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A simple guide and discussion on some scientific terms. If you see anything which needs correction, let me know!

The clock for edits happens to be clicking, with less than 24 hours before its set for good and I have to bug mods for changes. I'd appreciate any feedback! Original thread is here!

Note: this has been truncated due to blog word lengths!

Evolutionary theory. M-theory. The general theory of realitivity. From the moment we begin schooling, we begin the process of learning about science, and the various theories which form it.

From flight to cancer research, much of what scientists research is based on groupings of evidence called a scientific theory. Whenever we launch a satellite into orbit or give someone medicine when they are sick, we are making use of a scientific theory. However, what is a theory? Why is there so much debate about theories, and why do some people say that some things are "just a theory" or "only a hypothesis" when scientists say otherwise?

The scientific lexicon, or word use, is different from what people use normally. For example, a theory outside of the scientific community is often a fuzzy or vague thing, something which we are not sure about. A good way to describe a theory that way is a "logical guess" at what is going on. But that is not how it works for scientists.​

The aim of this post is to provide a short look at some basic scientific terms which often come up in debates. This includes such terms as "scientific theory," "scientific law," "scientific method," "fact" and "hypothesis." Knowing what a scientist is talking about will help a bit in distinguishing what someone is actually saying. Few things halt a debate in good faith more completely than a language barrier.​

So what is a scientific theory?

A scientific theory is an inductive line of logical reasoning, based on empirical evidence, structured with scientific laws to produce meaningful and testable predictions and conclusions on topics within it's scope.​

Scientific theories are collections of tested hypotheses, observations and experimental results bound together into useful context. Theories are based on multiple lines of inquiry and evidence collected thereof, and are often quite extensive.​

The creation of a scientific theory is a profound achievement of scientific discovery and research. A fair bit more comprehensive than "just a theory."​

So... it's just a hypothesis itself, right?


A hypothesis is simply a proposed explaination for phenomena to predict outcomes. They are speculative or conjectural. They can be based on evidence or ideas from theories, but are not theories in and of themselves and have yet to be tested.​

To be a scientific hypothesis, it also has to be testable.​

When a hypothesis is called a "working hypothesis," that means it's been accepted provisionally. Hypotheses which have been tested generally form together to make up an overarching scientific theory, which in itself is also used to predict outcomes.​

The ability to predict outcomes correctly is the hallmark of a successful scientific theory, and is central to what they are. The same expectations do not exist for a hypothesis.​

Wait. Testable?

Science deals with what is falsifiable and what is testable. Whether or not God exists, for example, is not a scientific question which can be tested via the scientific method -- it cannot be tested since we cannot put God in a test tube.​

Scientific method?

According to the Oxford dictionary, it is the "systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses."​

For something to be considered scientific, measurable empirical evidence is studied to come to viable and logical conclusions to compare against suggested hypotheses. The method includes expectations to share data and calculations as part of peer review and for general access to provide barriers to bias and personal beliefs. This is so as to provide the ability for others to reproduce results, which is key to the scientific method.​

The above describes a potential path. As will be seen here, hypotheses do not directly become theories in and of themselves, and theories are not directly related to laws. While the above picture does describe it some people may mistakenly misinterpret them as a hierarchy, which they are not. They are different mechanisms as part of the overall scientific process, with different purposes.​

... so what is a fact, then?

A provable concept.​

So we know something for sure, then!


Proof is for alcohol and mathematics. In science, instead of proof, the term more commonly used is "overwhelming evidence."​

To be short: science is never absolute, and never 100% sure. Nobody can be sure, no process is infallible. But it's the best way for us to get close, and often scientific results are accepted as factual given the superior method they provide to obtain these results.​

Science attempts to explain the natural world, it does not state what is unequivocally. Hence, scientists do not "think they know everything," a common line of attack which is predicated on a mistake. Indeed, the scientific method adds on questions for every answer given. Readers who have done statistics know that achieving 100%, especially related to error and such in science, is impossible. Hence, there is always a bit of doubt in regards to even the most substantive body of evidence.​

However, this bit of doubt does NOT throw an entire theory into question, and is not basis alone for opinions contrary to scientific findings to be allowed because something is "just a theory." Theories are generally accepted as correct, and many are called facts. For a theory to be thrown into question, extensive contrary evidence must occur through the scientific method which cannot be explained through errors or shortcomings in the experiment itself.​

But evolution (for example) is a fact and a theory?

Yes. Scientific literature commonly calls evolution a theory and a fact. Sometimes, a theory can also be called a fact.​

A fact in science is an observable and verifiable observation. For example, if a ball is clearly red, we can state that the ball is red. Everyone capable of using the scientific method is capable of coming to the same conclusion. Scientic theories and hypotheses seek to explain or interpret facts.​

The idea of a "fact" in the scientific lexicon can at times be surprisingly abstract, and hence is a confusing term to use. Outside of the basic scientific use of facts, using the layman's term is a lot easier than trying to stay true to the scientific lexicon.​

When reading scientific literature, it is important to keep in mind that assumptions or assertion of facts are used as well.​

So what happens when a theory is disproven?

First off, the author gets testy because someone used the words "proven."​

Theories which have been left by the wayside are called superceded theories, but often find use still in modern life because they are able to predict things successfully still. We still use Newtonian mechanics to describe the velocity of devices, for example. When building a house, we don't care about the curvature of the Earth.​

As scientific theories are based on empirical results and inductive reasoning, they can often still be successfully applied even if the underlying theory of such things as Newtonian mechanics can't keep up with the General Theory of Relativity.​

Then what are scientific laws?

A scientific law is the end point of the amalgamation of experimental results from repeated observation, and does not attempt to explain anything. They are simple verbal/mathematical statements about what is, or the relationship between two or more elements.​

Unlike theories, laws are limited only to what has already been observed. Hence, while scientific theories predict, laws regurgitate. A law is hence only useful in situations or tests already conducted many times before. Hooke's law, for example, can only be used in the same cases it was originally tested for and where that relationship holds true, and is a simple mathematical equation to identify a relationship -- a law does not posit what will happen otherwise.​

Unlike below, a scientific law most likely doesn't have a loophole which isn't already known.​

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