|MadSci Network: Science History|
I recently read a journal article* that spurred my curiosity. The
author stated, "Individuals often hold a simplistic, hierarchical view of
the relationship between theories and laws whereby theories become laws
depending on the availibility of supporting evidence." He added, "theories
and laws are different kinds of knowledge and one can not develop or be
transformed into the other" and, "theories are as legitimate a product of
science as laws."
Throughout my years of undergraduate and graduate education, I have been taught this "hierarchical view" of theories and laws. As a former biology professor and current teacher of secondary education, I need to know, "What is the difference between a theory and a law?" and more importantly, CAN a theory eventually become a law based on supporting evidence? I need these questions answered in order to produce "scientifically literate" citizens, I would surley hate to continue misleading my students.
*Lederman, N.G. 1998. The state of science education: subject matter without context. The Electronic Journal of Science. 3(2).
(I was unable to locate The Electronic Journal of Science, so I linked to another presentation of the same material.)
This is a common question, and a common misconception. Unfortunately I learned it pretty much the same way you did... and didn't really have it corrected until I started digging into the philosophy of science rather recently.
The current consensus among philosophers of science seems to be this:
Oddly enough, I searched the MadSci site and came up with a carefully- written wrong answer along the hierarchical lines you describe above. Embarassingly, several answers I summoned in my search fall into the misconceptions and traps enumerated by McComus!
We shouldn't blame our experts; as you and I have seen from our own experience, scientists may have fuzzy notions about this sort of distinction because they don't normally have to make the distinction! A working scientists doesn't tend to worry about whether the First Law of Thermodynamics is an explanation, or the Theory of Evolution a statement of observed facts. They work, she uses them, everything's fine, right? But as McComus points out, the cut-and-dried (wrong) way this is usually presented can be pretty deadly, pedagogically.
I am unable to recommend much specific for further reading, although McComus' bibliography looks to be a good place to start. You might try Richard Feynman's distinctly practical take on this problem, The Nature of Physical Law.
Try the links in the MadSci Library for more information on Science History.