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Correcting trolls, 3: Wikipedia blunders yet again — “Unlike hypotheses, theories and laws may be simply referred to as scientific fact”

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The other day, I ran across the Wiki article on Laws of Science. While there is much good there, such as:

The laws of science, scientific laws, or scientific principles are statements that describe or predict a range of phenomena as they appear in nature.[1] The term “law” has diverse usage in many cases: approximate, accurate, broad or narrow theories, in all natural scientific disciplines (physics, chemistry, biology, geology, astronomy etc.). Scientific laws summarize and explain a large collection of facts determined by experiment, and are tested based on their ability to predict the results of future experiments. They are developed either from facts or through mathematics, and are strongly supported by empirical evidence. It is generally understood that they reflect causal relationships fundamental to reality, and are discovered rather than invented.[2]

Laws reflect scientific knowledge that experiments have repeatedly verified (and never falsified). Their accuracy does not change when new theories are worked out, but rather the scope of application, since the equation (if any) representing the law does not change. As with other scientific knowledge, they do not have absolute certainty (as mathematical theorems or identities do), and it is always possible for a law to be overturned by future observations.

. . . I also found the talking point I just headlined:

Unlike hypotheses, theories and laws may be simply referred to as scientific fact

Nope, capital error, and of course, one of the many trollish talking points and widely spread misconceptions that serve agendas we have to deal with.

The gross contradiction between the two is likely — suspiciously like — a sign of trollish intervention to push in an ideological agenda.

Why do I say that?

First, a law of science is a summary of observations which (broadly speaking) predicts that a reliable pattern will persist; having been sufficiently tested that it is confidently held that it is reliable. And while it is more reliable than a model or a grand explanatory framework (a theory), it is still just as provisional as any humble experimental or statistically founded hypothesis.  That is what the first clip properly acknowledges.

It is unlikely that someone who gets that much right would then so grossly toss it all away by using a loaded “may” to smuggle in the notion that laws AND theories MAY be referred to as “scientific fact.”

Nope, facts of observation (though also provisional, we may err) are prior to all explanatory or summary frameworks.

Hypotheses are embryonic, proposed laws [and sometimes, theories]. Models give up grand hopes of being possibly true and are useful summaries or frameworks for gamuts on which they have been validated. Theories (in the most relevant sense) are explanatory frameworks that make sense of ranges of phenomena, laws, models etc, and just possibly may be true. At least, they are not decisively falsified. Some may be ascendant or at zenith, others may be in decline or even crisis or “history.” But in relevant cases, theories try to be true to reality — or more accurately, facts of observation.

What is clear is that it is inappropriate to term something as provisional as a law or a theory with the term, “fact.”

Somebody’s got some ‘splaining to do. END

PS: To put facts on the table beyond reasonable doubt, note clip 1 and clip 2 in the screen shot I just took at about 12:00 noon my time:

Hyps, Laws and Theories, per Wikipedia (maybe, from my ISP’s cached page load)

35 Replies to “Correcting trolls, 3: Wikipedia blunders yet again — “Unlike hypotheses, theories and laws may be simply referred to as scientific fact”

  1. 1
    kairosfocus says:

    Correcting trolls, 3: Wikipedia blunders yet again — “Unlike hypotheses, theories and laws may be simply referred to as scientific fact”

  2. 2
    jdk says:

    I agree with kf. Theories and laws are not facts.

    However, I can’t find the quote that kf headlined. The link he provided to the article on facts says,

    In science, a fact is a repeatable careful observation or measurement (by experimentation or other means), also called empirical evidence. Facts are central to building scientific theories. Various forms of observation and measurement lead to fundamental questions about the scientific method, and the scope and validity of scientific reasoning.

    In the most basic sense, a scientific fact is an objective and verifiable observation, in contrast with a hypothesis or theory, which is intended to explain or interpret facts.[20]

    I think these are statements kf and I would agree upon.

    So, kf, can you show where you found the quote you headlined?

  3. 3
    Eric Anderson says:

    kf:

    Hmmm . . . To what extent do you think we’re dealing with a definitional issue, rather than a substantive issue? IOW, there has been a lot of ink spilled over the definition of “theory” over the years with some good examples on both sides of the debate showing that this or that theory is, in one case, essentially equivalent to a law, and in another case, little more than a conjecture.

    In most cases I would agree with you that we’d have to be extremely cautious about saying that a theory is a scientific fact. The citation you quoted smacks of the recent attempts to prop up the “theory of evolution” as a fact.

    We’d have to look at this or that theory on a case-by-case basis, it seems, to decide how strong it is and whether it deserves to be viewed as a fact, at least provisionally. But I agree with you that most things that we call a “theory” don’t merit that standing.

    —–

    However, laws, in particular the laws of physics and chemistry, seem much more trustworthy.

    In what way do you think we can’t treat them as “facts”? I’m pretty comfortable, for example, saying that gravity is a “fact”.

    Are you just trying to draw a distinction between the true being of something (what is), as opposed to our efforts to describe what is (a law)?

    Or are you just highlighting that even the laws — our provisional scientific “facts” — are subject to the possibility, however minuscule and unlikely, that they might someday, somehow be overturned?

    Thanks,

  4. 4
    kairosfocus says:

    JDK, slide on a bit down. By now, you know I will clip-paste text. Just to make sure the oh you made the clip up meme is stopped cold, in a moment I will add the screenshot courtesy Greenshot and Paint dot net just now. KF

  5. 5
    kairosfocus says:

    PS: Added. I put up at full size (1301 wide) and displayed at 750 wide.

  6. 6
    jdk says:

    Thanks, kf. I’m not sure how I missed that, as I searched for the phrase “theories and laws.”

    I absolutely agree with you about this being wrong.

  7. 7
    kairosfocus says:

    EA, we experience falling and call it gravity. Going back to Newton et al, inverse square law gravitation was inferred as a universal law. Post Einstein, that has had to be revised per General Relativity. The simple law of falling at 9.8 N/kg is extremely restricted in scope and hedged about. Start with, earth rotation effects, distance to earth’s centre, effects of local rocks and mountains, etc, not to mention upthrust and air resistance. There are reasons why for example balance scales are said to measure mass [strictly, they should be in a vacuum) and spring balances or electromagnetic ones or strain gauge instruments measure weight. Oops, weight has subtleties too and linked diverse definitions. And oddly, I just bought a centigram electronic scale . . . waiting on shipping . . . while I fondly remember 3-beam “yardarm” centigram school lab scales which by comparing torques also measure mass [leaving off upthrust issues and density questions). Part of what you pay for when you bring in a physicist is that we naturally think about those complexities. Yes, weighing something on a scale is fraught with complex, deep considerations. There are a lot of etc points left off above. And that is part of why no computer simulation is an experiment — experiments are reality, simulations are virtual. Another one of my points of concern. KF

    PS: “Theory” is a particularly slippery eel in professional scientific praxis, as Behe tried to point out at Dover. In popular usage, that goes downhill, the eel has slipped away long since. I used the concept, a wider explanatory construct that in principle could be true. In effect a model of the world that we try to at least have a possibility of being substantially true. and even that has big exceptions. Is Newtonian Dynamics true, approximately true, grandfathered in, a useful model, a limiting case or what? Would Newton et al accept that our views of mass are closely connected to his? As in different paradigms are incommensurate in key part, per Kuhn. And, Katy, please lock and bar the door against the philosophers.

  8. 8
    kairosfocus says:

    JDK, It is hard to spot some things. We see eye to eye on this. KF

  9. 9
    Eric Anderson says:

    kf:

    Thanks. So are you disputing the existence of an attractive force between bodies of mass in the universe? I trust not.

    Are you pointing out that application of this force depends on various other aspects: rotation, mass, distance to center, and other aspects? Agreed.

    Are you pointing out that we still have some things to learn as we apply our understanding in edge cases? Agreed.

    Are you pointing out that we don’t know what causes gravity, in the sense of a concrete, identified mechanism? Agreed.

    Are you pointing out that there have been a couple of different ideas and models about gravity? Agreed.

    But none of that suggests that we can’t refer to a law of gravity, or that the existence of gravity isn’t a fact, or that we don’t have a pretty good understanding of its practical operation, at least at the scale in which we live (we can send ships into the reaches of space with great precision, and can measure the gravitational constant to some 10 decimal places).

    Surely we can say that it is a “fact” that gravity exists? Surely we can say that it is a “fact” that the “law of gravity” has to be taken into account every time we construct a building, or fly an airplane, or build a rocket?

    Our understanding of gravity might be incomplete in a highly technical sense and in esoteric edge cases. But the validity of the “law of gravity” as a “scientific fact” is on a whole different level than, say, the “theory of evolution,” which is a hodgepodge of anecdotes, conflicting data, made-up stories, and the like.

    —–

    Incidentally, one of the rhetorical jokes of evolutionary proponents is when they claim evolution “is a fact” on par with the Earth’s rotation or the law of gravity. This is nonsense.

    And the right response by evolution skeptics is not to say, “Yes, but we don’t understand everything about gravity yet, so maybe evolution isn’t quite as solid as you think.” This is a terrible response.

    The right answer is to laugh at the absurdity of the comparison and then to demand some substance from evolutionary theory — something, anything — that even comes close to our regular, repeated, measurable, testable, engineering-applicable experience with gravity.

  10. 10
    Allan Keith says:

    My experience has been the biggest abuse of these terms is by people who argue a point by saying that “such-and-such is only a theory”. Whether this is a misuse of the term out of ignorance or out of an attempt to intentionally mislead, is open to debate.

  11. 11
    jdk says:

    To Eric: the problem, I think, is that words like fact and theory are used colloquially in ways that really aren’t accurate in respect to careful description of the nature of science.

    Some laws and theories are so well established that people in common conversation might call them a fact, but in science I agree with the Wikipedia article that kf first cited (not the problematic phrase) that facts are direct empirical observations, and that laws and theories account for those facts in some type of an abstract system of ideas.

  12. 12
    ET says:

    Allan:

    My experience has been the biggest abuse of these terms is by people who argue a point by saying that “such-and-such is only a theory”.

    Or in the case of evolutionism it isn’t even a scientific theory.

  13. 13
    kairosfocus says:

    EA, on the way out. Insofar as a mechanism is concerned, does warping the fabric of space-time count? As to a law being a fact, that is far more ticklish. Yes, G is measured to a large number of places, but that runs into the limitations on NLG in a General Relativity world. BTW, I liked the idea that at a black hole event horizon, space-time is torn. KF

  14. 14
    kairosfocus says:

    JDK @ 11, I agree again — though a fact may be a measured value with implicit calculations etc. In that sense, facts can be theory-laden. A famous first case in schools is using electrical meters calibrated and designed on Ohm’s Law to plot characteristic curves for resistors meant to illustrate ohmic and non-ohmic devices. A simple case of the latter is an incandescent W-filament lamp. At school level, I suppose potentiometers and magnetic effects could be used to evaluate V and I. The former depends on linearity of a wire and getting PD’s matched so no current flows. The latter is a natural field effect of a current. KF

  15. 15
    Mung says:

    Intelligent design is a fact.

  16. 16
    Mung says:

    Evolutionary theory is only a theory. That’s why they call it a theory.

  17. 17
    jdk says:

    re 16: see 10.

  18. 18
    ET says:

    re 17: see 12

  19. 19
    asauber says:

    Or in the case of evolutionism it isn’t even a scientific theory.

    I agree with this.

    It’s funny that you don’t hear much about Global Warming Theory, either.

    If you did, someone might ask what the theory actually is and how you go about establishing it scientifically…

    Andrew

  20. 20
    Eric Anderson says:

    Oh, man, this website is so annoying. The screen showed that I’m logged in, but when I tried to post, it said I had to log in and sent me back to the page — with a nice blank box, sans everything I had written (this is a recurring problem I had previously solved; maybe a recent update to my system brought the problem back?).

    Testing to see if this posts . . .

  21. 21
    Eric Anderson says:

    jdk @11:

    To Eric: the problem, I think, is that words like fact and theory are used colloquially in ways that really aren’t accurate in respect to careful description of the nature of science.

    No doubt the terminology could be clearer and we could all do a better job of being precise in our use of language. That is why my initial question in this thread was whether we were dealing with a definitional issue or a substantive one.

    Some laws and theories are so well established that people in common conversation might call them a fact, but in science I agree with the Wikipedia article that kf first cited (not the problematic phrase) that facts are direct empirical observations, and that laws and theories account for those facts in some type of an abstract system of ideas.

    OK. So you seem to be drawing a distinction between (i) an observation and (ii) the effort to articulate an explanation for the observation or a framework for understanding the explanation.

    That is fine, as far as it goes. An event or our observation of an event is different from a description of the event. Fair enough.

    What I’m less clear on is the substantive concern.

    If I articulate a law that says the Earth and Moon orbit their collective center of mass, does that make it any less a “fact” than the observation that they indeed behave thusly?

    What makes an observation a fact and a description of that observation a non-fact? Is it just a concern that our description might not fully and accurately describe the observation?

  22. 22
    Eric Anderson says:

    AK @10:

    No doubt we should not argue for the truth or falsity of a proposition by referring to its conventional name of “theory” or otherwise. I agree on that.

    However, I suspect you have it exactly backwards if you think this is what is going on in most cases — particularly if you are referring to debates about evolution.

    Indeed, what typically happens in these instances is that a skeptic will critique something as “only a theory”. Then the proponent will argue that a theory can be a solid scientific endeavor. In the case of evolution, they will try to equate the “theory of evolution” to more solid propositions, like the “theory of relativity” or another well-established “theory”, as though this somehow lends support to the truth of evolution.

    This is part of the problem with the problematic sentence kf cited in the OP — trying to leverage the label of “theory” into a fact.

    We’ll never know whether the writer of that sentence had, as you may have, evolution in mind when you share your frustration about the people who dismiss it as “just a theory”.

    —–

    Incidentally, I had written an entire post on this very point a long time ago, in reference to a specific situation that arose in the news, but it looks like I never finished it. Maybe I’ll have to dust it off and post it soon . . .

  23. 23
    jdk says:

    Good question, Eric. The short answer is that words matter, because they delineate distinctions that we need for clear thinking that can lead to actions that impact the world.

    I’d like to say more about this, but yard work calls! 🙂

  24. 24
    kairosfocus says:

    EA,

    First, I sympathise, having had much the same happen. WordPress can give headaches.

    Next, I would think orbiting the mutual barycentre is a refinement on Kepler’s empirical law on each planet orbiting in an ellipse with the Sun at one focus. That refinement is a result primarily rooted in NLG, which would be the law. I doubt that law would be specific to the Earth-moon system.

    Also, the result is subject to refinements and limitations in a multi-body system, where already a three-body gravity system does not have a general solution. Perturbations are brought in and latterly issues regarding sensitive dependence on initial conditions with system-wide instabilities are relevant. All this before we get to multiple star systems . . . most stars are in such.

    (All of these are fine-tuning related.)

    Then, we come to relativistic effects such as the orbit of Mercury.

    Beyond, lie general relativity considerations.

    I am reminded about ideal gas laws and refinements starting with Van der Waals.

    KF

    PS: The “just a theory vs it’s a fact” and the “any credible theory lends general support to all things called theories and accepted by big-S Science” are fallacies. This is where phil of inductive logic and epistemology come in the door. Empirical, inductive knowledge claims are inherently weak form and the strength of a case is specific to its underlying facts, inferences, reasoning and assumptions. Where origins science claims inherently address traces of a past that we may not be able to observe. This means experimental, observational and origins sciences have a progressively reduced degree of warrant. News regularly reminds us that the replicability crisis — crucial for reliability — starts with experimental results. It’s a complicated, delicate matter. Hence my point on knowledge, weak sense being warranted, credibly true (and reliable) belief but that such is inherently open-ended and provisional. Though, we may hold great confidence in many cases. Somewhere in the midst lies the Greek concept of a rhetorical kairos that sets up a climate and opportunity for a credible case to lead to pistis, rhetorical proof. At best, that is well warranted confident trust in reliable results. A rhetoric of science, anyone?

  25. 25
    kairosfocus says:

    F/N: On searching, yes there is a discipline on rhetoric of science that seems to have a base in English Depts but which is broader.

    For what it is worth, Wikipedia:

    Rhetoric of science is a body of scholarly literature exploring the notion that the practice of science is a rhetorical activity. It emerged following a number of similarly-oriented disciplines during the late 20th century, including the disciplines of sociology of scientific knowledge, history of science, and philosophy of science, but it is practiced most fully by rhetoricians in departments of English, speech, and communication. . . . . Rhetoric is best known as a discipline that studies the means and ends of persuasion. Science, meanwhile, is typically seen as the discovery and recording of knowledge about the natural world. A key contention of rhetoric of science is that the practice of science is, to varying degrees, persuasive. The study of science from this viewpoint variously examines modes of inquiry, logic, argumentation, the ethos of scientific practitioners, the structures of scientific publications, and the character of scientific discourse and debates.

    For instance, scientists must convince their community of scientists that their research is based on sound scientific method. From a rhetorical point of view, scientific method involves problem-solution topoi (the materials of discourse) that demonstrate observational and experimental competence (arrangement or order of discourse or method), and as a means of persuasion, offer explanatory and predictive power.[1]: 185-193 Experimental competence is itself a persuasive topos.[1]:186 Rhetoric of science is a practice of suasion that is an outgrowth of some of the canons of rhetoric

    A familiar voice, Steve Fuller, has a 2nd edn at Amazon of a book:

    Philosophy, Rhetoric, and the End of Knowledge: A New Beginning for Science and Technology Studies 2nd Edition
    by Steve Fuller (Author), James H. Collier (Author)
    . . . .

    In this second edition of Steve Fuller’s original work Philosophy, Rhetoric, and the End of Knowledge: A New Beginning for Science and Technology Studies, James Collier joins Fuller in developing an updated and accessible version of Fuller’s classic volume. The new edition shifts focus slightly to balance the discussions of theory and practice, and the writing style is oriented to advanced students. It addresses the contemporary problems of knowledge to develop the basis for a more publicly accountable science. The resources of social epistemology are deployed to provide a positive agenda of research, teaching, and political action designed to bring out the best in both the ancient discipline of rhetoric and the emerging field of science and technology studies (STS). The authors reclaim and integrate STS and rhetoric to explore the problems of knowledge as a social process–problems of increasing public interest that extend beyond traditional disciplinary resources. In so doing, the differences among disciplines must be questioned (the exercise of STS) and the disciplinary boundaries must be renegotiated (the exercise of rhetoric).

    This book innovatively integrates a sophisticated theoretical approach to the social processes of creating knowledge with a developing pedagogical apparatus. The thought questions at the end of each chapter, the postscript, and the appendix allow the reader to actively engage the text in order to discuss and apply its theoretical insights. Creating new standards for interdisciplinary scholarship and communication, the authors bring numerous disciplines into conversation in formulating a new kind of rhetoric geared toward greater democratic participation in the knowledge-making process.

    This volume is intended for students and scholars in rhetoric of science, science studies, philosophy, and communication, and will be of interest in English, sociology, and knowledge management arenas as well.

    All of this speaks to our direct concerns from the OP on, and to much wider concerns.

    For me, the shaping context is the intersection of science, policy, disaster management and the public that surrounds Montserrat’s volcano crisis. And I see a direct bleed-over into Economics and policy as well as political opinion. My hard-bought first rule of thumb is that science, policy and politics make for a dangerously explosive mix. My second, is that prudence and linked cost-benefit analysis informed by a least regrets approach on playing a multi-turn game with the state of nature will prove to be wise . . . what one gets away with short-run may look very different when enough of turns apply that you end up playing Russian Roulette with a seemingly remotely probable potential disaster — hence the valid form of sustainability as a principle (and Acts 27 is an excellent case study). The third is, manipulative media, ill-informed journalists or pundits and the like (especially where ruthless activists or interests are at work) exponentially amplify the hazards. The fourth comes from my late father: the poor pay the big price.

    I think this book just went on my amazon wish list!

    KF

  26. 26
    kairosfocus says:

    PS: Search cascade leads to:

    http://fas-philosophy.rutgers......mology.pdf

    Why Social Epistemology Is Real Epistemology
    Alvin I. Goldman

    1. INTRODUCTION

    What is social epistemology? Or what might it be? According to one perspective, social epistemology is a branch of traditional epistemology that studies epistemic properties of individuals that arise from their relations to others, as well as epistemic properties of groups or social systems.

    A simple example (of the first sort) is the transmission of knowledge or justification from one person to another. Studying such interpersonal epistemic relations is a legitimate part of epistemology. A very different perspective would associate ‘social epistemology’ with movements in postmodernism, social studies of science, or cultural studies that aim to replace traditional epistemology with radically different questions, premises, or procedures. Although these enquiries examine the social contexts of belief and thought, they generally seek to debunk or reconfigure conventional epistemic concepts rather than illuminate the nature and conditions of epistemic success or failure. Under the first construal social epistemology is a bona fide part of the mainstream, and hence ‘real’ epistemology. Under the second construal, it is not part of epistemology at all. If protagonists of the latter-day movements marketed their products under the guise of epistemology, they would be imposters. Their products are not real epistemology.

    Should sound very familiar . . .

  27. 27
    gpuccio says:

    Eric Anderson:

    “What makes an observation a fact and a description of that observation a non-fact? Is it just a concern that our description might not fully and accurately describe the observation?”

    The answer is that a law, or a theory (they are, the same thing) is not a description of an observation: it is an interpretation of it.

    A law, a theory, is about cause and effect, and regularities, and expectations in the general case. None of that is observable.

    We use inferences from observed facts to build mental objects, laws or theories, that are essentially logico-mathematical explanatory structures, heavily depending on our cognitive intuitions, and which strangely work very well to explain and predict observable facts.

    But it is essential to keep the distinction between observables and explanations. They are two completely different categories. That’s why observables, in the end, can falsify explanations.

  28. 28
    jdk says:

    Very good post by gpuccio. I agree with the distinctions he makes.

  29. 29
    Eric Anderson says:

    kf @24:

    I am full agreement about the unsavory attempts by supporters of various theories to make their theories more acceptable by declaring them “facts”. This is rampant in evolutionary circles, not just in informal online debates, but by luminaries such as Stephen J. Gould, for which Phillip Johnson took him to task.

    I have just focused on a nuance as it relates to what we typically refer to as laws — the laws of physics and chemistry. These, it seems, are in a whole different category than something like the theory of evolution. The former are generally based on innumerable cases of empirical evidence, honed over decades, and are often describable, at least in general terms, with a very succinct mathematical statement or description.

    What I’m uncomfortable with is the idea that observations are facts, but the laws of chemistry and physics aren’t.

    We can make a distinction between the real and the description of the real. That is all well and good.

    But that distinction doesn’t lead us to conclude that observations are facts and laws aren’t. The event being observed is real enough. But our description of the event (the observation) is subject to all the nuances and minuscule perturbations and subjectivity problems that our description of the law is. There isn’t any principled reason to think our description of a single event (observation) is any more complete to the last iota than our description of multiple events (law) is.

    Indeed, it is often the case that the latter informs the former.

    Before Neptune was discovered, the observations of planetary orbits did not quite match up with what was expected, given our understanding of gravity. It was the “fact” of the law of gravity, the great confidence that we had that part right, that allowed astronomers to conclude that the observations were incomplete. Something else had to be out there. Sure enough, they went looking for it and found it. Thankfully, in that case, they viewed law of gravity as the “fact” and the calculations flowing from it as trustworthy, rather than thinking that the observations were the “fact” and that the law was wrong.

    As another example, we don’t allow patents for perpetual motion machines. Should we allow them on the theory that a particular inventor should have the ability to go ahead and build his invention and “observe” whether it works? Or can we have confidence in the facts flowing from the laws of thermodynamics, such that we can know with a high degree of certainty that any claimed “observation” to the contrary (YouTube has lots of them) is nonsense?

    Finally, there is another aspect worth mentioning, and this is true in legal and engineering language as much as it is in scientific language: a generalized statement is often more correct than a specific one. It may not be as detailed or useful in a given instance if we want to know particulars, but it may be more correct as a matter of logic.

    So we can have a generalized statement, say about gravity, that is a “fact”. That fact can hold true whether or not we have identified all the nuances and perturbations of the given system we are looking at, such as the Earth-Moon system. IOW, the generalized law can be a fact, even if we have some difficulty applying it in a given circumstance, due to our lack of observational specifics.

    —–

    Anyway, good stuff. I just want to make sure we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. The laws of chemistry and physics are not at all in the same category as the theory of evolution or similar-level theories.
    Indeed, it is the former that often gives us excellent reason to question the latter.

    We should not equate those two situations and we should not give any comfort to evolutionary proponents by equating their problematic and observationally-lacking theory with one of the most fundamental and well-confirmed laws in existence. It doesn’t help, when confronted with a claim that some crank theory is as good as the law of gravity, to point out highly-nuanced and technical limitations in our understanding of gravity. Every crank theorist out there would love to have their theory taken as seriously as gravity.

  30. 30
    jdk says:

    Laws are different than theories, I think, in that laws are usually described succinctly in mathematical formulas, while theories are broader explanations that include both qualitative and quantitative elements.

    The 2006 Kansas Science Standards described things this way:

    a. A hypothesis is a testable statement that is subject to further investigation and potential confirmation.

    b. An inference is a testable conclusion, based on previously established knowledge, observed evidence, and logic.

    c. A law is a thoroughly tested descriptive generalization of a highly regular phenomenon, usually expressed in mathematical form.

    d. A theory is a broad explanation that integrates a wide range of observations and tested hypotheses, inferences, and laws (when applicable) into a meaningful and coherent whole.

  31. 31
    gpuccio says:

    jdk:

    Yes, we can use those different words to refer to the strngth of support from facts, or to the range of an inferential construct. But in the essence, they are all the same thing: inferences from observed facts, more or less general, more or less supported by observed facts, more or less shared by existing scientists.

    The inferential nature is the connecting property. None of those mental constructs is a deduction. And, of course, thye are not facts. They are always inferences.

    Even laws, which could be considered the most “simple” and “tested” forms, are not simple or necessarily beyond further evaluation. Think of imnportant laws like gravitation, or even the second law, how important they are, and yet how complex, how still not completely understood in all their aspects, how widely relevant to any general scientific worldview.

  32. 32
    kairosfocus says:

    EA,

    Physicists have been chastened by events a bit over 100 years ago. Newtonian dynamics and classical electrodynamics were brought up short by empirical observations that were intractable and led to a revolution. Quantum and Relativity.

    The key lesson from that is that empirical tests have power to falsify but not power to verify in an absolute sense. A well observed fact is what it is, it reports circumstances at a given place and time. A cluster of such facts can indeed be summarised and the summary would be as true as the individual facts so summarised.

    But a law goes beyond this, it predicts and invites extension to new circumstances. And that is where things fell apart for the very small and the very fast.

    That a law is so far empirically reliable and has a track record of success does not confer that it has arrived at being guaranteed accurate under all future circumstances as extended. (We are already taking for granted a stable, observable, intelligible world order. Cosmos, not chaos — a big phil point.)

    So, we have to be cautious.

    Something as simple as observational refinement across time can bring out problems.

    Theories compound this.

    I actually tend to use models (especially dynamical ones) as the underlying explanatory construct. With that, we can see a law as a micro-model describing one specific point. Theories then are elaborated and more complex. The key difference is, models make no pretence to be true, just validated and useful in a relevant range. A law or theory preserves search for truth and just might have succeeded; indeed, a powerful track record of successful prediction tends to boost credibility. But such reliability and predictive power cannot guarantee that it is indeed true.

    And that is a key point.

    Beyond, we must be aware of the real world flexibility such that cut and dried definitions of laws and theories do not fit all materially relevant cases.

    KF

  33. 33
    jdk says:

    Again, agreed gpuccio.

  34. 34
    gpuccio says:

    jdk:

    I am happy we agree.

  35. 35
    gpuccio says:

    KF:

    “I actually tend to use models (especially dynamical ones) as the underlying explanatory construct.”

    Great! 🙂

    I absolutely agree with your emphasis on models.

    My personal experience in data analysis has convinced me that empirical science is essentially modeling.

    Your observations about “truth” are absolutely correct, and IMO they reflect the different emphasis on “prediction” or “understanding” that can be found in statistical machine learning.

    I believe that both prediction and understanding are mental constructs, and both are projections of inner intuitions on outer realities. And, of course, forms of modeling, even if somewhat different at times.

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