Theory vs Law: Which One Should We Trust More?

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Photo by Jonathan Cosens Photography on Unsplash 

Whenever there is a discussion around Evolution, we often hear the statement “it’s just a theory”. At least I would also think “Oh yeah, it’s not a law” after that. The word “Law” sounds like something that is 100 percent true whereas theory on the other hand sounds like “just a theory”. 

After all, we use the word “theory” so casually, like with all those Game of Thrones fan theories and so on.

But the hunches we had about Tyrion and other GOT characters do not count as theories in the Scientific World. While not all of us should know everything about the Scientific World, it is important that we understand the basic terminologies like “Theory” and “Law” and know the differences between them. Because guess what, Science is our friend and savior to help us understand our world and not a dreaded seven-letter word. 

Let’s start with the word “fact”, a word all of us love to use! Fact is just an observation that is confirmed to be true. Game of Thrones is fiction; this is a fact! 

The educated guess or hunch that we make based on observation is a Hypothesis (and not theory!). If our hypothesis does not prove to be false despite rigorous repeated testing with further observations, then only we accept our hypothesis as a theory, and that too till the day it is not proven to be false. 

Even the word “Hypothesis” has its own prerequisites in the Scientific World, as any random hunches won’t count as a valid Hypothesis. Only a hypothesis that is testable and falsifiable can be considered as a valid Scientific Hypothesis, which we have covered in detail in our previous story on Scientific Method. 

Coming back to our main topic, the theory is the best explanation of the observations that we see, which are supported by facts (observations) over time and repeated testing. Theories help us explain “why things are how they are”, and “why observations that we see happen”. Some of the most important bits in Science that help us to understand our world are theories. Big Bang is a theory. Evolution is a theory. Einstein’s Relativity is a theory. 

So, no, theories are not “just a theory”. 

But then, what are laws? 

Are laws theories that are all the time true?

Well, not really. Theory and laws are completely different things and they both have their own goals in Science. 

Laws are patterns that we see in our observations. If you try to remember, the laws you studied in high school must have been some formula. And that’s because laws are normally expressed in the form of mathematical equations. Laws help us predict what happens in observations. 

But unlike theory, laws do not try to explain “why it happens“.

Let’s take an example to make things clear. Let’s take Gravity, a term most of us are familiar with.

Newton’s Law of Gravitation tells us how much attraction exists between two bodies, depending on the mass of the two bodies and the distance between them. If we drop an Apple to the ground, it helps us predict the force of attraction exerted on the Apple, the acceleration with which the Apple will fall down, and so on. 

But notice how it doesn’t tell us why there exists gravitational attraction between the objects — which is to say it does not explain how gravity works.

That’s where theory comes in, to explain the why part! Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity fills in that missing why and how part by explaining how gravity works. As it turns out, gravity is not even a force, but rather the effect of spacetime curvature. 

Without getting nitty-gritty about Physics in our example, let’s try to get the bigger picture, and see how law and theory perform two different goals, as our motive is to understand the difference between Theory and Law (and not relativity, at least for the time being!)

Also, the common concept that “Laws are absolute truths and theories are just theories” is a misconception too. Take the same above example of Gravity. Newton’s Law does not hold true when we deal with strong gravitational effects like that of Black Hole, which is better explained by Einstein’s theory. But surprise surprise, even Einstein’s Theory does not hold true when we deal with the quantum level gravitational effect, which is to say at the atomic level. 

So, neither laws nor theories will necessarily prove to be true with time. 

And yet, we do not discard both ideas. Rather, we still use these ideas to come up with better theories and laws in the future. Because Science, end of the day, is a neverending pursuit of finding better explanations about our world, in its quest of progressively approaching the truth. 

And if you are too concerned with just utility, we can still use Newton’s Law to launch a cannon, and Einstein’s theory to launch a satellite.

To sum up, theories are theories and laws are laws, not like one becomes the other, and guess what—we need both and for different reasons! And regarding our question of which one to choose or trust more, well it’s a moot point. 

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