“Fact” vs “Theory”

What is the difference between a “fact” and a “theory”?


There have been a number of articles, posts and tweets, from various authors, with the fundamental argument of “Such and so statement is only a theory; it’s not a fact, so we can’t believe it.” Recently, there have even been a number of U.S. legislative motions to address this aspect; and laws are being passed on the fundamental basis that a “theory” isn’t true, so should not be taught.

So, what is a “Fact”?

A “fact” is what we, the human race, define.

We define that “one plus one equals two”. So, therefore, it is a fact that 1+1=2. If someone else comes along and says, “No, it’s three!”, we can point them to the previous definition and counter their argument.

Another fact is that “Carbon has six protons.” We saw an atom with six protons, gave it the name “Carbon”, and therefore that is a fact. If someone says, “No, it has eight!”, we can simply say, “What you are looking at is called ‘Oxygen’. Oxygen has eight protons.”

In other words, facts are what we, the human race, define. Everything else is a hypothesis.

So, what is a “Hypothesis”?

A “hypothesis” is a statement describing an observation, with an explanation that can be tested:

“I notice that if I hold my breath, I pass out. Therefore, if I hold my breath long enough, I’d die.”

While on its face the above hypothesis is true, it also has the problem that as soon as you pass out, your unconscious system will start you breathing again, so you don’t die.

This is a hypothesis that is difficult to prove, so may be considered a “theory”.

So, what is a “Theory”?

In science, a “theory” is also a statement describing an observation with an explanation that can be tested. It starts out as a hypothesis, and evidence is given to show it is (probably) true. If it is later shown to be false, it’s called “debunked” or “disproved” – yet, unfortunately, it is still called a theory.

So, for example, there is a theory that the Earth seems to be flat, so therefore it is flat. That has been disproved many, many times, but it’s still called the “Flat Earth theory”.

Compare that to the Theory of Gravity. In essence, that theory states:

“If I drop this hammer, it will hit the ground.”

Sure, scientists have placed numbers on this theory, but the core theory remains – no-one has yet disproved that theory.

And here’s the problem: it is unprovable. It is conceivable that in a thousand years’ time, someone could drop a hammer and it would just… float there. That would instantly disprove the Theory of Gravity – but that has not yet happened.

We didn’t define, or design, or invent gravity. We just observed it. All we can do is describe what we observe in a statement, give it an explanation, and wait for that explanation to be disproved.


Not teaching the Theory of Gravity because it is a “mere” theory is counter to the whole science of… science. We are describing the natural world as best we can.

There are a number of Theories that have stood the test of time, and have yet to be disproved. These theories should be taught in school – if only to give the students a chance to disprove them.

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