Via Ed Brayton’s incredible blog, Dispatches  from the Culture Wars; an article from the North Carolina State University newspaper by Madison Murphy that highlights one of the most common mistakes made by people arguing against science.  Ed deals with the article very well, so for the full story, go read a real blog (his).   I just want to deal with one part.

My professor started talking about the Theory of Evolution as if it was a fact. This is a problem. Evolution is not a fact, it’s a theory.

Defined, a theory is “an unproven assumption.” Let’s treat it as such. I have no problem learning about evolution if it’s presented as what it is: unproven.

Oh, for fucks sake.  Really?  I hope before the semester is over you gain an understanding of what “theory” means in a scientific sense.  Here’s a hint:  Your definition is wrong.

This is by no means uncommon.  In fact, it is one of the first lines I hear every time I talk to an evolution denier.  “Evolution is only a theory.”  Madison, it sounds just as stupid coming from you.

So what is a “theory” in science?  Let’s call Wiki!

According to the United States National Academy of Sciences,

The formal scientific definition of theory is quite different from the everyday meaning of the word. It refers to a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence. Many scientific theories are so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter them substantially. For example, no new evidence will demonstrate that the Earth does not orbit around the sun (heliocentric theory), or that living things are not made of cells (cell theory), that matter is not composed of atoms, or that the surface of the Earth is not divided into solid plates that have moved over geological timescales (the theory of plate tectonics). One of the most useful properties of scientific theories is that they can be used to make predictions about natural events or phenomena that have not yet been observed.

I’m not done, this is a dead horse that needs beaten some more.  Calling TalkOrigins!

Calling the theory of evolution “only a theory” is, strictly speaking, true, but the idea it tries to convey is completely wrong. The argument rests on a confusion between what “theory” means in informal usage and in a scientific context. A theory, in the scientific sense, is “a coherent group of general propositions used as principles of explanation for a class of phenomena” [Random House American College Dictionary]. The term does not imply tentativeness or lack of certainty. Generally speaking, scientific theories differ from scientific laws only in that laws can be expressed more tersely. Being a theory implies self-consistency, agreement with observations, and usefulness. (Creationism fails to be a theory mainly because of the last point; it makes few or no specific claims about what we would expect to find, so it can’t be used for anything. When it does make falsifiable predictions, they prove to be false.)

(Bolding for emphasis by FD .)

Got that?  Everyone?  I know it doesn’t matter.  If you are an evolution denier, you will read this, ignore it, and the next time you talk about the subject you’ll once again be claiming that evolution is only a theory.  But it really does make you sound stupid.  It’s not a guess.  It is not “an unproven assumption.*”  You get a pass the first time you use this tired line.  After that, you are deliberately obfuscating the truth.

* If I was feeling less than charitable, I would have to question your motives, Ms. Murphy.  The only place I can find your definition of a theory listed is Websters, and then only as part of the sixth definition.  I’ll assume you found your definition elsewhere, because using the sixth definition of a word to make a point seems a bit underhanded, and I’m sure you had the purest of intentions.  Yep, I’m positive you didn’t search for the worst possible sounding definition to make an ideological point.

File this under Science doesn’t work that way.


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