Let’s talk about words for a moment, shall we? Words are a wonderful thing, and in an experienced hand, they can be incredibly powerful. Used properly, they can be a source of deep inspiration, motivating readers and listeners toward the greater good. But unfortunately, they can also be used by the forces of evil to sow disorder and confusion, particularly when those using the words have no real idea what they mean, or deliberately misuse them.
An example of the latter can be found in the opening salvos of this brilliant column on the website of a Richmond, Va.-based CBS affiliate, about why the theory of evolution “should be challenged — scientifically.” I’ll quote the relevant portion for you here (emphasis mine):
Why does the apple fall from the tree to the ground?
The 325 year old law of gravity explains it.
In science, a law is a theory that has been proven, without a shadow of a doubt.
A century and a half after Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution, it remains a theory.
I’ve been seeing this more and more, the ridiculous assertion that scientific laws are somehow the proven “descendants” of theories. This is as hopelessly erroneous as saying apples are the immature larval stage of oranges. Theories and laws are not different points on some progressive continuum (like “boy” and “man”). They are completely different concepts.
As the National Center for Science Education explains, a law is a descriptive generalization about recurring behaviors observed in nature. The above author’s appeal to gravity is a decent example, although Newton’s law of universal gravitation is a bit more complicated than “apples fall from trees to the ground.” But indeed, Newton developed this law based on his empirical observations — a key facet of laws, because they seek to describe what matter and energy in the universe does under certain conditions.
A theory, on the other hand, is a a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world. This is the key difference between theories and laws: the ability to explain things. Because the author is actually quite incorrect in his first two sentences: Newton’s law does not explain why the apple falls to the ground, it just provides a name and useful mathematical formula for the phenomenon.
The fascinating truth is that gravity remains largely a mystery to us. Scientists are still puzzled about exactly why that famous apple fell, and Newton’s law can offer no assistance other than assuring them that it always has and always will.
Theories can — and often do — incorporate facts and even laws into their explanations, but they do not grow up, graduate and “become” facts or laws. Theories cannot be “proven” in the common sense of the word, they can only be confirmed through experimentation and observation or falsified (i.e., proven false) the same way.
The fact that evolution has been confirmed, repeatedly, through countless challenges and rigorous experimental testing for more than a century makes it a very good and very successful theory. But it does not make it any closer to morphing into a law (which would maybe look something like this?).
Even if aliens visited from outer space and offered us a complete video record of the 2.5 billion-year-long history of life on earth — while it would almost certainly make for the craziest reality TV show ever — it would not produce a “law of evolution,” because unlike the apple, life does not follow or behave in a predictable pattern. Evolution proceeds randomly, and though I personally believe that in no way precludes God’s involvement, there is no scientific reason to think the tree of life couldn’t have branched out in an infinite number of other ways.
Like I said before, I bring all this up because I’ve been seeing similar claims repeated more and more. And what I really want to know is, where in the world is the idea coming from?
Please post your best theories below. I’ll pick my favorite two or three, and make them into laws.