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Definitions of Fact, Theory, and Law in Scientific Work
Science uses specialized terms that have different meanings than everyday usage. These definitions correspond to the way scientists typically use these terms in the context of their work. Note, especially, that the meaning of “theory” in science is different than the meaning of “theory” in everyday conversation.
- Fact: In science, an observation that has been repeatedly confirmed and for all practical purposes is accepted as “true.” Truth in science, however, is never final and what is accepted as a fact today may be modified or even discarded tomorrow.
- Hypothesis: A tentative statement about the natural world leading to deductions that can be tested. If the deductions are verified, the hypothesis is provisionally corroborated. If the deductions are incorrect, the original hypothesis is proved false and must be abandoned or modified. Hypotheses can be used to build more complex inferences and explanations.
- Law: A descriptive generalization about how some aspect of the natural world behaves under stated circumstances.
- Theory: In science, a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses.
The Role of Theory in Advancing 21st Century Biology, National Academy of Sciences