Evolution? It’s only a theory.

28 08 2011

A teacher friend of mine asked me the other day “why is evolution just a theory?”. I asked her what she thought the word “theory” meant. She replied, “one possible answer amongst many”.

My initial reaction was one of disbelief. How could someone get a degree, qualify as a teacher (albeit not a science teacher) and not realise that evolution isn’t just a theory? But since that conversation I’ve asked other friends and lots of them are confused about what we mean as scientists and science communicators by the word theory.

And if so many people are confused by our use of the word isn’t it time that we stopped using it? After all, it doesn’t matter how much concrete evidence you put in front of someone to illustrate your theory, if that person thinks that because you are calling it a theory then you are not sure of what you are saying, then all your efforts are undermined.

This is a wonderful video where Miss USA contestants are practicing their answers to difficult questions. You don’t have to watch all of it. It will start at 13mins and you just need to watch for one minute. Stop the video after the third contestant, Miss Washington:

It would be easy to scoff and there are some hilarious answers in the film (see below) but these three women sum up our problem perfectly. Whilst scientists know that if something is called a theory it means we are very certain of it, most lay people think that if something is a theory then it is not something we can be sure of.

Miss Vermont knows how important the theory of evolution is and she gets it spot on, “it is important to have scientific facts about the world and we do know that evolution exists” but Miss Virginia and Miss Washington have been confused by the word theory.

Miss Virginia says “it is a theory and we all need to know about different theories so we can figure out what we all want to believe is true”, she thinks like my teacher friend that theory means there must be other ideas as well. And Miss Washington says, “I believe facts not theories should be taught in schools”, she thinks theory means we aren’t certain.

And why shouldn’t these women be confused as the word theory does mean two totally different and conflicting things.

In everyday life it means: An assumption based on limited information or knowledge; a conjecture. But in science it means: A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena. [LINK]

So what is to be done? We’ve got two choices.

We could continue go against everyday common use of the word and try harder to explain that in science a theory isn’t something that is a hunch, a guess or competing with other ideas, it is well-substantiated, well-supported, well-documented explanation for our observations.

Or we could change the word we use to make it easier for non-scientists to understand what we are talking about.

What do you think we should do? My initial thoughts is that we should change. My job is to communicate science and if the public don’t understand what I am talking about then I haven’t communicated it very well.  Why would I want to make life harder for myself and my audiences by using terminology that so obviously confuses? Let me know what you’d suggest we do in the comments.

If you haven’t got time to watch the whole video here are some highlights:

Miss Kentucky “I honestly don’t think you can have too much knowledge about any subject but I do think that evolution shouldn’t be taught in schools” [5.00mins]

Miss California “I’m a huge science geek” [1.50mins]

Miss Louisiana “Oh God, that’s kind of a tough one…” [5.50mins]

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One response

11 07 2012
lucien

when i want to teach someone how to apprehend the word theory in the very field of science, i make an allegory with a crossword where each column and lines are different field of science, and when someone came up with a “theory” it is quiet similar to find a word that fits perfectly with the other words it is crossed with. I know this image as some limitation but it pretty gives a good idea of how the evolution theory fits perfectly with geology, biology, DNA, physics and so on..

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