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Forum Post: Are you scientifically illiterate?

Posted 11 months ago on May 16, 2013, 11:46 p.m. EST by AlwaysWillBeAlwaysRight (-72)
This content is user submitted and not an official statement

Do you know what a scientific fact, a scientific theory, a scientific observation, scientific evidence, a scientific hypothesis are?

Unfortunately, many Americans don't know these basic concepts, and often confuse them with the layman terms. This is why you often hear about the Creationist Theory vs the Evolution Theory, when in fact the word theory associated with creationism doesn't have the same meaning as the word theory associated with evolution.

In science, a repeated observation is called a fact. However, fact doesn't mean 100% correct like in everyday speech. A scientific fact can change if observations are refined or don't hold. For example, it was once a scientific fact that the earth was flat. With better observations, we realized it was spherical. With even better observations we realized it wasn't really spherical, but flatter at the poles. The scientific fact of the earth's shape has changed over time.

A scientific theory is the highest form of scientific knowledge. It is the most rigorous form. It is not an hypothesis or an assumption like in everyday speech. A scientific theory explains a bunch of facts, has been tested repeatedly, and has survived the test of criticism. But, again, nothing is 100% true in science and things can change with better tools. Newtonian Physics was the theory of Newton's age to explain physics. It was the best knowledge they had of physics. This was superseded by Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity.

A common mistake is that scientific facts are a stronger form of knowledge than scientific theories. This is false. Scientific theories explain many facts. They are higher up in terms of knowledge because they offer an explanation. Facts don't offer explanations, they are just remarks we make about the world.

Scientific evidence, is not the same as scientific fact. Evidence is something that supports a theory. It is in relation to that theory. Evidence can be a scientific fact, but it can also be an experiment.


Sadly, many people remain badly educated in the area of science and the terms it uses. I believe this is a major problem in modern times. Many people think a conspiracy theory is as strong as Einstein's Theory of Gravity just because the word theory is used.

A recent example is how creationists portray the Evolution Theory as just being an hypothesis. They don't understand that a theory in science is the highest form of scientific knowledge. A scientific theory is stronger than scientific fact, an hypothesis, and everything else. They use the fact that people misunderstand these definitions to pretend that creationism and evolution are both hypothesis and therefor should both be taught in science class. Ironically, The Theory of Evolution is one of the strongest scientific theories ever. It is supported by mountains of evidence from various fields of research.

We must protect ourselves by being scientifically literate. If you don't know what scientific terms mean, open a good book, or a dictionary. Misunderstanding these terms make people confused between real science and pseudoscience. In modern times, this is a real tragedy. When people can't tell the difference between astrology and astronomy, or conspiracy theories vs proper journalistic research, the lines between reality and fiction become blurred and we enter into very dangerous territory. People die each year because of pseudoscientific lies.


As a teaser, did you know that the word proof in science is reserved to the field of mathematics? That's right, there is no such thing as proof in physics, biology, or any other scientific field. Read up on this. Learn something new today!

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[-] 1 points by NVPHIL (667) 11 months ago

That's a good explanation but wouldn't saying the Earth is flat be considered a hypothosis? In this case explaning the observations about the world.

[-] -1 points by AlwaysWillBeAlwaysRight (-72) 11 months ago

No, because a hypothesis tries to explain the why of facts. When sufficient evidence is accumulated, a hypothesis becomes a theory. Facts are just observations that hold.

People observed the world to be flat because it looks that way if you don't see far enough. They didn't have an hypothesis to attempt to explain why it was flat instead of another shape.

The fact that the world is sort of spherical was observed when ships would shrink in the distance, and with other methods. The hypothesis came with the idea of gravity which attempted to explain why. When enough evidence was gathered, the gravity hypothesis graduated to the Theory of Gravity. Gravity pulls towards the center, so the earth is like a sphere.

An apple falls when dropped. This is a scientific fact. The explanation, gravity, would be a hypothesis when not properly confirmed, and it would become a theory when enough evidence is accumulated.

[-] 1 points by NVPHIL (667) 11 months ago

Thanks for explaining that. I'm more interested in the experimental side of science and only have a layman's knowledge of the terms. Actually, considering the nonsense you hear maybe a bit more.

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