The following HTML text is provided to enhance online
readability. Many aspects of typography translate only awkwardly to HTML.
Please use the page image
as the authoritative form to ensure accuracy.
Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science
cells. The heliocentric theory says that the earth revolves around the sun rather than vice versa. Such concepts are supported by such abundant observational and experimental evidence that they are no longer questioned in science.
Sometimes scientists themselves use the word "theory" loosely and apply it to tentative explanations that lack well-established evidence. But it is important to distinguish these casual uses of the word "theory" with its use to describe concepts such as evolution that are supported by overwhelming evidence. Scientists might wish that they had a word other than "theory" to apply to such enduring explanations of the natural world, but the term is too deeply engrained in science to be discarded.
As with all scientific knowledge, a theory can be refined or even replaced by an alternative theory in light of new and compelling evidence. For example, Chapter 3 describes how the geocentric theory that the sun revolves around the earth was replaced by the heliocentric theory of the earth's rotation on its axis and revolution around the sun. However, ideas are not referred to as "theories" in science unless they are supported by bodies of evidence that make their subsequent abandonment very unlikely. When a theory is supported by as much evidence as evolution, it is held with a very high degree of confidence.
In science, the word "hypothesis" conveys the tentativeness inherent in the common use of the word "theory." A hypothesis is a testable statement about the natural world. Through experiment and observation, hypotheses can be supported or rejected. As the earliest level of understanding, hypotheses can be used to construct more complex inferences and explanations.
Like "theory," the word "fact" has a different meaning in science than it does in common usage. A scientific fact is an observation that has been confirmed over and over. However, observations are gathered by our senses, which can never be trusted entirely. Observations also can change with better technologies or with better ways of looking at data. For example, it was held as a scientific fact for many years that human cells have 24 pairs of chromosomes, until improved techniques of microscopy revealed that they actually have 23. Ironically, facts in science often are more susceptible to change than theories—which is one reason why the word "fact" is not much used in science.
Finally, "laws" in science are typically descriptions of how the physical world behaves under certain circumstances. For example, the laws of motion describe how objects move when subjected to certain forces. These laws can be very useful in supporting hypotheses and theories, but like all elements of science they can be altered with new information and observations.
Glossary of Terms Used in Teaching About the Nature of Science
Fact: In science, an observation that has been repeatedly confirmed.
Law: A descriptive generalization about how some aspect of the natural world behaves under stated circumstances.
Hypothesis: A testable statement about the natural world that can be used to build more complex inferences and explanations.
Theory: In science, a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypot