googlef87758e9b6df9bec.html A Sure Word: Evolution is “just” a theory after all

Friday, December 9, 2016

Evolution is “just” a theory after all

Creationists sometimes criticize evolution by describing it as “just a theory.” In other words, it's a “theory” not a “fact” or a “law.” In response to that criticism, Scientific American said the following:

Many people learned in elementary school that a theory falls in the middle of a hierarchy of certainty--above a mere hypothesis but below a law. Scientists do not use the terms that way, however. According to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), a scientific theory is "a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses." No amount of validation changes a theory into a law, which is a descriptive generalization about nature. So when scientists talk about the theory of evolution--or the atomic theory or the theory of relativity, for that matter--they are not expressing reservations about its truth.

Now, it's typical for people in different lines of work to have industry specific terms or even specialized meanings for common words. It's called “jargon.” The word, “load,” for example, might mean something different to a truck driver than an engineer. It's always been a pet peeve of mine, wherever I've worked, to hear my employees use jargon when talking to customers. I would always have to remind them not to use terms like LTV, DI, or DDA when talking to customers. It's fine that people use jargon, but when you're communicating with the public, you need to use terms the public understands.

Scientists have a special meaning for the term, “theory.” I get it. Even so, I think evolutionists need to be a little more gracious when attempting to “educate” non-scientists in the scientific meaning of the term. I think their snobbery is unjustified in at least two ways: 1) Scientists are also a little casual in how they use the word and 2) the meaning intended by a lay person is not entirely incorrect. I'll expand on both of these points.

If the word theory is supposed to mean a “well-substantiated explanation” of some phenomenon, why do evolutionists habitually use the word “theory” when talking about abiogenesis? We have never observed life rising from non-living matter in nature; neither have we been able to artificially create life from non-living chemicals. There is no “well-substantiated explanation” of how it happened so there can be no theory of abiogenesis. All they have are guesses – wild guesses – about how it might have happened but none of the guesses have actually produced a living thing. Still, they call them “theories” about the origin of life. Why do they do that? It could be that they are trying to minimize the embarrassment of having no natural explanation for the origin of life by assigning to their guesses the “scientific” term, theory. It could be that they're really not as hyper-sensitive about the word as they pretend to be with critics and just use the technical definition of the word as a red herring to derail the debate. Either way, when they are so loosey-goosey with the term themselves, they lose credibility when they harp on how non-scientists use the word.

The other thing, though, is that, even according to the scientific definition, the “theory” is still just an explanation of something. It may be “well-tested.” It may seem to explain the thing well. But at the end of the day, the scientific meaning of the word isn't terribly different than how the non-scientist means it. They both mean explanations.

Let me give you an analogy: I can open a carton of eggs and see there are a dozen. That's an objective fact. But why are there a dozen eggs? In other words, why do they sell eggs in dozens rather than, say, in tens? If I had to inventory eggs, it's easier to count by tens than by twelves. If I had to guess, I would say it's because there are more ways to divide dozens than tens. If a farmer ships eggs to multiple families or a family is feeding several members, how many ways the eggs can be divided evenly is important because it reduces left overs. This could be my hypothesis and I could test it by questioning farmers or doing historical research into the practice. Maybe my hypothesis will be confirmed or maybe not. Regardless, why there are a dozen eggs will never be an objective fact in the same sense as there are a dozen eggs. Do you see? No matter how confident we may be with the theory, it will never be held in the same regard as the fact.

I've said before that calling evolution, “just a theory” is a weak criticism. I didn't mean, however, that it's wrong to say it. I think it's weak in the sense that it doesn't really address any particular weakness in the theory. It's sort of like saying, “evolution is stupid.” I think it is stupid but if I want to convince someone about why it's stupid, I'd better have something a little more substantial. On the other hand, evolution is not correct simply because evolutionists use the word, “theory” to describe it. When a critic expresses his doubts by describing evolution as “just a theory,” it means he's questioning the explanation. Scolding him about the technical meaning of the term, theory, doesn't really help the evolutionist. Let's face it, no matter how much smugness... er, I mean confidence evolutionists have, it really is just a theory after all!

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