How Scientific Theories Describe Relationships in the Natural World
An earthquake strikes a civilization. Depending on its level of scientific acumen, its people may try to placate the gods, or they may consult theories of plate tectonics to determine the likely locations and times of future quakes. The latter civilization uses scientific theories, which are formed from logical deductions based on known facts. These theories are then tested experimentally to describe and understand relationships in the natural world.
1 Scientific Theories Are Carefully Built
The National Academy for Science Education defines a scientific theory as a collaboration of facts, laws and hypotheses. Scientific theories begin with observations scientists make of the natural world. These are deemed facts, since they are real, verified occurrences. If the facts are invariable -- cause A always produces effect B -- they are considered natural laws. These facts and laws are considered along with deductions scientists create in an attempt to explain what is behind the occurrences. These deductions are called hypotheses -- tentative and testable statements to account for observable facts.
2 How Hypothesis Becomes Theory
An hypothesis begins with a question, one which predicts consequences and can be tested, about a given occurrence. Arizona State University offers the example of a zoo nutritionist who knows monkeys eat type B leaves in the wild. The question: does the leaf have necessary adaptive qualities, or do monkeys simply prefer the taste? After repeatedly feeding five types of leaves to monkeys, the nutritionist notes that type B is eaten most frequently. The hypothesis: "Monkeys prefer Type B leaves for taste." This becomes a theory describing the monkey's relationship to his source of nutrition.
3 Newton Described Gravity Scientifically
Man’s relationship to many natural phenomena, including gravity, is described by Isaac Newton’s scientific and mathematical theories, which are widely applied today. We create calculus equations based on Newton's mathematics, our reflecting telescopes are based on Newtonian science, and everyone has experienced his theorized hydraulic phenomenon of action and reaction through technologies we use everyday. Newtonian theories and inventions created a more easily understood relationship between man and cosmic forces. We have even achieved new impetus to discover ways to overcome gravity by applying these theories. You could speculate that, without Newton, the Wright Brothers wouldn't have gotten off the ground!
4 Creation v. Evolution Rests on Theory
We could not debate intelligent design against Darwinian evolution without the strictures imposed upon scientific theory. Darwin’s description of evolutionary phenomena is highly regarded by scientists because, as a theory, it has been consistently verified by scientific peers. By the same token, researchers advocating intelligent design point to verification of their own theories. Scientific theory ultimately does not seek to verify or disprove a supernatural creation, but it does present mankind with practical facts that lead to theories about how the world world works, including about how various species came into being and how and where to avoid the next earthquake.
- 1 James Madison University: Plate Tectonic Theory: Plate Boundaries and Interplate Relationships
- 2 National Center for Scientific Education: Definitions of Fact, Theory, and Law in Scientific Work
- 3 Arizona State University: Developing Hypotheses and Research Questions: Nature of Hypotheses, pgs. 8-10
- 4 The University of Tennessee at Knoxville: Sir Isaac Newton: The Universal Law of Gravitation
- 5 PBS: NOVA: Newton's Legacy
- 6 The University of California at Berkeley: Evolution: Theory and Science
- 7 All About Science: Darwin’s Theory of Evolution: A Theory in Crisis