Law versus theory

PZ has a couple of posts going right now where he takes down some common creationist canards. One post absolutely wrecks Ann Coulter (who, incidentally, has some real kiddie rhetoric going on – it’s just awful), and the other takes on Bryan Fischer. Each post is excellent, but PZ skims over something I would like to address in the latter link. Here are some excerpts from Fischer’s writing:

First Law of Thermodynamics. This law (note: not a theory but a scientific law) teaches us that matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed…

Second Law of Thermodynamics. This law (note: not a theory but a law) teaches us that in every chemical or heat reaction, there is a loss of energy that never again is available for another heat reaction…

There are two kinds of people who have confusion over what a scientific law is versus what a scientific theory is. The first kind includes much of the general public. These people will have a basic misunderstanding, but they don’t tend to go about basing arguments upon it. The second kind, however, is an ugly little bunch. They include the likes of Fischer who also share the general lay public’s misunderstanding, but they then go about premising a bunch of bullshit on it.

A scientific theory and a scientific law are effectively the same thing. The latter term tends to be used more in physics than anywhere else, but that is a matter of history and convention more than anything. There is no magic property that makes the theory of gravity any different from the law of gravity. Both terms describe the same thing. We’re merely talking about banners and titles here, nothing of scientific value. Any person interested in science ought to learn this pretty quickly.

I recall sitting in an introductory biology course many a year ago when one student asked the professor the difference between a theory and a law. It is rare (though not absent) for “law” to be used in biology, so I’m not sure what spurred the question, but the professor answered it exactly right: There is no significant difference. I had a good deal of respect for the student at that moment. He was ignorant of something, so he got an answer. Creationists like Fischer, however, don’t do that. They understand the way we conventionally use terms and assume they can aptly apply that understanding to science. They cannot. They are wrong and scientifically irresponsible to do so.

But who’s willing to bet Fischer keeps pretending there is a difference even after being told there isn’t one? I am.


5 comments on “Law versus theory

  1. I don’t know how many times I’ve told an ID/creationist that a scientific theory is not a guess and that the Germ Theory of Disease is not a guess about itty-bitty critters causing certain diseases.

  2. No body can demolish Ann Coulter she is to ignorant to know when it has happened,PZ is” preaching”(pun intended) to the choir. I doubt that if she even reads what he wrote that she would understand.

  3. Nice post.
    Theories and laws do both hold the same weight in the eyes of scientists, but I would argue that theories tend to be more complex because they are based on many hypotheses that have been tested. Laws tend to be more simple generalizations. The law of gravity can be summarized in one equation (Newton’s equation of universal gravitation), but Einstein’s geometric theory of gravity is a bit more complicated (for me, anyway), and, importantly, it provides a mechanism for why there is gravity in the first place.
    Fischer’s statements are embarrassing. But I guess we shouldn’t be surprised, since they are coming from a guy who believes all Nazis were homosexuals.

  4. If one wishes to define those terms prior to making an argument about them, that’s fine. Of course, we know creationists are doing no such thing.

    Incidentally, one commenter at Pharyngula went on about how there is such a fundamental difference and how he/she hopes to get back to teaching students so he can drill that into their heads. I feel bad for those students.

  5. Another good one from PZ about the stupid goons at FAUX news wanting to dismantle the national weather service:

    And there is this gem at the end:

    These goons are only outdone by Ron Paul, who sees no virtue in forecasting and emergency response plans from agencies like FEMA: he thinks “We should be like 1900“. Hands off, just let people cope as well as they can in areas affected by natural disasters.

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