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.