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.

Because it’s worth repeating

A creationist in one of the comment sections recently repeated this old canard.

the dictionary says (among other things) that a theory is:
1. contemplation or speculation.
2. guess or conjecture.

there i go? again?
you just seem pretty intent on disparaging arguments but not refuting them.

This is yet another point where atheists and other non-deluded people are willing to be honest, all the while watching creationists do just the opposite. It’s like it’s just so damn inconvenient to come to a straight-forward, truthful understanding of basic concepts for the religious that lying has become okay for them; the ends justify the means.

So it is worthwhile to repeat, for the nth time, just what a theory is and is not.

Insofar as my theory that ice cream is great can be considered a theory, yes, creationism is a theory. But it is not in any way a scientific theory. The requirements to reach this high level are rigorous. For starters, what predictions does creationism make? What experiments can be carried out to falsify the hypothesis? Can others repeat these experiments? Are there other plausible explanations? Are there better explanations?

The word “theory”, as any educated, honest person knows, carries far more weight in science than it does for the lay public. In truth, the word gets mixed up in casual talk within science, even sometimes becoming conflated with “hypothesis”, but no one really blinks because the context allows for the use of shorthand. Think to Richard Dawkins’ style of writing. He uses personification all the time, especially when discussing natural selection. He will start out with qualifiers and scare quotes – “Natural selection ‘wants’ to weed out the bad genes” – but as he goes on, the reader comes to an understanding of the fact that the good doctor is bringing evolutionary biology to life via a particular way of writing. It becomes obvious that it is inappropriate to apply anthropomorphic qualities to what Dawkins is describing – and it is context that allows for this.

But in public forums or political circles, there can be no assumed knowledge of science and what its terms mean; it is a danger to allow for the use of loose language without qualification. That is why it is so important to distinguish between the lay definition of “theory” versus its scientific definition. In science it references something which has evidence, has been tested, has journal papers all about it, and usually there is a high degree of consensus. The Big Bang, evolution, global warming, plate tectonics – these are all theories. Creationists have no theories. They have no evidence, no reason, no logic, no testing, no raw data, no way to interpret any sort of observation in a way that holds any scientific significance.