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View Diary: Pique the Geek 20110605: Misconceptions about Science (112 comments)

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  •  They are distinct in that they describe differnt (1+ / 0-)
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    things.

    Basically, they are specific terminology used in science. Outside of science, the words have various meanings which can be very confusing if one tries to apply the conventional sense to the science. Conventionally, theory means an idea, untested, with or without observation. In science, Theory means an explanation of observed data based on testing.

    Newton observed a Law- a fact people already knew. The unique thing he did was use it as a basis to explain why other things can be observed from that. Things Always fall at 9.8m/s^2 (on Earth), so it is possible to calculate trajectories and the force of landing. To create a coordinate system. He used the Law to create Theories, none of which was explaining the Law itself.

    A bit more long winded:

    A scientific Law is some thing observed that happens on a consistent and predictable basis. We drop things and they fall to the floor, not the ceiling. We don't necessarily know why, as Newton did not know why, he just observed that things fell. And it could be measured and calculated. Predicted. Without knowing why. Thus- it is a Law. Sort of nature's slap upside the head to us with "Because I said so!" Once a Law is established in science, it is very unlikely to have great changes to it, although it may have modifiers.

    Theory, on the other hand, is the outcome of testing the observed things in an attempt to explain why this happens. There's a lot of ideas on why gravity happens, but we don't actually have a workable Theory that explains the Law.

    Hence, evolution is a little easier to use to explain Theory. People know it is controversial, but often misunderstand why. We've observed species changing. And come up with a lot of ideas why (Lamark comes to mind). But these ideas of why keep getting changed as tests are done and further observations. Thus Darwin's idea of speciation has been refined as our ability to measure and test the idea have improved. But it all boils down to explaining why we see these changes.
    And it can be applied to things we can't directly observe and measure- such as the fossil record. Using the explanation of why evolution occurs helps explain extremely well the fossils we find and the order in which they occurred.
    But. All that can be swept away if a better explanation comes along. Looking at the phlogiston theory, it held up fairly well, for a while, until some one came up with a better explanation- oxygenation occurs. That fit much better.
    Theory can get entrenched, even in scientific circles. It took far longer than necessary to get the theory of Teutonic plate movement accepted in geologic circles. This is a key difference- Theories can be debated, fought over and struggled with. Laws, since they are observable fact, do not leave room for argument.

    I am much too liberal to be a Democrat.

    by WiseFerret on Sun Jun 05, 2011 at 10:34:08 PM PDT

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    •  What we usually mean by Newton's (2+ / 0-)
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      law of gravity is the GmM/r^2 business. It's an explanation of a bunch of observations, mostly astronomical. So that makes it a theory. Or is it a law? In some sense it's about right but as an overall description of the universe it's more or less infinitely wrong. Does either side of that evaluation change depending on the name I call it?

      I see the effort that goes into distinguishing between a law and a good theory as a journey down a blind alley into scholastic verbalisms. I see students trying to learn these sorts of sterile distinctions all the time. It takes away from the real adventure.

      Michael Weissman UID 197542

      by docmidwest on Mon Jun 06, 2011 at 10:02:04 PM PDT

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      •  Law, because it descibes what is (1+ / 0-)
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        and it can be measured. In GmM/r^2 you aren't saying WHY, your saying "this Happens" and "this is how I measure it".

        The key part is "This Happens". It happens the same way, everytime and no one has seen an exception to it. We aren't asking why, just observing a fact.

        If an exception did come up- then the law would need to be re-examined, but that is not typical.

        I am much too liberal to be a Democrat.

        by WiseFerret on Tue Jun 07, 2011 at 10:37:18 PM PDT

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        •  You're assuming (0+ / 0-)

          that "r" is "observable" which is sort of true, but only given a set of conventions. It turns out that the implicit (Euclidean, Galilean relativistic) conventions contradict how the world actual behaves. In other words, they're false. So in retrospect that formula is not a bare observation but a particular way of structuring observations, i.e. what I think you're calling a theory. You can take the same observations and repack them (more successfully) in a different framework. In the new framework it doesn't make sense even to talk about the gravitational force. The acceleration ceases to be an invariant. The new framework will almost certainly break down on a small scale, but at least it works for a GPS system.

          There's a reason why serious books about the philosophy of science don't typically get hung up on naming conventions. They sort of waste time before we get to the real issues.

          But now rereading I think perhaps you're making a different point. What distinguishes a law is not so much that it lacks hidden assumptions etc but that it makes no claim to be explained in terms of deeper principles. This would be an unusual use of the term, since, e.g., the so-called zeroth law of thermodynamics and also the third) have explanations.

          Michael Weissman UID 197542

          by docmidwest on Wed Jun 08, 2011 at 07:22:09 AM PDT

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        •  Feynman put it better. (0+ / 0-)

          Michael Weissman UID 197542

          by docmidwest on Wed Jun 08, 2011 at 07:39:41 AM PDT

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