I just read a depressing article on LiveScience.com by Robert Roy Britt, discussing the limitations and flaws inherent in most public surveys about "belief" in evolution. I have to use quotation marks there, because "belief" is absolutely irrelevant. The proper term should be acceptance, as in "Do you accept the evidence of biological evolution, or are you sufficiently ignorant and narcissistic to reject an entire branch of science even though you don't have an advanced degree in the topic?"

Britt's article laments the imprecise ways that public surveys about evolution acceptance are worded, and goes on to suggest different approaches that pollsters could take to improve the quality and reliability of their results. All of which is fine, but it misses the point. Here is the point: we should stop using the word theory.

The first comment in response to Britt's article was from someone who pointed out correctly that evolution isn't a theory, it is a fact. That comment managed to squeak by only a half hour before the inevitable voice of ignorance weighed in, in the form of a comment that evolution isn't yet a fact, it's still a theory. That commenter did not mean theory in the "capital T" sense that I and every other scientist uses the word, to indicate a physical model of how something works that has been tested and verified laboriously over years, and which is now accepted generally as an explanation for how something works. The commenter used theory in the sense that non-scientists use it: a hastily concocted, half-baked idea that someone dreamed up on the spur of the moment and didn't bother checking. Just to make sure they had all their stereotypical bases covered, the commenter then compared evolution and theism as equivalent theories that are beyond the scope of mere mortals to understand. We've all seen such comments, worded differently but always positing smugly that because scientists can't prove anything, they - and by extension, no one - can know anything with certainty. To such people I offer an invitation to jump off a fifty-story building, because the vague and untrustworthy fool's pursuit of science cannot know with absolute certainty that, upon impact fifty stories below, their bodies would necessarily be shattered into lifeless, pulpy bits. I mean, death by falling is only a theory.

Enough of this idiocy. We need to ban the word theory from science, once and for all. Laymen can be told over and over that what scientists and non-scientists mean by the word are two different things, but obviously such efforts are a waste of time and breath. As long as we refer to the Theory of Evolution, most people out there will hear Unverified Hunch of Evolution. Perhaps it's time for scientists to, as they say, grow a pair and start using Fact of Evolution, or if that's too harshly honest, perhaps Principle of Evolution. But we really do need to come up with something, quickly, because theory isn't doing us any favors.

Biological evolution is a fact. It happened, happens, and will continue to happen for as long as life forms exist. Evolution is the subtle, magnificent, and absolutely unshepherded process through which all life on Earth developed, including the human species. If you (specifically you, as you read this) reject that idea, I suggest respectfully that you grow up and get over yourself.

Using a word that normal people regard as hopelessly ambivalent and shaky only hampers efforts to improve the public understanding of science. Scientists like to remind people that we use the term Theory of Gravity to describe the monumentally well-documented and self-evident fact of gravitation, but doesn't Law of Gravity have equivalent cache in popular culture? Why is it acceptable to use terms such as Newton's Laws of Motion or Inflationary Model when discussing astronomy, but when biology rears its head we have to retreat to the simpering and spineless Theory of Evolution? Do we want ignorant louts to push us back to the 12th century?

It's time to toss theory into the historical dustbin, alongside phlogiston, luminiferous aether, dropsy, and other antiquities. The term weakens our point, and gives purchase to the agents of stupidity. The war of ideas fought by education and science against creationist Luddism is to the death, and in the end there can be only one winner. We'd best not forget that.

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Comment by Planetologist on February 4, 2009 at 9:30pm
I don't have kids, so I can't comment with experience... but I've wondered about whether it might be best for freethinkers to make the best of the system in place now, where home schooling is an option. We have that system now because of squeaky-wheel fundamentalists, but maybe it would be a great way of opting kids out of the institutionalized mind-numbing system of public schooling in the US.

I just wish there were a network of secularist/humanist private schools to turn to. I have some close friends who are Quakers, and they come close to an ethic I'd want my own kids to learn, if I had kids... although I think violence is sometimes a necessary defensive tool to slap down bullies, hard, so they shut up and back off. The Quakers - though I love my Quaker friends dearly - have bad ideas in that regard, at least in my opinion. But that's another discussion, for another day. Maybe I'm just too used to the emotional attitude of my cats.
Comment by Talibangelist on February 4, 2009 at 7:56am
I pulled my daughter out of public school because of that and my son is coming out as soon as he finishes elementary school. In fact there is a group on here about that I think. We're in Florida, and my kids found out in public school that they were going to hell because they don't believe in Jesus. I sure as hell didn't tell them that. So between that shit being thrust upon them, albeit not officially by the school system, and the fact that they teach kids how to pass a Bush induced standardized test, not taught overall, we are removing them from the system. Homeschooling is kicking her ass too, but she is soooo much smarter for it. Her grades aren't as good but we aren't just giving them to her, she gets to keep what she earns. She knows the difference between theory and hypothesis, not just regurgitatively, but because we beat it into her. Thats what is missing, is the reinforcement of fundamental concept.
Comment by Michael Howard on February 3, 2009 at 7:16pm
Having three children in the public school system in California I can tell you it is not only the teaching of evolution that is brushed over. Most science history and math are woefully lacking. Thank you W and your "no child left behind" program. My children are taught nothing but rote memorization of the most basic facts. I would have them in private school if there was one within 50 miles that wasn't a religious institution. While I agree you Planetologist on a need for the dismissal of the term Theory I doubt very much that it would have the desired effect. Credulity is rampant these days.
Comment by Moonbeam on February 3, 2009 at 7:01pm
The theory is not that evolution happens, but that natural selection is the most likely mechanism for why animals and plants are they way they are, rather than some alternative mechanism such as Lamarckian.

This is how I would put it, if talking to somebody who really didn't understand: Evolution means genetic change over time. This is an easily demonstrable fact; there are many examples of genetic change even over short periods of time, like fruit flies under laboratory conditions, and much more so of course over millions of years. Therefore, the fact that evolution exists cannot be denied any more than the fact that gravity exists or that the earth is round. The most widely accepted theory of how that change resulted in the organisms that live now is natural selection. Two different things: fact of evolution, theory of how it produced the various organisms.

(If you're talking to a creationist, at that point they'll get into "micro" and "macro" evolution, which means that it's hopeless, because they have their mind closed to reason and this is what they've been told to think. But people who really don't know and aren't beyond hopeless may begin to understand a little bit more.)

It is unfortunate that "theory" is used differently (incorrectly) in common speech than science. "Belief" is problematic too, being used in some circumstances to mean "faith" and in others to mean "opinion based on evidence". That's worse than using "theory", in a way, because it makes it seem like faith-beliefs are equivalent to opinion based on evidence-beliefs. You're right that until the dimwits who make the polls start asking the questions differently, it's completely biasing things.
Comment by Planetologist on February 3, 2009 at 6:47pm
Agreed. It's unfortunate that the K-12 system doesn't allow more time for evolution. Not necessarily to divest students of ill-gotten preconceptions, but because understanding how evolutionary mechanics work is very useful. I teach a college evolution course, with a geology emphasis, so I use this approach to begin the semester: Evolutionary dynamics work in economies, too. The dot.com bubble was an example of adaptive radiation into a new niche - the Internet. But only a few "species" of corporations would survive... the ones adaptive and lucky enough to succeed. When the bubble burst, a mass extinction happened. Companies who were in the right place, at the right time, with no real competitors... they won, bigtime. Thus we have Amazon.com today. Evolution is just a fancy way of saying that not everyone has the same talents, and when real life smacks you in the face some talents will save your life. It's easy to understand, once you pry away all the jargon.
Comment by PhoenixFlash on February 3, 2009 at 5:23pm
As a high school biology teacher, I teach the difference between a hypothesis and theory - but it doesn't matter. The misconception of the definintion of theory is too ingrained in them over years of non-technical use. They can get the answer correct on a test when I ask the difference between the two, but they simply cannot or will not internalize the meaning. They "forget". I like the idea of the "Principal of Evolution". It could save me a lot of grief and a lot of time.

Also, please be aware if you are not already, that in a beginning 9th grade biology course, which is a survey course, I have all of 3 weeks to teach evolution. Not much time to actually encourage critical thinking I'm afraid. I incorporate evolution as much as I can throughout the year but it pretty much goes right over their head. 3 weeks is simply not enough time to deal with the misconceptions and deceptions that they bring into the classroom from their church, parents or media.

At least once a year a kid will blurt out the, "do you believe in evolution?" question. My response is to tell them belief has nothing to do with it. I then explain that it is not about "believing", but its about analyzing evidence and choosing to accept or reject that evidence as scientifically valid.

Considering all a student gets in high school is 3 weeks on evolution, and still many, many people do not go to college, I think its easy to surmise why we are in the current state of affairs that we are.
Comment by Tao Jones on February 3, 2009 at 4:24pm
Unfortunately, asking about the acceptance of evolution isn't going to make a difference since the wordsmiths of Christendom have already preempted us by asking people if they accept Jesus Christ as their personal saviour. Rather than lower our own standards (and precision) to their level, I'd rather continue trying to help the public understand the difference. Maybe we all need to stop using the word theory in a colloquial sense?
Comment by Planetologist on February 3, 2009 at 12:48pm
I try to make exactly that point, as often as possible, to my students. I never know if it sinks in or not. Most are surprised to learn that the popular definition of "theory" is almost exactly the technical definition of a hypothesis.
Comment by j on February 3, 2009 at 12:46pm
Bible thumpers only understand "Context" when it suits them... They lie about theory having a common definition AND a scientific definition.

...The goal of Apologists is to keep their fellow Christians in church...

But, we're talking about Theory. Liars for Christ will twist any new word that is come up with... They have to, because their god of deception told them to save everyone through any means necessary.
Comment by Adam Johnson on February 3, 2009 at 12:39pm
The reason evolution is still described as a theory is because it cannot be expressed in a mathematical equation. That is what gets something labeled 'law'.

Now the issue is that people confuse the words theory and hypothesis. A theory is something with substantial scientific evidence and can be repeated or seen repeat. A hypothesis is an idea of how the world works which is to be tested.

Because nothing evolves exactly the same we can't develop a mathematical formula for it. If teachers did their jobs people would understand the difference and be more accepting of evolution.


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