and “near” means you can be ±8° or so from that multiple … so much for a specific prediction). For example, this apparently justifies his begging for people to pay for him and his significant other to go to Egypt last year during that Venus transit. Or taking his equipment on December 21, 2012 (when there wasn’t anything special alignment-wise…) to Chichen Itza, or going at some random time to Stonehenge. Yes, this is beginning to sound even more like magic, but for the purposes of our experimental design, let’s leave this part alone, at least for now.

Designing an Experiment: Equipment

“Expat” goes into much more detail on the specifics of Hoagland’s equipment, here.

To put it briefly, Richard uses a >40-year-old Accutron watch which has a small tuning fork in it that provides the basic unit of time for the watch. A tuning fork’s vibration rate (the frequency) is dependent on several things, including the length of the prongs, material used, and its moment of inertia. So, if mass changes, or its moment of inertia changes, then the tuning fork will change frequency. Meaning that the watch will run either fast or slow.

The second piece of equipment is a laptop computer, with diagnostic software that can read the frequency of the watch, and a connection to the watch.

So, we have the basic setup with a basic premise: During an astronomical alignment event, Hoagland’s Accutron watch should deviate from its expected frequency.

Designing an Experiment: Baseline

After we have designed an experiment and obtained equipment, usually the bulk of time is spent testing and calibrating that equipment. That’s what would need to be done in our hypothetical experiment here.

What this means is that we need to look up when there are no alignments that should affect our results, and then hook the watch up to the computer and measure the frequency. For a long time. Much longer than you expect to use the watch during the actual experiment.

You need to do this to understand how the equipment acts under normal circumstances. Without that, you can’t know if it acts differently – which is what your prediction is – during your time when you think it should. For example, let’s say that I only turn on a special fancy light over my special table when I have important people over for dinner. I notice that it flickers every time. I conclude that the light only flickers when there are important people there. Unfortunately, without the baseline measurement (turning on the light when there AREN’T important people there and seeing if it flickers), then my conclusion is invalidated.

So, in our hypothetical experiment, we test the watch. If it deviates at all from the manufacturer’s specifications during our baseline measurements (say, a 24-hour test), then we need to get a new one. Or we need to, say, make sure that the cables connecting the watch to the computer are connected properly and aren’t prone to surges or something else that could throw off the measurement. Make sure the software is working properly. Maybe try using a different computer.

In other words, we need to make sure that all of our equipment behaves as expected during our baseline measurements when nothing that our hypothesis predicts should affect it is going on.

Lots of statistical analyses would then be run to characterize the baseline behavior to compare with the later experiment and determine if it is statistically different.

Designing an Experiment: Running It

After we have working equipment, verified equipment, and a well documented and analyzed baseline, we then perform our actual measurements. Say, turn on our experiment during a solar eclipse. Or, if you want to follow the claim that we need to do this at some “high energy site,” then you’d need to take your equipment there and also get a baseline just to make sure that you haven’t broken your equipment in transit or messed up the setup.

Then, you gather your data. You run the experiment in the exact same way as you ran it before when doing your baseline.

Data Analysis

In our basic experiment, with our basic premise, the data analysis should be fairly easy.

Remember that the prediction is that, during the alignment event, the inertia of the tuning fork changes. Maybe it’s just me, but based on this premise, here’s what I would expect to see during the transit of Venus across the sun (if the hypothesis were true): The computer would record data identical to the baseline while Venus is away from the sun. When Venus makes contact with the sun’s disk, you would start to see a deviation that would increase until Venus’ disk is fully within the sun’s. Then, it would be at a steady, different value from the baseline for the duration of the transit. Or perhaps increase slowly until Venus is most inside the sun’s disk, then decreasing slightly until Venus’ limb makes contact with the sun’s. Then you’d get a rapid return to baseline as Venus’ disk exits the sun’s and you’d have a steady baseline thereafter.

If the change is very slight, this is where the statistics come in: You need to determine whether the variation you see is different enough from baseline to be considered a real effect. Let’s say, for example, during baseline measurements the average frequency is 360 Hz but that it deviates between 357 and 363 fairly often. So your range is 360±3 Hz (we’re simplifying things here). You do this for a very long time, getting, say, 24 hrs of data and you take a reading every 0.1 seconds, so you have 864,000 data points — a fairly large number from which to get a robust statistical average.

Now let’s say that from your location, the Venus transit lasted only 1 minute (they last many hours, but I’m using this as an example; bear with me). You have 600 data points. You get results that vary around 360 Hz, but it may trend to 365, or have a spike down to 300, and then flatten around 358. Do you have enough data points (only 600) to get a meaningful average? To get a meaningful average that you can say is statistically different enough from 360±3 Hz that this is a meaningful result?

In physics, we usually use a 5-sigma significance, meaning that, if 360±3 Hz represents our average ± 1 standard deviation (1 standard deviation means that about 68% of the datapoints will be in that range), then 5-sigma is 360±15 Hz. 5-sigma means that 99.999927% of the data will be in that range. This means that, to be a significant difference, we have to have an average during the Venus transit of, say, 400±10 Hz (where 1-sigma = 2 here, so 5-sigma = 10 Hz).

Instead, in the scenario I described two paragraphs ago, you’d probably get an average around 362 with a 5-sigma of ±50 Hz. This is NOT statistically significant. That means the null hypothesis – that there is no hyperdimensional physics -driven torsion field – must be concluded.

How could you get better statistics? You’d need different equipment. A turning fork that is more consistently 360 Hz (so better manufacturing = more expensive). A longer event. Maybe a faster reader so instead of reading the turning fork’s frequency every 0.1 seconds, you can read it every 0.01 seconds. Those are the only ways I can think of.


Despite what one may think or want, regardless of how extraordinary one’s results are, you have to repeat them. Over and over again. Preferably other, independent groups with independent equipment does the repetition. One experiment by one person does not a radical change in physics make.

What Does Richard Hoagland’s Data Look Like?

I’ve spent an excruciating >1700 words above explaining how you’d need to design and conduct an experiment with Richard’s apparatus and the basic form of his hypothesis. And why you have to do some of those more boring steps (like baseline measurements and statistical analysis).

To-date, Richard claims to have conducted about ten trials. One was at Coral Castle in Florida back I think during the 2004 Venus transit, another was outside Alburqueque in New Mexico during the 2012 Venus transit. Another in Hawai’i during a solar eclipse, another at Stonehenge during something, another in Mexico during December 21, 2012, etc., etc.

For all of these, he has neither stated that he has performed baseline measurements, nor has he presented any such baseline data. So, right off the bat, his results – whatever they are – are meaningless because we don’t know how his equipment behaves under normal circumstances … I don’t know if the light above my special table flickers at all times or just when those important people are over.

He also has not shown all his data, despite promises to do so.

Here’s one plot that he says was taken at Coral Castle during the Venus transit back in 2004, and it’s typical of the kinds of graphs he shows, though this one has a bit more wiggling going on:

My reading of this figure shows that his watch appears to have a baseline frequency of around 360 Hz, as it should. The average, however, states to be 361.611 Hz, though we don’t know how long that’s an average. The instability is 12.3 minutes per day, meaning it’s not a great watch.

On the actual graph, we see an apparent steady rate at around that 360 Hz, but we see spikes in the left half that deviate up to around ±0.3 Hz, and then we see a series of deviations during the time Venus is leaving the disk of the sun. But we see that the effect continues AFTER Venus is no longer in front of the sun. We see that it continues even more-so than during that change from Venus’ disk leaving the sun’s and more than when Venus was in front of the sun. We also see that the rough steady rate when Venus is in front of the sun is the same Hz as the apparent steady rate when Venus is off the sun’s disk.

From the scroll bar at the bottom, we can also see he’s not showing us all the data he collected, that he DID run it after Venus exited the sun’s disk, but we’re only seeing a 1.4-hr window.

Interestingly, we also have this:

Same location, same Accutron, some of the same time, same number of samples, same average rate, same last reading.

But DIFFERENT traces that are supposed to be happening at the same time! Maybe he mislabeled something. I’d prefer not to say that he faked his data. At the very least, this calls into question A LOT of his work in this.

What Conclusions Can Be Drawn from Richard’s Public Data?


As I stated above, the lack of any baseline measurements automatically mean his data is useless because we don’t know how the watch acts under “normal” circumstances.

That aside, looking at his data that he has released in picture form (as in, we don’t have something like a time-series text file we can graph and run statistics on), it does not behave as one would predict from Richard’s hypothesis.

Other plots he presents from other events show even more steady state readings and then spikes up to 465 Hz at random times during or near when his special times are supposed to be. None of those are what one would predict from his hypothesis.

What Conclusions does Richard Draw from His Data?

“stunning ‘physics anomalies'”

“staggering technological implications of these simple torsion measurements — for REAL ‘free energy’ … for REAL ‘anti-gravity’ … for REAL ‘civilian inheritance of the riches of an entire solar system …'”

“These Enterprise Accutron results, painstakingly recorded in 2004, now overwhelmingly confirm– We DO live in a Hyperdimensional Solar System … with ALL those attendant implications.”

Et cetera.

Final Thoughts

First, as with all scientific endeavors, please let me know if I’ve left anything out or if I’ve made a mistake.

With that said, I’ll repeat that this is something I’ve been wanting to write about for a long time, and I finally had the three hours to do it (with some breaks). The craziness of claiming significant results from what – by all honest appearances – looks like a broken watch is the height of gall, ignorance, or some other words that I won’t say.

With Richard, I know he knows better because it’s been pointed out many times that what he needs to do to make his experiment valid.

But this also gets to a broader issue of a so-called “amateur scientist” who may wish to conduct an experiment to try to “prove” their non-mainstream idea: They have to do this extra stuff. Doing your experiment and getting weird results does not prove anything. This is also why doing science is hard and why maybe <5% of it is the glamorous press release and cool results. So much of it is testing, data gathering, and data reduction and then repeating over and over again.

Richard (and others) seem to think they can do a quick experiment and then that magically overturns centuries of "established" science. It doesn't.


April 3, 2013

Is the Scientific Method a Part of Science?


You probably all remember it, and I can almost guarantee that you were all taught it if you went through any sort of standard American education system (with full recognition for my non-USAian readers). It’s called the Scientific Method.

That thing where you start with a question, form a hypothesis, do an experiment, see if it supports or refutes your hypothesis, iterate, etc. This thing:

Flow Chart showing the Scientific Method

Flow Chart showing the Scientific Method

The question is, does anyone outside of Middle and High School science class actually use it?

A Science Fair Question

I recently judged a middle and high school science fair here in Boulder, CO (USA). The difference in what you see between the two, at least at this science fair, is dramatic: High schoolers are doing undergraduate-level (college) work and often-times novel research while middle schoolers are doing things like, “Does recycled paper hold more weight than non-recycled?” High schoolers are presenting their work on colorful posters with data and graphs and ongoing research questions, while middle schoolers have a board labeled with “Hypothesis,” “Method,” “Data,” and “Conclusions.”

I was asked by a member of the public, after I had finished judging, why that was. He wanted to know why the high school students seemed to have forsaken the entire process and methodology of science, not having those steps clearly laid out.

My answer at the time – very spur-of-the-moment because he was stuttering and I had to catch a bus – was that it IS there in the high school work, but it was more implicit than explicit. That often in research, we have an idea of something and then go about gathering data for it and see what happens: It’s more of an exploration into what the data may show rather than setting out on some narrow path.

That was about a month ago, and I haven’t thought much more about it. But, the Wired article today made me think this would be a good topic for a blog post where I could wax philosophical a bit and see where my own thoughts lay.


A disclaimer up-front (in-middle?) is that I’m an astronomer (planetary geophysicist?). This might be field-specific. The Wired article even mentions astronomy in its list of obvious cases where the Scientific Method is usually not used:

Look at just about any astronomy “experiment”. Most of the cool things in astronomy are also discovered and then a model is created. So, the question comes second. How do you do a traditional experiment on star formation? I guess you could start with some hydrogen and let it go – right? Well, that might take a while.

That said, I’m sure that other fields have the same issues, and it’s really just a big grey area. What I’m going to talk about, that is. Some fields may be more towards one end of the greyscale than the other.

A Recent Paper I Co-Authored

I recently was a co-author on a paper entitled, “ Distribution of Early, Middle, and Late Noachian cratered surfaces in the Martian highlands: Implications for resurfacing events and processes.” The paper was probably the only professional paper I have ever been an author on that explicitly laid out Hypotheses, tests for those hypotheses, what the conclusion would be depending on the results, then the Data, then the Conclusions. And it was a really good way to write THAT paper. But not necessarily other papers.

A Recent Paper I Wrote

I had a paper that was recently accepted (too recently to supply a link). The paper was about estimating and modeling the ages of the largest craters on Mars. There was an Introduction, Methods, Data, and Conclusions. There was no Hypothesis. It was effectively a, “Here is something we can explore with this database, let’s do it and put these numbers out there and then OTHER people may be able to do something with those numbers (or we can) in future work.” There really was no hypothesis to investigate. Trying to make one up to suit the Scientific Method would have been contrived.

This is also something the Wired article mentions:

… often the results of a scientific study are often presented in the format of the scientific method (even though it might not have been carried out in that way). This makes it seem like just about all research in science follows the scientific method.

This is especially the case in medical journals, but not necessarily elsewhere.

Change the “Scientific Method?”

The Wired article offers this as the “new” method:

New Scientific Method (via Wired)

Here’s the accompanying justification:

There are a lot of key elements, but I think I could boil it down to this: make models of stuff. Really, that is what we do in science. We try to make equations or conceptual ideas or computer programs that can agree with real life and predict future events in real life. That is science.

I will preface this next part by saying I am NOT up-to-date on the latest pedagogy of teaching and I am NOT trained in teaching methods (other than 50+ hours of Graduate Teacher Program certification during grad school plus teaching several classes, including two as instructor of record).

That in mind, I think that this is a good idea in later years of grade school education. In the early years, I think that the methodology of the Scientific Method helps get across the basic idea and concepts of how science works, while later on you can get to how it practically works.

Let me explain with an example: In third grade, I was taught about the planets in the solar system plus the sun, plus there are asteroids, plus there are random comets. In eighth grade, I was taught a bit more astronomy and the solar system was a bit messier, but still we had those nine planets (this was pre-2006) and the sun and comets and asteroids plus moons and rings.

Then you get into undergrad and grad school, and you learn about streaming particles coming from the sun, that we can be thought of as being in the sun’s outer-most atmosphere. You get taught about magnetic fields and plasmas. Zodiacal light. The Kuiper Belt, Oort Cloud, asteroid resonances, water is everywhere and not just on Earth, and all sorts of other complications that get into how things really work.

To me, that’s how I think the scientific method should be taught. You start with the rigid formality early on, and I think that’s important because at that level you are really duplicating things that are already well known (e.g. Hypothesis: A ping pong ball will fall at the same rate as a bowling ball) and you can follow that straight-forward methodology of designing an experiment, collecting data, and confirming or rejecting the hypothesis. Let’s put it bluntly: You don’t do cutting-edge science in middle school.

In high school — in a high school with good science education — you actually do start to learn more about the details of different ideas and concepts and solid answers are no longer necessarily known. You want to find out, so you might design an experiment after seeing something weird, and then gather data to try to figure out what’s going on.

That’s how science usually works in the real world, and I think it’s a natural progression from the basic process, and I still think that basic process is implicit, if not explicit, in how science is usually done.

I just got back from a major science conference two weeks ago, and I sat through several dozen talks and viewed several hundred poster presentations. I honestly can’t remember a single one that was designed like a middle school science fair with those key steps from the Scientific Method.

Of course, another aspect is that if we get rid of it, we can’t make comics like this that show how it’s “really” done (sorry, I forget where I found this):

How the Scientific Method Really Works

How the Scientific Method Really Works
(click to embiggen)

Final Thoughts

That said, this has been a ~1400-word essay on what I think about this subject. I don’t expect much to change in the near future, especially since – as the Wired article points out – this is firmly entrenched in the textbooks and in Middle School Science Fair How-To guides.

But, I’m curious as to what you think. Do you think the Scientific Method is useful, useless, or somewhere in-between? Do you think it should be taught and/or used in schools? Do you think it should be used in science fairs? Do you think professional scientists should use it more explicitly more often?

July 31, 2009

What Is Science, Its Purpose, and Its Method?


Following up on my post “Terminology: What Scientists Mean by “Fact,” “Hypothesis,” “Theory,” and “Law”,” as well as a recent planetarium lecture I gave on young-Earth creationism in astronomy, I thought it would be a valuable post to go over specifically what the purpose of science actually is, and how science goes about, well, science.

I need to make three things very clear up-front: First, I am not a philosopher. I have not taken any philosophy classes, nor have I taken a philosophy of science class (though I think I probably should).

Second, even though “science” is an inactive noun – where I use the word “inactive” to mean that it is a process and a mode of thinking – I will be using it throughout this post as an “active” noun, personifying it to actually “do” things. This is how it’s used in popular culture, and I see no real reason to take efforts to not go with the colloquial use in this posting.

Third, this post is going to serve a dual purpose by contrasting the scientific method with the creationist “method” in order to show how science differs in key, important ways.

Dictionary Definitions of Terms

The way the dictionary that Apple kindly provides on their computers defines “science” as: “The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” There are three sub-definitions, but that main one emphasizes that “science” is an activity, a study, and one that looks for natural explanations.

My only qualm with this definition is that I would add to it not only what it does or how it operates, but its purpose, as well: “The purpose of science is that once it has provided an explanation for the physical and natural world, it allows one to use that explanation to make predictions.” I know that when I stand on one foot, if I don’t shift my weight to that one foot, I will likely fall if I do not support myself. That is because I have repeated observations that tell me this. Without that predictive power that in the future I will fall if I don’t shift my weight, then all those previous observations are fairly worthless.

In this section, I also want to define “dogma.” Using the dictionary again: “A principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.”

Now, hopefully I’m stating the obvious, but “dogma” and “science” are not equivalent. In fact, I know that I’m not stating the obvious because there are many, many, many people out there who believe that science simply leads to dogmatic facts/ideas/theories, etc. This is not true. And in the rest of this post I will show you why.

A Look at the Creationist “Science” Method

Before I say anything else, I want to emphasize that this is not a straw man argument, an exaggeration, or anything else that may lead to you thinking this is not true. This section is really how many – if not most or all – biblical literalists view science, and this is how they decide what science to incorporate into their worldview.

Ken Ham, the CEO of the “Answers in Genesis” (a young-Earth creationist think-tank in the US, now separate from the Australian group by the same name), has explicitly stated that one must start with the Bible, while others at AiG have stated that even logic and science itself flows from the Bible, for without it, you couldn’t even have the tools that science uses.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s look at a flow chart:

Flow Cart Showing the Scientific Method

Flow Chart Showing Faith-Based 'Science'

The above flow chart shows the basic, fundamental process that most biblical literalists use to vet science. They may get an idea, or hear of something. Let’s use a young-Earth creationist mainstay, Earth’s magnetic field. Data shows that Earth’s field has gone through reversals in polarity at many points in the past. The data is clearly out there for anyone to examine, and it is unambiguous that crustal rocks record a flip-flopping magnetic field.

Now, does it fit in the Bible? Creationists such as Kent Hovind say that it does not. The result is that alternating magnetic fields are simply not possible. In fact, to quote him: “That’s simply baloney [that there are magnetic reversals in the rocks]. There are no ‘reversed polarity areas’ unless it’s where rocks flipped over when the fountains of the deep broke open. … This is a lie talking about magnetic ‘reversals.'” (Taken from his Creation Science Evangelism series, DVD 6:1.)

Alternatively, Russell Humphreys, of Answers in Genesis, accepts that there have been magnetic reversals, as he is able to fit it into a reading of the Bible. He explains the field reversals as rapidly taking place during the 40 24-hr days of Noah’s Flood. Hence, because they are able to fit it into the Bible, they accept it as a dogma.

A Look at the Scientific Method

You’ll notice that this flow chart is a tad larger:

Flow Cart Showing the Scientific Method

Flow Cart Showing the Scientific Method

It starts at the same place, with an idea/observation/etc., which we call a “hypothesis.” As opposed to testing this hypothesis against the Bible, it is tested by performing an experiment. In other words, can the idea that you have accurately predict the outcome of an experiment?

If not, then the idea is rejected. If it did accurately predict the outcome of the experiment, then ideally you will do several more and gather other observational evidence, but effectively you now have created a theory. A theory is when all pieces of evidence support that idea, and NO experiment has refuted it.

The next step of a theory is to use it to predict a future event. This is where my definition of science differs from the dictionary by adding these predictive properties (the bottom half of the flow chart). Without the theory of gravity being able to predict the motions of the planets and moons, the behavior of tides, etc., then what good is it other than to have on paper and look pretty?

So the theory is used to predict a future event. If it predicted it correctly, then you simply rinse and repeat. Much of basic scientific research is really just testing theories. Far from being the “dogma” that many creationists will want you to believe, theories are subjected to tests every day.

In fact, scientists WANT to be the one to do the experiment that the theory predicted a different outcome for. That’s where we follow the “NO” arrow on the flow chart. If the theory can be modified to support the latest evidence, then it is improved, and you go back and continue to test the now-modified theory. An example of this would be the addition of Inflation to the Big Bang model.

However, if the theory cannot be modified to support the latest evidence, then we have a scientific revolution. People remember your name. You get Nobel Prizes. And money. And women (or men). Anyone over the age of 10 knows Einstein’s name and know him to be synonymous with “Relativity” and likely even “E=m·c2.” Advertisers wish they could be that efficient.

Final Thoughts – What’s the Point, and Why No Spiritualism/Paranormal Allowed?

The point here is that, well, I’m honestly sick of hearing the anti-“darwinist” crowd claiming that evolution, the speed of light, the Big Bang, and many other scientific theories are just a “materialistic dogma.” They’re not. Plain and simple. Dogma is where you believe something as FACT and it cannot be shown to be false, regardless of any evidence. Theories and the scientific method is a process that requires evidence to support it, and no evidence to the contrary. It requires predictive power.

And that is why spiritualism/religion/supernatural/paranormal beliefs are simply not allowed in science. Sorry, they’re not. Why? Because almost by their very definition, they lack any predictive ability. If you can’t use your hypothesis or theory to predict a future event, then they have just been shown not to work. Yes, the Flying Spaghetti Monster may have created us all by touching us with His noodly appendage. That may be a hypothesis. But you simply can’t test that because He in His Infinite Carbalicious Goodness can just choose not to do it again. Or some vaguely-defined “Intelligent Designer” may have caused the bacterial flagllum to exist or have formed the mammalian eye. But that belief does not present any way of being tested, whereas evolutionary theory does (and has shown the precursors to all of those).

And that’s really the point of science: To use testable ideas to explain the where we came from, and then to predict where we’re going.

December 21, 2008

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

Filed under: terminology — Stuart Robbins @ 11:59 pm
Tags: , , , ,


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.

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