Hypothesis/Theory/Law: The Importance of Explaining Things Clearly

“First it’s a hypothesis, then it’s a theory, then it’s a law.” At first I wasn’t sure how such drivel ended up finding its way into grade school science classes, until I discovered actual scientists — with real Ph.D.s — seemingly corroborating it. That’s because they speak with the abstruseness of a credit card contract, hopelessly confusing everybody they attempt to educate.

As an example, a simple DuckDuckGo search (I’m a net activist; you think I’m gonna use Google?) for hypothesis theory law yields this About.com article written by — as I said — an actual scientist with an actual Ph.D. About.com isn’t a particularly reputable source for anything, but that doesn’t stop it (or “resources” like it) from being popular. Here’s what it has to say about the word “theory”:

A scientific theory summarizes a hypothesis or group of hypotheses that have been supported with repeated testing. A theory is valid as long as there is no evidence to dispute it. Therefore, theories can be disproven. Basically, if evidence accumulates to support a hypothesis, then the hypothesis can become accepted as a good explanation of a phenomenon. One definition of a theory is to say it’s an accepted hypothesis.

Wow, my brain started to hurt halfway through that paragraph. No wonder people have no idea what any of these words mean. And no wonder you hear anti-intellectual garbage like “that’s a theory, not a fact!” vomited all over the place.

And yet, we also have anti-intellectual garbage spewing from supposedly intellectual circles, such as the recent left-wing snarklejerk about how the US Congress is speaking at a lower grade level than it used to. We hardly need to resort to strawman arguments like this to say that Congress is full of idiots. After all, what’s inherently wrong with people who have less education being able to understand what the hell is being talked about?

Let’s look at an example of allowing lesser-educated people to understand what the hell you’re talking about. I’m going to try explaining what hypotheses, theories, and laws are:

A theory is a list of related laws*, which together explain a broader concept. A law is a statement which explains how a particular part of the universe works. For example, “every action has an equal and opposite reaction” is one of Newton’s laws of motion. Newton’s laws are part of the theory of classical mechanics.

Sometimes — such as in the theory of evolution — the laws contained in a theory are facts**. Other times — such as in the theory of creation — the laws within are errors. Untruths. Wrong answers. Whether something is a theory or a law has no bearing on whether or not it is a fact.

If we’re not yet sure whether a law is a fact or an error, then that law is a hypothetical law. A theory composed entirely of hypothetical laws is a hypothetical theory. Anything that is hypothetical is also a hypothesis, much like how your douchebag boss is simultaneously a human being and a douchebag.

*Yes, there are also axioms and principles and blah blah blah, but we’re keeping it simple.
**There’s no such thing as a fact in science, but for layman’s purposes we can save uncertainty for a later discussion.

There. That’s much less likely to be egregiously misinterpreted, isn’t it?

Now, just so nobody egregiously misinterprets this article to be a tangent about science education that bizarrely found its way onto a political blog, I’m going to point out that this business about hypotheses, theories, and laws is just an example. In political discourse — especially political discourse about emerging technologies, futuristic scenarios, and recent social upheaval — you’re bound to encounter a lot of people who have no idea what you’re talking about. Your goal is to give them an idea of what you’re talking about.

The way you do that is to communicate clearly. There is no idea too complex to be explained comprehensibly, even to the densest of human beings. If your words aren’t understood, that’s your fault. If your words get misinterpreted, that’s your fault.

And when words are misunderstood or misinterpreted, it can have dire consequences.

I remember an incident in my first year of high school, when my History class was covering China. The teacher was discussing the geography of the region — specifically something regarding the Yellow Sea, off of China’s northeastern coast. The day before, we’d learned about the Yellow River; I found it curious that there were two bodies of water in the region named for the color yellow. So, I communicated this curiosity by asking, “Why is everything in China yellow?” That didn’t go over very well.

When people misinterpret a message, it can be as harmless as having all of your friends momentarily believe you to be a horrible racist. Other times, it can lead to mass murder in the name of a peace-promoting ideology. So please, for goodness’ sake, communicate clearly.


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  1. Zeissmann

    Just three things, to keep it clear:
    1. Yes, it is important to communicate clearly.
    2. I have no idea what the whole philosophy-of-science-terminology discussion has to do with communicating clearly. Perhaps you didn’t state it clearly enough.
    3. You’re not a scientist and clearly you know bullocks about science (note that I don’t deny you might know a thing or two about technology – but technology is not science). Therefore I don’t see what makes you entitled to correct scientists and redefine widely used and clear terminology.

  2. Mikael Nilsson

    This was one of the worst and complete misunderstandings of science I’ve ever read from someone claiming to understand and support science.

    No, laws are not facts or errors. There is only data, and even that may hold large uncertainties. Not a single scientific law is a fact.

    1. Zacqary Adam Green

      Note to self: remember to click “save” after adding extremely important clarifications during proofreading.


      1. Mikael Nilsson

        I won’t judge whether you’re communicating clearly. But you’re communicating a serious misrepresentation of science, of exactly the kind that is too easy to shoot down for enemies of science.

        Are Newton’s laws facts or errors? In a sense, they are both. We know them to be wrong (Einstein and quantum mechanics give examples of experiments that will fail), but they are at the same time remarkably useful. They took us to the moon in spite of being errors.

        Trying to hide the fact that scientific theories are only true within a certain body of data, within certain margins of error, is ignoring the very core of scientific discipline. I can’t see how communicating the wrong thing can be “communicating clearly”.

  3. von

    Please read and reread that first definition of a theory until it no longer makes your brain hurt. Read and reread that first definition of a theory until it seems like the most natural thing in the world. Then you might actually understand what a theory is. The first definition makes a lot more sense than your own attempt, which may confuse more than it enlightens.

  4. Aaeru

    Just wanted to add that, clear communication is not just about being clear. It is a trial-and-error process. It is not possible to know how others might misinterpret your words. However if you do not simplify the full thing into layman’s language in a few paragraphs, you will miss out on being able to convey your message across (because tl;dr and closing the tab on my browser is but keystroke away).

    Communication is a type of design. And the only way to design great communication is trial and error. Failing more often makes you communicate better. So actually sometimes even if your intentions were to be as clear as possible, it is sometimes completely out of your hand (others receive your words differently) and you can only try again and next time do a better job. The lesson I think is do not be discouraged. And Don’t Give Up!

    Law is not so difficult a thing that the layman cannot understand it, especially when NOT understanding it means the difference between FREEDOM and BONDAGE.

  5. Ploum

    I will be honnest : that blog is barely readable. I’ve tried three times to understand why you are trying to say between false/true definitions and bold words

    Then I saw the conclusion “So please, for goodness’ sake, communicate clearly.”

    Is that a joke of an epic fail 😉

  6. mijj

    Terminology shouldn’t disguise the actual mundane processes of science. Science doesn’t search for truth, it creates models for patterns of phenomena. Any truths about the universe we think are revealed are purely in the imagination and not something that can be revealed by science.

    Human beings observe, create models and validate models of measurable behaviour. It’s how we model the bits of the manifest universe that we’re interested in. That’s what science is about. Observation of behavior, modeling of the behavior, and determining the degree of accuracy of the model. No model will be the “truth”. Models have degrees of accuracy. And degrees of accuracy are limited by our ability to measure. We don’t uncover the “laws” of nature, we develop models for the observed behaviors of nature.

    The best scientific model of behavior is one which minimizes the amount of information needed to make predictions to an acceptable degree of accuracy.

    Eg. newton’s gravitation model will be better than einstein’s for plotting the trajectory for missiles. Eg2. the big bang theory is messy – it has a lot of patching (ie. complexities) to make it align with observed phenomena – and it still doesn’t match up all that well.. If another theory comes along and aligns more simply with observed phenomena, then (from the point of view of being scientific) big bang should be ditched, no matter how emotionally attached we are, or how well it fits with our metaphysical ideas.

    The worst models for behaviour in the world are those which have no useful predictive value – these are used when the value is in their ability to manipulate human behavior (eg.the hand of god = the supposed value is in spiritual salvation and is promised by worshiping god via a particular established religion; economics = the supposed value is in material salvation promised by worshiping a particular political system)

    1. Rev. Smith

      Well as a science theorist, I do not concur with your post Mijj.

      What science tries to do is actually (to the best of human capability) to unravel how the world works – to explain what has happened earlier and to predict the future. If this is not seeking the Truth, your are hopelessly lost in the semantics.

      The “models” as you call them, are a way to limit the research made, so it will not prolong forever and hence would not give any knowledge – ipso ergo: it is better to know little about something, than to know nothing about everything.

      Further you seam to have misinterpreted the Occam’s razor. If predictions are significantly better using more information, then that is the way to go for a scientist, no matter how much more data is needed.
      What Occham is saying is that we should use the theory with the least assumptions (to put it simple) – hence Big Gang Theory has less assumptions than the ID, hence the BBT is better from a scientific view point, until the time when the existence of a Creator can be proven (which most probably will never happen, but that is another story).
      As a side track, I can mention that in applied science you are right, for instance if you are calculating a circle and the difference between using 3 or 4 for pi is not significant in that calculation, you do not have to bother about any digits.

      Then it seams unclear if you have understood the reason behind falsifying, rather than proving in science. Be that as it may, but I only want to stress that a scientist job is to try to falsify his/hers/others theories and hypothesis, not to prove that they are right and thus, if something can not be falsified, it is considered (to various degrees) to be the most probable explanation, until falsified in the future.

      Lastly I do not agree at all with your last paragraph. There are so many more examples of far worse models than the lack of ability to predict. For instance: self-proving models (we see them all the time in social science), having falsified assumptions (more common than you think), models not true to them selves (also all too common) and so forth and so on.

  7. Rev. Smith

    Q: what’s inherently wrong with people who have less education being able to understand what the hell is being talked about?

    A: Nothing, really. The problem occurs when things gets so over simplified that it becomes plain wrong… And this happens rather quickly, not the least when discussing human behavior. But politicians are not the only one we should put the blame here, or even the media, this problems occurs frighteningly often in the universities. Those who do not know their science ABC have no chance to understand when this pseudo-science get remarks from the rest of the science world, let alone understand that it is plain false by them selves… And here is where the politicians comes in to picture again…

  8. Yie ar kung fu

    This is the first time I’ve seen the terms “hypothetical laws” and “hypothetical theory”… and I have a PhD.

  9. Travis McCrea

    A theory is something that cannot be proven but is believed to be true, based on research. A law is something that we know to be true because it is calculable. Even Newton’s “Laws” are actually considered theories (if that) by modern science, but are true in “classic mathematics”. IE they were true when we didn’t know about vacuums.

    A law must always be true, 100% of the time, never change… and every possible result must have been tested.

    A theory must be suspected to be true 100% of the time, but you cannot test all possible variables.

    1. Rev. Smith

      When you speak of “laws” you are thinking of axioms, which are two different things. Laws are only used in layman’s terms and for the first natural scientists to market their ideas, such as Newton.

  10. Your Momma

    yup, u’ve blundered here. no point trying to even try to fix it. wiki scientific method.

  11. KanarieMan

    Islam is NOT a peace-promoting ideology. Muhammad himself was a warlord, a conqueror.
    The Spanish Inquisition might have been a better example, but the Inquisition (and most other atrocities in world history) were _deliberate_ misunderstandings by power-hungry monsters.

  12. Peter

    If i’m reading this right, which i might not, and if my feelings are correct… WHAT THE HELL IS THIS???



    1. KanarieMan

      I think you’re reading it right. This part gave me goosebumps:

      At one stage the Presidency proposed not keeping other Member States in the picture “..with the explicit intention of preventing Italy and the United Kingdom from raising concerns about penal sanctions for online infringements.”

  13. Mind

    Usually your posts are very clear, easy to understand and factual. This time however, well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news but at the same time criticism can give you knowledge and a pointer that something is off. I regard myself as a fairly scientific person and must say I don’t quite follow your post, the post itself seems to be an example of how not to communicate clearly which you then state as the most important thing in your final assessment. It seems a bit rushed and not quite thought trough. Some other have already pointed some things out and I urge you to think about it. Good luck and cheers!

  14. Buglord

    and then, a reason it’s NOT your fault, the one you’re trying to talk to has no interest and doesn’t listen.

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  16. KarlPopper

    Let me try…

    Law: Antiquated term for theory.

    Hypothesis: A theory which is a candidate for empirical testing. All hypotheses form a subset of all theories.

    A better theory is one which:
    (1) captures more of the phenomenal content within the theoretical content [adequate modelling].
    (2) integrates more thoroughly with related theories.
    (3) leaves less unexplained.
    (4) is accessible and efficient [Occam] .

    Put more crudely, a good theory tells us more about what is true in the world and less about what is false.

    Facts have existential import while theories do not. For example: If it is true that ‘the raven is black’, then it is true that the raven exists; the existence of the raven in a fact. However, it may be true that, ‘all ravens are black’ even though there are no ravens. ‘All ravens are black’ is logically equivalent to ‘There does not exist a raven that is not black’, which is true if there are no ravens.

  17. KarlPopper

    …the existence of the raven is a fact.*

    Dangit, sorry.

  18. Stephan Kinsella

    One of the reasons there is often confusion on such matters is the pervasiveness of scientism (which is linked with monism and logical positivism and empiricism), which is the fairly modern notion that only the natural sciences and the scientific method count as “real” science; everything else–namely, philosophy and the social sciences–is just silly wordplay, “metaphysics,” not “real” science. This is one reason economics has become positivistic and empiricist, econometric etc., where we have to formulate hypotheses and test them, as the physicists do. This leads to the ridiculous idea that we cannot know for sure that inflating the money supply leads to higher prices or that imposing a minimum wage causes unemployment; these are just tentative theories htat might be falsified.

    In my view the best way to approach this is the approach of Ludwig von Mises: realizing that the methods appropriate to the study of causal laws (the scientific method) is not appropriate to the understanding of teleological phenomenon–the latter, the sciences of human action (praxeology) are aprioristic. We can know some things for certain about the nature and structure of human action, things that cannot even in principle be falsified–such as that there is causality, that there are ends and means of action, that the means are scarce, that acting implies choice and opportunity cost and time preference, and so on. The knowledge of the categories of human action is different than that of causal laws. Only a clear understanding of such a dualistic approach to knowledge and a rejection of scientism can keep the confusion alluded to in this article at bay.

    for more see Mises, Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science http://mises.org/books/ufofes/ and Hoppe, Economic Science and the Austrian Method http://www.mises.org/esandtam.asp

    1. Stephan Kinsella

      See also C.P. Snow’s “The Two Cultures” and Misesian Dualism http://www.stephankinsella.com/2009/08/c-p-snows-the-two-cultures-and-misesian-dualism/

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