Whenever people are arguing a controversial topic related to science, someone will invariably bring up the word “theory”. This word is highly misused, so let me give you a couple definitions you need to know:
Theory – An explanation for an observed phenomenon. This explanation may resort to theories, mathematics, or other observed phenomenon.
Scientific Law – A constantly observable phenomenon.
A common example of the latter is Newton’s first law: An object in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted upon by a force. Laws are repeatable (which I phrased as “constantly” in the above definition), meaning that, under the same conditions (or usually similar conditions but NOT always), the exact same results can be expected. Taking Newton’s first law as an example: If you roll a ball on the ground, it keeps rolling until friction from the air and ground stop it or it runs into something.
Occasionally, someone will say “theory” when they meant “law” and vice versa.
Gravity, believe it or not, is mistaken quite often. People say something is as widely accepted as the “theory of gravity”.
1) There is not single “theory of gravity”. There are many theories about how gravity works. One theory, for example, uses gravitons (some kind of small particle, which I imagine might be related in some way to the Higgs Boson).
2) The “widely accepted” idea behind gravity is actually a scientific law. It is an observable phenomenon that remains constant under certain conditions. You can test the law for yourself by throwing a ball in the air and watching it fall to the ground. What you just observed is called gravity. Nevermind the theories – gravity, at least from a scientific standpoint, does not need to be proven (that said, it can’t be).
As I mentioned before, misuse of the word “theory” comes up in controversial topics related to science. I say “related to science” because, as I will address here in a moment, none of topics are actually scientific.
One such topic is evolution.
… There is no theory of evolution.
There are HUNDREDS if not thousands of theories of evolution, some of them having to do with the economy, some computer science, etc. What people are usually referring to is the concept of creatures evolving from a common ancestor. Again, we must distinguish between theories:
a) Theories of micro-evolution attempt to explain evolution of creatures from a single creature of the same or similar species. For example: Dogs can breed to get other dogs, but the result is still a dog. These theories usually attribute changes to observed effects of genetics and environmental conditioning.
b) Theories of macro-evolution attempt to explain evolution of ALL living beings from a single, common ancestor – a single species as it were. Once again, there is no SINGLE theory of macro-evolution. In fact, given the scientific research I’ve read, there is no single overarching theory that encompasses all the rest or gives us a step-by-step view of how everything was formed.
All this to say “[macro]-evolution” is not a “scientific law” as some people are fond of saying. It is a general idea for how all of the creatures came about, and it’s a perfectly legitimate place to begin. Alas, this comes into conflict.
Conflicts of Worldviews
Anyone labelled “stout” (usually followed but “Republican” or “Democrat”) is someone who is firm in their beliefs that a particular point of view is correct. There is nothing wrong with being stout if you have the reasons for being so. However, in most cases, people simply believe what they are told and hold firm to notions they don’t understand. This is a problem, not just in the scientific community, but in the whole world, and the result is that people try to formulate rhetoric to support their worldview. It is this very reason that has caused a confusion in the terms “scientific law” and “theory” and, in addition, has caused many people to psychologically package things in a manner that creates an all-or-nothing choice, a false dichotomy in most cases. Furthermore, rhetoricians take advantage of this packaging – and thus we get things like “theory” of “evolution” to hide the fact that there isn’t any one theory to begin with.
This all leads off on a related tangent to another heavily misused word: “science”.
Yet another definition
Science – The study of observable phenomenon.
Every form of human observation can be a science, but for this article, I refer to it by its most frequently-understood definition, which is that is study that analyzes observable phenomenon in a methodical manner – “methodical” meaning that methods are used, such as keeping some conditions constant while varying others in order to make possible the observation and identification of patterns in the results.
The science of micro-evolution is a “science” – it can be observed. On the other hand, neither the “science” of macro-evolution (usually called “evolution science”) nor “Creation science” (similar to “Intelligent Design”) are science. Both of the latter are actually views of history that originate based on the worldviews of those who hold them.
Think about it. Was anyone actually there to observe the creation of the Earth? Unless you believe in God, the answer is “No”. However, both ideas address how the Earth was formed. That happens to be a topic of history, not science. The fact that people resort to scientific laws and theories to support those views does not make it science, it just makes it more reasonable (assuming the laws haven’t changed since the earth was formed).
Why is it history and not science? – Because it’s the past and not observable any more. A repetition will not prove that something happened in that way. I may be able to roll a die and get the number 6 but that does not mean that the person preceding me also must have rolled a six, despite the equal probability of having done so. Thus, it cannot be said macro-evolution of a single species resulting in all the creatures we have today, even if macro-evolution is entirely possible. Similarly, one cannot say that God created the universe in six days just because He may be perfectly capable of doing it now.
Another note on why “Creation science” isn’t”science”: It says everything was created. That, in itself, is not a constantly observable phenomenon. I can’t set up a scenario with all of the same conditions as at the beginning of the universe (if that were even possible) and observe God step in and make something. He has to choose to do so. If He did every time (assuming He exists), it would be a science according to the definition I said I was using for this post.
Since I’ve stepped so deeply into the evolutionism-Creationism topic, I might as well answer the last question:
What do we teach the kids?
Out of our desire for truth, we want everyone to know the truth. Thus, it upsets people when they think others are spreading the wrong idea. This is true for a plethora of things, not just what I’m going to talk about. However, the problem arises controversial issues as to what to teach people. Some people think both sides should be taught, while others think that only what is “accepted” should be taught.
I got news for ya: While the media hails the “Higgs Boson” as being found and many scientists believe it, I’m out of that party. It’ll take alot more than 5 standard deviations from static to confirm the existence of that particle in my book.
Before you go on dismissing me as a whack, first know this: I’m quite willing to admit to being wrong on this. I have little idea what the charts and graphs and whatnot being shown in the press actually meant, so my doubt is (almost) out of pure skepticism (I do have one or two ideas as to what caused the deviations).
What I do know are the differences between history, science, philosophy and rhetoric. I can tell you that both “evolutionary science” and “Creation science” are philosophies that SHOULD be taught in HISTORY class or a WORLDVIEW class. The debate should be about whether to teach those ideas in one of those classes, not in a class for biology or one of the sciences. The primary reason these ideas are discussed in science classes is because of the overlap of those ideas with both science and history. I assume you’re already aware of the overlap.
The conclusion is that both ideas should be treated as elements of worldviews.
When a student asks, “How did the world begin?” The answer in science class can be either “If you believe [X], this is the idea people hold” or “You’ll learn about it in history.”
All in all, people misuse terminology all the time. While everyone may have a general idea of what they mean, it is incredibly important to use terminology correctly. Using correct terminology helps prevent people from contriving false arguments for purposes of persuation (Their technique is called “rhetoric”).
With respect to the evolutionism-Creationism debate: I’m not interested in raving comments about why idea X “should be taught in science class because it’s the truth” (because usually those stupid remarks aren’t even accompanied by the supposed reason, which is why they’re annoying). It’s not science.