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Science Made Simple
by TaLonne Mefford
     

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Science Terms

Sometimes we see and hear scientific words buzzing around the Internet or in the news--like the theory of evolution or the law of gravity, but what makes these things different and what do words like hypothesis, theory, and law mean?

These words have a specific meaning in science. Outside of science, you might say something is “just a theory,” meaning it is an assumption that may or may not be true. In science, a theory is an explanation that generally is accepted to be true. We will take a closer look at these important and commonly misused terms.

A hypothesis is an educated guess based on observation. Usually, a hypothesis can be supported or refuted through experimentation or more observation. It provides a suggested solution based on evidence. In science, experimenters may test and reject several hypotheses before solving the problem. Two “rules” scientists follow when choosing a scientific hypothesis are that they must be testable and falsifiable. Science proceeds by making observations of nature. If a hypothesis does not generate any observational tests, there is nothing that a scientist can do with it.

Next, a scientific hypothesis must be testable, but there is a much stronger requirement that a testable hypothesis must meet before it can really be considered scientific. It must be falsifiable. A hypothesis can be disproven, but not proven to be true. In order to prove something to be true, a scientist would have to test absolutely every opposing hypothesis, and they would have to be disproved. This is impossible to achieve. If a hypothesis or group of hypotheses receive enough support then it can be considered a theory.

A scientific theory summarizes a hypothesis or group of hypotheses that have been supported with repeated testing. A theory is only valid as long as there is no evidence to dispute it. Therefore, theories can be disproven. Basically, if enough evidence accumulates to support a hypothesis, then the hypothesis can become accepted as a good explanation of an observed phenomenon. One definition of a theory is that it is an accepted hypothesis.

A scientific law is a statement of fact meant to describe, in concise terms, an action or set of actions. It is generally accepted to be true and universal, and can sometimes be expressed mathematically. Scientific laws do not complex external proofs; they are accepted at face value because they have always been observed to be true. Some scientific laws include the law of gravity, Newton’s laws of motion, and the laws of thermodynamics.

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