Listen and learn: the language of science and scepticism


As scientists, one of our responsibilities should be to promote clarity. A lot of problems are caused by an incorrect or incomplete understanding of terms we regularly, and even lovingly, use. 

When I use the word “evidence”, what I think I mean is a function of many things, not least my education in science and philosophy.

It’s also the product of many discussions with people about science, superstition, psychology, pseudoscience and subjectivity.

These discussions have added nuance to my understanding of the nature of evidence. They’ve also alerted me to the fact this nature changes in certain circumstances and through certain worldviews. In other words, what I intend to say is sometimes heard as something else entirely.

This type of miscommunication can be bad enough when dealing with someone who isn’t using the terms in a scientific way, but it’s particularly frustrating when it happens when talking to teachers and communicators of science.

I’d like to take a shot, then, at defining some key terms in the name of clarity.

Scientific Law

People might think scientific law is about the highest sort of truth you can get; they might think something “proven” scientifically has the status of certainty, which is to say it’s always true: nature will always behave so as to be in accord with this law.

Written By: Peter Ellerton
continue to source article at


  1. ” It’s unfortunate that the lovely phrase “the theory of evolution by
    natural selection” has been truncated into the misleading, inaccurate,
    confusing and very wrong phrase “the theory of evolution” – ”

    My greatest pet peeve and the point of argumentation with countless creationists confused between evolution,  natural selection and speciation.

    ” When added to the mistaken belief that theories become laws “

    Easy to have this mistaken belief when you do not know what a theory is. Most creationists do not know, but what is shocking is the secular creationist misunderstanding here.

    How many times have I had a secular creationist, some social science or humanities scholar, tell me, ” if one thing in a theory is wrong then the whole theory is refuted. ” Rather reminds me of Darwin’s blending blunder. We still have that theory not refuted!

  2.   @OP:disqus link  – The idea of a hypothesis-to-theory-to-law progression is seriously flawed, and this needs to be articulated as the root cause of much misunderstanding.

    While the article makes many good points about common misconceptions and semantic confusion, this claim is simply wrong!

    While SOME hypotheses and theories, will never progress to higher levels of probability, and may be revised or refuted, those theories and laws which are supported by objective evidence, HAVE  progressed through this sequence, as evidence has been found, thought through, and tested.

    This claim just creates unnecessary confusion about marginal possibilities. 
    Obvious there is no automatic progression, but to deny any progression at all, is just adding confusion to ill-defined understanding in semantically muddied waters.

    It is well known, that creationists and theologists, wilfully invent and disseminate ambiguous meanings and negative inferences,  for scientific terms – as in “theistic evolution”.

  3. Alan4,
    I agree.  I wish there were newer, better words to use rather than theory and law because everyday parlance has robbed these words of their scientific meanings.  Laws are observations in the sense that we see the universe “abiding” by them and we would be hard pressed to gather evidence that refuted them.  

    Allow me to elaborate.  Things fall down.  When you hold a pencil at arms length and let go, it fall towards earth.  The first people to link these events had a hypothesis that needed to be repeatedly tested in order for them to arrive at the theory of universal gravitation.  This theory holds in practice until Newton puts forth his ideas that galvanize the issue and give us the Law of universal gravitation.  

    Then we look at the world and see helium balloons and airplanes and birds and insects….  Are they violating the law???  No, we see the discrepant event and seek to explain it.

    One of my big issues with this topic is when a creationist tells me that evolution violates the 2nd law of thermodynamics.  Drives me nuts.  I ask them then to talk to me about the 2nd law and to give me other examples of things that violate it.  There is usually silence at this point and they accuse me of being strident or arrogant.

  4. @crookedshoes
     The piece at the OP seems to be trying to define “truth” as exclusively applying to mathematics and formal logic – neither of which need an evidenced starting point based on testable objective observations.

    My point is that self consistency is not a measure of scientific “truths” about our universe. 
    All sorts of (the more intelligent) theistic constructs are self consistent.

    YEC statements on the second law of thermodynamics, can usually be translated into, ” I read at some cretinist web-site, or was told by some cretinist preacher,  that this is so, and that scientists cannot answer this”.
    (It is of course true that scientists cannot answer this in terms which a denying  scientific illiterate can understand – so in that sense the gap-ology works – on illiterate audiences.)

    The simplest explanation I can think of is:- “Matter/energy cannot be created or destroyed – it can just change form, and be moved around.” 
    They could then be asked why they think energy is not moving around in living things, as part of evolution. 

    They would need some understanding of open/closed systems and energy, to be able to bring up the movement of “entropy” angle.  (Most would have no idea that our energy mainly comes from gravity acting on the Sun!)

    I agree.  I wish there were newer, better words to use rather than theory and law because everyday parlance has robbed these words of their scientific meanings.

    It would not make any difference!  The theist obfuscating semantic shufflers, would just invent new ambiguities – as they did with “theistic evolution” after years of denial. 
    They would then debate the new ambiguities in theology colleges and circulate them to uncritical congregations.  (Quantum woo???)

  5. Alan,

    First of all I’m not an acedemic  :) , I’d like to put it to you that the ‘theistic evolutionists are really agnotics who accept evolution. Its equally as silly as religion that somehow god was twiddling his tumbs for a few billion years until the real action happened , here on our precious earth. So I dont accept the labelling of a theistic evolutionist. , at least interms of labelling the majority. Its a paradox that most reasonable people can diseminate.

  6. Pauly
    First of all I’m not an academic  :) , I’d like to put it to you that the ‘theistic evolutionists are really agnostics who accept evolution.

    I would not describe the RCC etc. as agnostics. 
    They only accept bits of evolution and include unscientific bits of god-did-it!… –
    Theistic evolution is not a scientific theory, but a particular view about how the science of evolution relates to religious belief and interpretation.

    Theistic evolution supporters can be seen as one of the groups who reject the conflict thesis regarding the relationship between religion and science –
    that is, they hold that religious teachings about creation and scientific theories of evolution need not contradict. 

    Proponents of this view are sometimes described as Christian Darwinists

    Biblical Creation and science, clearly do contradict, so this is bound to be semantic fudge.


    This view is generally accepted by major Christian churches, including the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Episcopal Church USA, and some other mainline Protestant denominations; virtually all Jewish denominations; and other religious groups that lack a literalist stance concerning some holy scriptures

  7. Its more than a fudge , it completely negates the doctrine. Negates what is literally written down in these books , negates the idea that the supernatural interacted communicatively with man (Word?). Its absurd , there maybe evolutionist out their that are theists but such is their rediculousness they are clearly a tiny fraction of the people who accept evolution. Its laughable.

  8.  @rdfrs-315b725ad72bb1bc949490a42bd36c2c:disqus   – Theist mental contortions and pseudo-logic, have never had a problem with mentally reconciling contradictory or self contradictory statements!

  9. Alan,
    I’m not sure I understand your criticism of the OP. I did not read it as “deny[ing] any progression at all.” Ellerton’s contention is that Law and Theory are two completely different epistemic categories, so that it does not make sense to think of a Theory becoming a Law.

    Using the OP’s formulation Laws are descriptive models (“This is how objects in motion behave,”) while Theories are explanatory models (“this is why objects move in certain ways.”) A Hypothesis might progress into a Theory OR a Law (as testing increases our confidence) depending on the nature of the Hypothesis.  A Theoryor a Law which continued over a long period of time to match rigorous experimental observations would certainly “progress” – in terms of our degree of confidence. We may reach a point where acceptance is essentiall universal. But a Theory would still never become a Law (or vice versa) because they are just two different creatures. We simply have stronger and stronger Theories or more-and-more confirmed Laws as the chances of refutation diminish with time and testing.

    By this logic, evolution would be a Law, because it describes an effect which has proven true over vast numbers of observations   (that living things change from generation to generation leading to phenotypic diversity over time.) But natural selection would be considered a Theory because it proposes a mechanism to explain the observations.  Theories may be weak (Lamarkian evolution) or strong (Darwinian natural selection) but a strong Theory does not eventually “grow up” to become a Law, just a stronger Theory. Laws are not “higher” than Theories. Theories tell us why Laws work.

    The notion that “progress” includes changing Theory into Law leads to a lot of confusion and lends itself to all sorts of obfuscation. Those who accept this notion(or – like me – actually learned it in a science class!) are susceptible to arguments that any “Theory” can be dismissed out of hand because it has not yet “graduated.”

    In this light, Richards propoasal  (in TGSOE I believe) to use the term Theorem for a scientific Theory which has reached a very high (practically total) degree of confidence, makes a lot of sense. It satisfies the need some feel to separate the tentative from the established among Theories.

  10. BanJoIvie – I’m not sure I understand your criticism of the OP. I did not read it as “deny[ing] any progression at all.”

    If you look at the pasted para I challenged the statement is clear even though elsewhere his other statements do not quite match this.

       @OP:disqus The idea of a hypothesis-to-theory-to-law progression is seriously flawed, and this needs to be articulated as the root cause of much misunderstanding.

    Your following passage suggests that we agree on my first challenge re. a hypothesis progressing.

    BanJoIvie –   A Hypothesis might progress into a Theory OR a Law (as testing
    increases our confidence) depending on the nature of the Hypothesis.

    I think his explanation is semantic nit-picking of the word “demonstrate” and “prove” with much too narrow a definition of “prove”.   Repeated demonstration of a law does “prove” it!  (I do not think the word “prove” should be reserved for hypothetical formuli.)

    Theories tell us why Laws work.

    At the point, where the law and the explaining theory accurately map on to reality, there seems to be no good reason to try to compartmentalise them, when they are part of the same model.

    I did make the point in my earlier comment that there is no automatic progression.
    I would certainly not expect there is any reason to believe there has to be  some sort of sequence, but that is not to say that some sequential progression cannot happen.

    Your point about a clear definition of a scientific theory (Theorem) – avoiding the misinterpretations of the vernacular, is well made and very important.

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