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Dutchess_III's avatar

Is 'theory' in science a proven fact?

Asked by Dutchess_III (25565 points ) December 15th, 2013

Having a bit of a discussion on fb about this. Friend says “theory in science is a proven fact.” I’d like to review hypothesis, theory and fact one more time.

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27 Answers

dabbler's avatar

In science theory does not imply fact.
A theory is a proposed explanation of observable phenomena that needs to be verified by observable and repeatable methods before considered fact.

If a theory is sufficiently backed up by experimental data we might dare to call it a law like the law of gravity.
Even theories of gravity are not well explained. Gravity is well described and its forces and effects can be predicted. But science has not come up with facts about what is gravity. The Large Hadron Collider in Europe may have produced the first observed Higgs Bosons that are theorized to be involved with inparting gravitational properties to matter. Even if the Higgs Boson is proved to impart gravitiness there remain questions about how gravity works that are yet to be verified with observable facts.

Rarebear's avatar

As far as a non-scientifically literate person is concerned, yes.

jerv's avatar

A Theory is a hypothesis that has lots of supporting evidence to corroborate it, with no repeatable results that disprove it. Any hypothesis that is disproven never becomes a theory, and any theory that runs into incontrovertible evidence that disproves it gets either amended or discarded.

In short, a theory is a proven hypothesis, but there really are no hard facts, merely some theories that are more well-proven than others.

CWOTUS's avatar

@jerv gave a very good response. (There’s nothing wrong with @dabbler‘s explanation, either.)

I don’t know of any – any! – “proven facts” in science, because even the observations that are made “as proven fact” to support or declaim one theory or another are themselves subject to revision because of “better observation” or better experimental setup that refines or sometimes even contradicts the original observation.

A scientific theory is “the best explanation of ‘reasons why’ things are the way they are or act as they do”, and every theory is subject to revision when observations are made that don’t fit the theory (and the observations are verifiable and “true” to the best of anyone’s knowledge, and repeatable, as @jerv was correct to note).

@Rarebear is also very close to correct in his statement that “in colloquial terms” and to lay people who don’t do research and experimentation of their own, or don’t follow the fine details of others’ scientific research, a theory is “an accepted fact” (in contradistinction to a “proven” fact). For example, we accept atomic theory as factual because the careful observations that have been made in attempting to disprove it – which is the way science works, after all – have failed to do that. The models work, the theory is valid “as far as we know”, and those of us who don’t do pure research can rely upon the “accepted facts” about atoms, their makeup of electrons, protons and neutrons, and expect that the world is built that way. At least until we start to gain a better understanding of quantum mechanics and realize that there are huge holes in “atomic theory”, so all the things that we thought we knew years ago, and accepted as true, are no longer at all certain or even true.

Kropotkin's avatar

No, a theory, rather a scientific theory, is not a “proven fact”. A theory is an explanatory model of some observed part of our world, and the model itself is based on various lines of evidence and supporting hypotheses.

A theory does not need to be “true” in some metaphysical sense, nor 100% accurate. In fact, we know of theories which are incomplete, and probably wrong on some abstract level, yet they have excellent predictive value and offer a coherent and useful explanatory model.

Coloma's avatar

It’s all too exhausting if you ask me. lol

glacial's avatar

@Coloma Hence @Rarebear‘s answer.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

Theories are well thought out opinions based upon abundant experiential data.

Snap Judgements are poorly thought out opinions based upon limited experiential data.

Neither theories, or snap judgments should be considered as fact.

When a valid theory becomes fact, we call it a Law.

glacial's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies By all means, please provide an example of a scientific law that has “become fact”.

The main difference between a theory and a law is that a theory tries to provide a mechanism that explains why all the experiential data fits.

Coloma's avatar

@glacial It is still exhausting even if you are scientifically literate. I’ve spun my wheels for decades, time to just let them rest. lol

ETpro's avatar

There are no proven facts in science. If you want someone “claiming” to have proven facts, turn to any of the great religions.

All science can offer is an ever improving approximation of how things appear to work by observation. Even Newton’s Law of Gravity, while enormously useful and very, very close to all observations; had to be modified when Einstein offered his Theories of Special and General Relativity to explain why there were certain circumstances when Newtonian laws of motion were slightly off.

Rarebear's avatar

“Science is more than a body of knowledge. It’s a way of thinking. A way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility.”
—Carl Sagan

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

@glacial I didn’t say that scientific laws become facts. So I cannot provide you with any examples.

But when the theory of gravity was found to be a factual universal constant, then it became a universal law. Same for Planck’s Constant, or the Law of conservation of mass.

That does not mean these laws will never be expanded upon. We may know some of the absolute truths about them. But we may still learn additional absolute truths about them.

Knowing some of the truth doesn’t mean we know all of the truth. Not knowing all of the truth doesn’t make some of the truth non-factual.

glacial's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies I asked my question in the terms you provided:

“When a valid theory becomes fact, we call it a Law.”

No matter, you have given a couple of examples: gravity and conservation of mass. Neither of these is “proven” any more than any theory is “proven”. We accept them because they fit all of the evidence we have. This is true of both theories and laws.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

@glacial You’re putting words into my mouth that I never said.

Twice now.

Your last comment, the word “proven” is in quotations. Look at my comments. I never used the word proven, or proof, or prove or anything akin to them.

And the first time, you claim “I asked my question in the terms you provided:”

No, actually, you’ve completely reversed what I said.

I said, *“When a valid theory becomes fact”

But you accuse me of saying “scientific law that has “become fact”.”

No sorry. I didn’t say laws become facts. Reread my comments. You’re reversing what I said.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

And what exactly do you mean by “proven” @glacial?

Scientific Laws are indisputable observations. They are universally demonstrable. But not all theories are demonstrable. If you want “proof”, then all you need do is demonstrate the observation. But just because you have proof that the observation is indisputably universal, that doesn’t mean you have all the truth about the phenomenon being observed. There may still be more truth about it to discover beyond what we already have.

Harold's avatar

No it’s not. A theory is just someone’s interpretation of the evidence they have seen.

ragingloli's avatar

They are about as close to being ‘proven fact’ as anything could ever be.

dabbler's avatar

@ragingloli nailed it. “Close to being ‘proven fact’” And if evidence emerges that contradicts or modifies the theory then the theory will get changed to reflect the new understanding. That’s science, folks!

josie's avatar

A theory is the best conclusion you can draw based on the evidence available. If the theory is valid, further evidence will strengthen it. If further evidence refutes it, the theory is invalid. A theory is the closest thing there is to a fact established by direct observation of a single event in nature.

A hypothesis is a working assumption, as a basis for experimentation.

Like what others have said.

glacial's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies I can only quote your words back at you so many times. When I said “scientific law that has “become fact”, I meant “scientific law that is theory become fact”. I thought that would sound awkward, and I have no doubt that you understand exactly what I was saying. It is the most obvious question I could be asking based on what you said.

I see no difference between saying “a law is a theory become fact” (yeah, I’m quoting myself here, not you) and saying “a law is a theory that is proven fact”. But you are insistent that you are not talking about proving anything. Okay. If you’re not talking about proving that things are facts, what can be the meaning of your words “become facts”? Are you saying that a thing that was not a fact yesterday can turn into a fact tomorrow? And, if that’s not what you were saying with your “become fact” remark, then what the hell were you saying?

Why does every conversation with you become a dance around the semantics of your weird claims?

Dutchess_III's avatar

OK, in my own words:

“Had to do some checking on your comment “A theory in science is a proven fact,” because I didn’t think that was correct (and perhaps I misread it.)

1) First one comes up with a hypothesis which isn’t anything more than an idea.
2) If multiple and repeated testing upholds the hypothesis we call it a theory.
3) The more incontrovertible evidence and testing we gather on the theory it becomes a law, like the law of gravity.

But even “laws,” which are the closest thing to a “proven fact” in science can be amended if something changes.”

Do I have it?

ragingloli's avatar

No, laws are part of, and only valid within, theories, and explained by these theories.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Isn’t that what I said here: “But even “laws,” which are the closest thing to a “proven fact” in science can be amended if something changes.”?

ragingloli's avatar

theories do not become laws.

Bill1939's avatar

I believe this to be a fact: There are no facts, only beliefs. Some, however, are supported by observable evidence.

Dan_Lyons's avatar

My but this one really stirred things up a bit. I always enjoy watching one theory which has been accepted as seemingly a fact is supplanted by another, newer theory which will be accepted as seemingly fact until someone sees the same thing a little differently and these new observations become the rule of thumb until…etc…etc…etc

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