Danger in London's Science Museum

By cjohnson | May 25, 2006 11:59 am

einstein theory vs lawThis was spotted during my very enjoyable visit to the Science Museum on Sunday, described earlier. I am disturbed by this picture for several reasons. Click on it and read the text surrounding the picture. I am not even complaining about the fact that this picture -in prominent display in the spaceflight part of the London Science Museum- contains a lot of silly science fiction nonsense about warp drive (it is right next to a model of the Starship Enterprize) – this stuff has no place in an otherwise excellent display of real science, in my opinion.

What I am complaning about is the fact that the Science Museum has decided to shy away from using the word “theory” when describing Einstein’s General and Special Relativity. They’ve replaced the word “theory” with “law”. Why? You might consider this to be an issue of mere semantics but it is not. There is a very important misunderstanding of what the word “theory” means in a scientific context. This misunderstanding is dangerous. This misunderstanding has already been exploited for political means, and I am sure that it will be exploited again. Recall the discussion about the NASA administration official saying that the Big Bang is “just a theory”, for example. (See a post about it here, with discussion.) (See also a post about the use of the word in a scientific context, here.)

Why does it matter? Surely, since members of the general public think that the word “theory” is less compelling than “law” we might as well use the latter, no? I don’t agree. What we should be doing instead is better educating the public as to the meaning of the word, making it clear that the terms “Theory of Evolution”, or “Theory of Relativity” do not imply that these are not powerful, established parts of the scientific knowledge base.

In fact, I would go as far as to say that replacing “theory” with the word “law” is far more dangerous that it seems. The word “law” does not do as well as “theory” in invoking a vitally important part of Science that distinguishes it from, for example, the typical organized Religion. Science is an on-going process of refinement, adventure, challenge and re-evaluation. It is a different type of “search for truth” than organized Religion. Science is all about the asking of questions and refining of one’s understanding of how the world works. It is not about obeying a set of laws. To focus on the word “law” is a mistake.

A scientific theory establishes a truth about the world, with an understanding that there is a specific realm of validity associated with that theory. It hands over to another theory once we step outside its domain of applicability. Science is about expanding our knowledge by exploring new domains, and, where it can, building a connectivity between those domains of knowledge. It is always being refined. The word “law” really misses all of that, and rather makes it seem more of a dogmatic enterprise: Einstein’s “Law of Relativity” implies that if you’re working in a regime where it does not apply, you’re “breaking the law”. This is not a good word to use, especially when trying to teach either the young, or those from the public who are either not well-exposed to science and the scientific process, or are suspicious of science, or are confused about Religion vs Science (or combinations of all three).

This is also an example of something else I’ve pointed out before. Notice that this is in the Science Museum in London, England. My countrymen over there are often pointing across the Atlantic (with a great deal of complaceny and often glee, sadly) at what is going on in the USA with various debates about science education, religion, science vs. religion, etc. I repeat again: This is not just an American problem. When America sneezes, Britain catches cold. Do not be complacent.

And yes…. someone should talk to someone in charge over at the Science Museum. This mistake should be corrected.



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