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Posted by on Feb 14, 2014 in Evolution, Science | 5 comments

Evolution is a Fact and a Theory

Over at Debunking Christianity, John Loftus, has proposed something interesting. He suggests that we stop using the word “theory” when it comes to evolution. I’m going to try and explain his argument and why I don’t think that this is a good idea.

First John asks this question:

Let me ask just one question: When do scientists stop using the word “theory” and say instead that a discovery is a fact? In my previous post I quoted Richard Dawkins who said “evolution is a fact.”

Yes, that is true. Evolution is a fact. It happens. It is observed to happen daily. The principles that form the basis of evolution (mutation, descent with modification, etc) are observed on a daily basis in labs and the wild all over the world. Evolution is a fact. It exists. It happens.

Evolution is also a theory. The theory of evolution goes beyond mere facts to the processes, mechanisms, and predictable results of evolution on a population of organisms. In this usage, evolution is a unifying concept that explains how populations evolve, that is, change over time. This theory of evolution is constantly changing from Darwin’s first ideas to the NeoDarwinian Synthesis to evodevo. The facts don’t change, but the theory does. Each time, it gets more precise and more effective at dealing with edge cases.

John goes on

I call on them to use language commensurate with what they say (I don’t know whether or not Dawkins and Coyne do this). But they should. I think it is agreed that scientists in general do not know how to communicate to the lay believing public (Dawkins and Coyne are usually the exceptions). Because of this miscommunication the lay believing public gets a different perspective than what scientists think.

I would agree with this too… well, the second bit. I do think that most scientists are busy doing science instead of attempting to communicate with the lay public. In the same way, people in my profession go about their work day-in, day-out not communicating with the lay public. And, if anything, my industry has a worse reputation than science.

But I fundamentally disagree with John’s first statement here. I do think that scientists use the right language. After all, they invented the language as it is used in science. The problem is that scientists on new shows, blogs, even books, slip and use the wrong language. They use ‘theory’ when they actually mean hypothesis.  That is a problem.

John says that language matters and I agree with him. The word theory has a particular definition in casual use and a very different definition in technical use. I would liken this to something like the word ‘drag’. Go to almost any conference and start talking about drag and people will think one thing. It will probably be ‘boring’. But if you go to an aeronautics conference and talk about ‘drag’. People start whipping out calculators and talking about vectors and coefficients and such. Same word, but very different meaning in casual v. technical environments.

This is a huge problem. Creationists often use this casual v. technical definition issue to cause confusion and misconceptions about science. I’ve seen it in other denialist groups too. The word “trick” for example.

So, I mostly agree with what John is saying. I disagree with the solution though. He proposes a renaming of evolution theory to evolutionary paradigm or research program.

These suggestions (paradigm and research program) do not mean the same thing as theory does. And this is the key to my objection.

scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on knowledge that has been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experimentation.[1][2] Scientists create scientific theories from hypotheses that have been corroborated through the scientific method, then gather evidence to test their accuracy. As with all forms of scientific knowledge, scientific theories are inductive in nature—that is, they seek to supply strong evidence for but not absolute proof of the truth of the conclusion—and they aim for predictive and explanatory force.

This from Wikipedia and I have no argument against it. But the words “paradigm” and “research program” do not mean that. They have other meanings. In the comments, John suggests that we change the meanings of those words to fit better. But hen we have the whole issue of who is using/teaching old definitions vs. new definitions. Instead of just using one word correctly, now we have to pick a different word and change its definition… to mean what ‘theory’ means now.

Yes, there are communication issues. But there is also a major issue of a specific group of people who are purposefully misusing words in order to promote confusion. Changing a word to another word that means the same thing won’t help that. It will still be purposefully misused. Confusion will still be promoted. And creationists, who delight in semantic arguments, will claim that evolutionists (whatever those are) are trying to mask the problems with evolution with semantic arguments.

The solution here isn’t with changing a word. The best solution is education. Part of it needs to be to scientists. To make sure that they are using the correct terminology appropriately and education in reaching out to the lay public.

But the bigger solution is in educating children. By the time high school begins, they should have a solid grasp of ‘hypothesis’, ‘theory’, and ‘evolution’ for that matter. The goal is to have every public school student cringe when they watch CSI and the lead cop says, “I have a theory about who committed the murder.”

To answer John’s question, there is NO point when people should stop calling it “evolutionary theory” and switch to “evolutionary facts”. They are two very different things and are used for different purposes.

In my experience, there are few creationists who doubt the facts of evolution. Oh, there are some, but not as many as there used to be. What they doubt is the theory that says, in part, that all organisms had a common ancestor several billion years ago. That part is not a fact (there could easily have been several ‘original’ living things). But it is a prediction made by evolutionary theory and that prediction has a lot of evidential support.

The fact that one of the most hated theories in human history has survived as long as it has is a testament to the ability of the theory to explain life.

While I don’t think John’s solution is the best, I would like to know what others think.

 

  • im-skeptical

    I agree with you. The term ‘scientific theory’ has a specific meaning, but it is used in an equivocal manner by people who believe that they are in possession of absolute truth. If more people are educated in scientific principles, perhaps there will be fewer who lay claim to that absolute truth.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Pieret/100000023960330 John Pieret

    Anyone who thinks that a “simple” change in terminology will somehow stymie creationist misrepresentations has not observed creationists very much. I can anticipate a typical creationist response:

    “Look how these atheist scientists are trying to pull the wool over your eyes! For 150 years they admitted that evolution was only a theory. Now that we have been pointing that out, they try to label it with some fancy-smansy terms like “paradigm” and “research program” to try to fool you. This is proof-positive you can’t trust these atheist scientists.”

    You shouldn’t underestimate low cunning.

  • Doc Bill

    You could call theory Shirley and it wouldn’t make a difference to creationists. It’s not that they don’t understand, it’s that they don’t want to understand, like our buddy Rex here. (Hey, Rexy, where you at?)

    Overwhelmingly, creationists are incapable of coming up with something new or original in their objections to science in general and evolution in particular. Notable exceptions are the denizens of the Disco Tute who, as propagandists, work very hard to come up with new angles and attacks. By now we know them all: why are there still monkeys, second law, only a theory, no proof, lack of transitional fossils, no crockaducks, etc

    For the most part you can just ignore creationists, but they can become pesky when voted to a school board position or downright dangerous as a state governor or congress critter. Educated, but apathetic, voters are their own worst enemy for allowing these nutters to get voted in and until that changes we’ll keep fighting these useless battles.

  • Paul Burnett

    I use “Evolution is both an observed fact, and the theoretical explanation for how the fact happened.”

    But creationists will twist and lie about whatever we come up with.

  • Void L. Walker

    Honestly, I also disagree with Loftus. The assumption he seems to hold to is that simply changing around terminology will suddenly lend credence to evolution in creationists eyes. This is flatly wrong. They will deny it no matter what we call it.