It’s Just A Theory
In my post on Ann Coulter’s understanding of evolutionary theory one response in comments came up that is quite frequent.
It’s just a theory.
Many people who are ill-disposed towards evolutionary theory and look at least somewhat favorably on the Creationists arguments often use the above statement or some variant on it. One common variant is, “It is just a theory not proven fact.”
Both positions are true in fact the first is a truism. It is about as helpful as saying, “A rock is a rock,” or “A car is a car.” If you are thinking “No sh*t,” you aren’t alone. Heck, even after the word evolutionary comes the word theory so we could reduce the first comment down to, “A theory is just a theory.” While trivially true, it is also a trivial point. If anybody thinks this is an argument against evolutionary theory or any theory in general then I have bad news for these people, their understanding of science and the scientific method is absolutely and truly pathetic.
The second one isn’t quite so bad. However, noting that a theory is not proven fact is akin to making the claim, “Water is wet, grass is green, and fire is hot.” The problem again is a horrendous misunderstanding of science. Science does not view any theory as a fact. None. The theory of gravity is just that, a theory not proven fact. The theory of quantum mechanics is just that, a theory not proven fact. The theory of the plate tectonics is just that, a theory not proven fact. The Valence Bond Theory is just that, a theory. If this criticism of evolutionary theory is valid and evolutionary theory is not to be taught in class rooms then neither should physics, chemistry or geology be taught in public school class rooms either. We shouldn’t teach even the basics of meteorology since that is based on theory too and not proven fact.
Theories are not proven, nor are they facts. Theories are not guesses or hunches as is the usage by most people in everyday contexts. A theory is a set of ideas the explain a set of natural phenomena. For example, the theory of gravity is an explanation for why an apple falls to the ground when somebody lets go of it. The apple falling to the ground is the fact, and we use this fact to help verify the theory in question. Theories also generate hypotheses that are predictions about either the future or the past (more specifically something in the past that was previously unobserved). No theory is ever TrueTm, but is always viewed as conditionally true. That is, if evidence comes along and discredits a theory, and confirms an alternate theory then we may switch to the alternate theory as being the best (conditional) explanation for the observed phenomena.
Both of these kinds of responses are the responses from those who are scientifically ignorant. That is the kindest way I can think to put it. If you don’t like evolutionary theory, fine, but please do not use this kind of argument.