Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Should we say "Theory"?

So I was trying to go to sleep this morning, with the soothing sounds of the laminate flooring installation process serenading me, its jigsaws and hammers harmonizing in ever ascending crescendos throughout. Fortunately, I can pass out effectively in front of a movie no matter the noise levels in the area.

Today's movie, which I saw 80% of and finished when I woke up, was Randy Olson's snarky documentary about the "Intelligent Design" movement. Check it out, if you're not familiar with the tomfoolery the creation "science" clowns have been up to since dropping that title. Long story short, they're trying to inject the supernatural into grade school science textbooks and curricula across the Western world, under false pretenses of fairness and actual science. I could go on about the horrors of this movement, the insidious evangelical funding agencies, the implications for education, etc etc, and I probably will some day in another post, but I'm not angry enough for that right now.

What I do want to talk about, is an interesting point that was raised by one of the eight evolutionary biology PhDs Mr.Olson talks about ID with over a lively poker game in the film. Said point is that since liars and crooks have gotten so much mileage out of the word "theory" as it pertains to evolution science we should stop using it. The proposal is that we simply stop calling it theory, and start calling it "fact" in order to prevent this misrepresentation and wrest science back from the kooks. While attractive on the surface, I believe this idea is both dangerous to the cause and fundamentally wrong aside from its impact.

Merrian-Webster defines "theory" in the following ways:

1 : the analysis of a set of facts in their relation to one another
2 : abstract thought : speculation
3 : the general or abstract principles of a body of fact, a science, or an art
4 a : a belief, policy, or procedure proposed or followed as the basis of action b : an ideal or hypothetical set of facts, principles, or circumstances —often used in the phrase in theory
5 : a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena
6 a : a hypothesis assumed for the sake of argument or investigation b : an unproved assumption : conjecture c : a body of theorems presenting a concise systematic view of a subject

All definitions considered, there's plenty of wiggle room there for both sides, enough so that one might consider it weak to anti-evolutionist arguments ending in "..just a theory". I don't believe this to be the case, because nobody's arguing that evolution fits under definition 6b, rather simply declaring that the application of the word renders the whole science shaky and unproven. In response to this, all you have to do is direct the confused party to the whole collection of definitions, at which point you're bounced back to looking at the evidence, which puts them in hot water.

Theory, in science and in education, is very often and very rightly used to describe bodies of knowledge which are flexible and subject to detailed change, but very real and applicable in general. Consider music theory, game theory, and the reference to every science class that doesn't take place in a lab as a "theory lesson". To change that for this one very specialized area could have disastrous effects, appearing as a defensive maneuver, legitimizing the representation of the science by creationists as "controversial", and throwing into question everything else referred to as theory.

Evolution science does not need to defend itself. Defense from the threat of evangelical creationist orgs undermining and destroying our educational system must be undertaken in the courts and in the public sphere, by society itself. Any action or change of course taken by the scientific community in response to their heinous actions other than pointing and laughing is a victory for their movement. Furthermore, the confusion around the word theory, as it has not arisen in any of the other similar uses (see: music, etc.), can only be assumed to be a result of direct inference by those who endeavor to create controversy and dissent. Therefore, the only appropriate solutions range from ignoring those people to intellectually condemning them.

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