Friday, December 29, 2006

The Failure of the "Just a Theory" Claim

With the legal death of Intelligent Design as a result of the Kitzmiller v. Dover School Board ruling, the current trend within Creationist circles is to “teach the controversy” surrounding evolution. Creationist organizations such as the Discovery Institute in Seattle, Washington are currently trying to convince school boards to place stickers in biology textbooks with a disclaimer saying the theory of evolution is “just a theory” and there is not a universal agreement on the theory within the scientific community. For the first part, that’s kind of redundant. Secondly, evolution is one of the most agreed upon theories in science. Not all scientists agree on the exact mechanisms of how evolution works, but that’s science in action. It fosters debate with goal of gaining knowledge, unlike religion, which seeks to stifle all debate. The only “scientists” that fully reject evolution usually work at places like the Discovery Institute and take part in no actual peer-reviewed research.

Next, one needs to look at what exactly constitutes a theory. Perhaps Creationists don’t know what “theory” means in scientific terms. However, I doubt this, and it seems more likely that organizations such as the Discovery Institute want to exploit the public’s misunderstanding of science for their own purposes. The word “theory” has significantly different meanings between its uses in science and common English. In English, a theory is nothing more than a guess. This fits closer to the scientific term hypothesis. In science, a theory is an explanation for natural phenomena that is supported by a large amount of empirical evidence. Furthermore, theories can never be proven right, but they can be falsified. However, no evidence has come to light proving evolution to be false. Scientists have certainly tried, but any hypotheses against evolution have quickly been ruled out. Furthermore, the evidence for evolution continues to grow. The fossil record supports it. Genetics supports it. Advances and discoveries in modern medicine support it (the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, for example). I could continue, but the fact remains that it would take a monumental discovery to debunk evolution. Just to give you an idea of the type of find it would take, British scientist J.B.S. Haldane famously said it would take “fossil rabbits in the Precambrian” to falsify the theory of evolution.

Now, if schools have to put stickers in biology books saying “evolution is just a theory,” then those same schools had better put stickers in physics books saying “gravity is just a theory,” too. Like evolution, the theory of gravity describes an observed, natural phenomena. However, scientists have no idea what actually causes gravity. A great number of hypotheses exist, but no evidence has been found to support any of them. In some ways, evolution is better understood than gravity because we know the mechanisms behind it.

As for Intelligent Design, it is not a theory at all. It breaks the cardinal rule that all scientific theories must adhere to: it cannot be falsified. We cannot observe the supernatural “Intelligent Designer,” therefore, it is impossible to prove or disprove its existence, which makes Intelligent Design (and its parent, Creationism) outside the realm of science and reason.

The next time someone tells you “evolution is just a theory,” please educate them and tell them: “At least it deserves the status of theory, unlike Intelligent Design or Creationism, which do not even adhere to the conventions of science.”

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