Perhaps no topic in science garners more confusion among the general public than the distinction between a theory and a hypothesis. This confusion is highly regrettable, because the distinction is one of the most fundamental concepts in science, and a lack of understanding about these definitions leads to a great deal of confusion. Therefore, I will attempt to alleviate the maelstrom of nonsense and bewilderment surrounding these terms and endow my readers with a proper understanding of their meanings.
Let’s begin with the definition of “fact.” This is actually the hardest of these terms to define. Basically, it’s just something that has been observed and tested and shown to be true. Importantly, facts generally don’t offer explanations, they are just how things are. If we want an explanation of why things are the way that they are, we have to turn to hypotheses and theories.
This is where most people mess up. In the common vernacular, a theory is “an educated guess,” but in science, an educated guess is a hypothesis, not a theory. Further, when I ask my students to define a theory, I often get answers like, “something that we think is true, but haven’t tested,” or even worse, “an idea that can’t be tested.” Television further reinforces these misconceptions, by constantly misusing “theory.” In virtually every episode of shows like “House M.D.” and “Bones” someone says, “my theory is that…” The reality is that in science, a theory is much, much more than just an educated guess. In fact, theories are the highest form of scientific certainty. They have been rigorously test over and over again and they have been shown to have a very high predictive power. In other words, they consistently and accurately predict the outcomes of experiments.
For example, suppose that I am currently holding a pen in the air. What will happen if I release my hand? Hopefully, you all thought, “the pen will drop,” but why did you make that prediction? In fact, you were simply applying the theory of universal gravity. This is the theory that all bodies produce gravity and are acted upon by the gravity of other bodies. Also note that by dropping the pen, I would demonstrate the fact of gravity. In other words, it is a fact that gravity took hold of the pen and caused it to fall. To explain that fact, we apply the theory of universal gravity which tells us that the earth produces a field of gravity which attracted the pen (in reality of course the theory also tells us the exact rate of acceleration of the pen). So you see, we use theories to explain facts. As such, they actually supersede facts in their certainty and importance.
So if a theory is an explanatory framework with a high predictive power, what then is a hypothesis? A hypothesis is basically an educated guess. It’s a possible explanation that hasn’t yet achieved the certainty of a theory. There may be experimental support behind it, but not on the level that a theory has. It is, however, entirely possible for a hypothesis to become a theory once enough evidence has been accumulated.
At this point, you all are probably wondering what a law is, because my explanation of a theory probably sounds a lot like what you expected for the definition of a law, and there is a very good reason for that. Namely, the terms “theory” and “law” are essentially synonymous. “Law” is an older term that we don’t use as much anymore, but it has the same level of certainty as a theory. For example, the law of universal gravity and the theory of universal gravity are synonyms. They mean the exact same thing and either one is equally correct.
So why does this matter? Other than scientists, who really cares if people say “theory” when they mean “hypothesis?” The reality is that this confusion leads to a great many misunderstandings and faulty arguments. The most prominent example is the argument that, “evolution shouldn’t be being taught as a fact because it’s just a theory.” As we’ve just seen, theories are actually our highest form of scientific certainty, and they actually supersede facts because they explain the facts. So saying, “evolution is just a theory” is no different from saying, “gravity is just a law.” Theories make up the cornerstones of every branch of science. For example, the germ theory of disease states that viruses, bacteria, etc. make us sick, cell theory states that all living things are made of cells, atomic theory states that all matter is made of atoms, etc. Obviously, there aren’t any outcries about people teaching the notion that matter is made of elements as a fact, even though its “just a theory.” Further, all theories contain a factual component because they explain the facts (I illustrated this previously with my gravity example). So, when it comes to evolution, the idea that life on this planet has slowly changed over millions of years is considered scientific fact. We have ample evidence for it from fossils, genetics, etc. The theory is the “theory of evolution by natural selection” which states that natural selection has been the primary driver of evolution. So the core thing that most creationists oppose (i.e., the idea that life has evolved) is not a theory, it is a fact. The theory of natural selection simply explains what caused those changes to take place.
In summary, a fact is a tested and confirmed observation or measurement. A hypothesis is basically an educated guess, and the terms theory and law synonymously describe a thoroughly tested explanatory framework which has a high predictive power and explains facts.