Hypothesis/Theory/Law: The Importance of Explaining Things Clearly
Reflections – Zacqary Adam Green
“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.
This article is also available in other languages: Spanish.