Hypothesis, Model, Theory & Law

Know the Difference Between a Hypothesis, Model, Theory, and Law

Hypothesis, theory, and law have specific meanings in science. A law, like Newton's Law of Gravity, typically includes a mathematical equation.
Hypothesis, theory, and law have specific meanings in science. A law, like Newton's Law of Gravity, typically includes a mathematical equation. Dorling Kindersley, Getty Images

In common usage, the words hypothesis, model, theory, and law have different interpretations and are at times used without precision, but in science they have very exact meanings.


Perhaps the most difficult and intriguing step is the development of a specific, testable hypothesis. A useful hypothesis enables predictions by applying deductive reasoning, often in the form of mathematical analysis.

It is a limited statement regarding the cause and effect in a specific situation, which can be tested by experimentation and observation or by statistical analysis of the probabilities from the data obtained. The outcome of the test hypothesis should be currently unknown, so that the results can provide useful data regarding the validity of the hypothesis.

Sometimes a hypothesis is developed that must wait for new knowledge or technology to be testable. The concept of atoms was proposed by the ancient Greeks, who had no means of testing it. Centuries later, when more knowledge became available, the hypothesis gained support and was eventually accepted by the scientific community, though it has had to be amended many times over the year. Atoms are not indivisible, as the Greeks supposed.


A model is used for situations when it is known that the hypothesis has a limitation on its validity.

The Bohr model of the atom, for example, depicts electrons circling the atomic nucleus in a fashion similar to planets in the solar system. This model is useful in determining the energies of the quantum states of the electron in the simple hydrogen atom, but it is by no means represents the true nature of the atom.

Scientists (and science students) often use such idealized models to get an initial grasp on analyzing complex situations.

Theory & Law

A scientific theory or law represents a hypothesis (or group of related hypotheses) which has been confirmed through repeated testing, almost always conducted over a span of many years. Generally, a theory is an explanation for a set of related phenomena, like the theory of evolution or the big bang theory

The word "law" is often invoked in reference to a specific mathematical equation that relates the different elements within a theory. Pascal's Law refers an equation that describes differences in pressure based on height. In the overall theory of universal gravitation developed by Sir Isaac Newton, the key equation that describes the gravitational attraction between two objects is called the law of gravity.

These days, physicists rarely apply the word "law" to their ideas. In part, this is because so many of the previous "laws of nature" were found to be not so much laws as guidelines, that work well within certain parameters but not within others.

Scientific Paradigms

Once a scientific theory is established, it is very hard to get the scientific community to discard it.

In physics, the concept of ether as a medium for light wave transmission ran into serious opposition in the late 1800s, but it was not disregarded until the early 1900s, when Albert Einstein proposed alternate explanations for the wave nature of light that did not rely upon a medium for transmission.

The science philosopher Thomas Kuhn developed the term scientific paradigm to explain the working set of theories under which science operates. He did extensive work on the scientific revolutions that take place when one paradigm is overturned in favor of a new set of theories. His work suggests that the very nature of science changes when these paradigms are significantly different. The nature of physics prior to relativity and quantum mechanics is fundamentally different from that after their discovery, just as biology prior to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is fundamentally different from the biology that followed it.

The very nature of the inquiry changes.

One consequence of the scientific method is to try to maintain consistency in the inquiry when these revolutions occur and to avoid attempts to overthrow existing paradigms on ideological grounds.

Occam’s Razor

One principle of note in regards to the scientific method is Occam’s Razor (alternately spelled Ockham's Razor), which is named after the 14th century English logician and Franciscan friar William of Ockham. Occam did not create the concept - the work of Thomas Aquinas and even Aristotle referred to some form of it. The name was first attributed to him (to our knowledge) in the 1800s, indicating that he must have espoused the philosophy enough that his name became associated with it.

The Razor is often stated in Latin as:

entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem

or, translated to English:

entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity

Occam's Razor indicates that the most simple explanation that fits the available data is the one which is preferable. Assuming that two hypotheses are presented have equal predictive power, the one which makes the fewest assumptions and hypothetical entities takes precedence. This appeal to simplicity has been adopted by most of science, and is invoked in this popular quote by Albert Einstein:

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

It is significant to note that Occam's Razor does not prove that the simpler hypothesis is, indeed, the true explanation of how nature behaves. Scientific principles should be as simple as possible, but that's no proof that nature itself is simple.

However, it is generally the case that when a more complex system is at work there is some element of the evidence which doesn't fit the simpler hypothesis, so Occam's Razor is rarely wrong as it deals only with hypotheses of purely equal predictive power. The predictive power is more important than the simplicity.

Edited by Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D.