Chat with a friend about an established scientific theory and she might reply, “Well, that’s just a theory.” But a conversation about an established scientific law rarely ends with, “Well, that’s just a law.” Why is that? What is the difference between a theory and a law, and is one better? Scientific laws and theories have different jobs to do. A scientific law predicts the results of certain initial conditions. It might predict your unborn child’s possible hair colors, or how far a baseball travels when launched at a certain angle. In contrast, a theory tries to provide the most logical explanation about why things happen as they do.
A theory might invoke dominant and recessive genes to explain how brown-haired parents ended up with a red-headed child, or use gravity to shed light on the parabolic trajectory of a baseball. In simplest terms, a law predicts what happens while a theory proposes why. A theory will never grow up into a law, though the development of one often triggers progress on the other. In the 17th century, Johannes Kepler theorized cosmic musical harmonies to explain the nature of planetary orbits. He developed three brilliant laws of planetary motion while he was studying decades of precise astronomical data in an effort to find support for his theory.
While his three laws are still in use today, gravity replaced his theory of harmonics to explain the planets’ motions. How did Kepler get part of it wrong? Well, we weren’t handed a universal instruction manual. Instead, we continually propose, challenge, revise, or even replace our scientific ideas as a work in progress. Laws usually resist change since they wouldn’t have been adopted if they didn’t fit the data, though we occasionally revise laws in the face of new unexpected information.
A theory’s acceptance, however, is often gladiatorial. Multiple theories may compete to supply the best explanation of a new scientific discovery. Upon further research, scientists tend to favor the theory that can explain most of the data, though there may still be gaps in our understanding. Scientists also like when a new theory successfully predicts previously unobserved phenomena, like when Dmitri Mendeleev’s theory about the periodic table predicted several undiscovered elements. The term scientific theory covers a broad swath. Some theories are new ideas with little experimental evidence that scientists eye with suspicion, or even ridicule. Other theories, like those involving the Big Bang, evolution, and climate change, have endured years of experimental confirmation before earning acceptance by the majority of the scientific community.
You would need to learn more about a specific explanation before you’d know how well scientists perceive it. The word theory alone doesn’t tell you. In full disclosure, the scientific community has bet on the wrong horse before: alchemy, the geocentric model, spontaneous generation, and the interstellar aether are just a few of many theories discarded in favor of better ones. But even incorrect theories have their value. Discredited alchemy was the birthplace of modern chemistry, and medicine made great strides long before we understood the roles of bacteria and viruses.
That said, better theories often lead to exciting new discoveries that were unimaginable under the old way of thinking. Nor should we assume all of our current scientific theories will stand the test of time. A single unexpected result is enough to challenge the status quo. However, vulnerability to some potentially better explanation doesn’t weaken a current scientific theory.
Instead, it shields science from becoming unchallenged dogma. A good scientific law is a finely-tuned machine, accomplishing its task brilliantly but ignorant of why it works as well as it does. A good scientific theory is a bruised, but unbowed, fighter who risks defeat if unable to overpower or adapt to the next challenger. Though different, science needs both laws and theories to understand the whole picture. So next time someone comments that it’s just a theory, challenge them to go nine rounds with the champ and see if they can do any better.