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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman


    Evolution and the Word “Theory”

    The theory of evolution is arguably the most misunderstood theory in all of science. In a recent poll conducted by USA Today, it was found that almost half of Americans (47%) believe that evolution is either definitely or probably not true. But almost all scientists (95%) believe the theory to be either definitely or most likely true.

    The poll reveals two things: nearly half of Americans doubt evolution, and there is a significant difference in belief between the general public and the scientific community. Being that evolution is a scientific theory, why would so many nonscientists doubt the beliefs of scientists? An underlying reason is unreason — misconceptions.

    One of the greatest misconceptions about evolution is embedded in the misuse of the word “theory” in its application to science. The common antecedents that result in this misuse of the word are manifested in either genuine ignorance, or disguised ignorance. People are either genuinely mistaken of the word’s intent, or they are well aware of the word’s scientific definition, but still use the nonscientific definition in an effort to spawn doubt.

    The word “theory,” when used in everyday language, can be defined as a general assumption that is formed by speculation — for example, “I have a theory on why those girls keep looking at us so oddly.” The word “theory” when applied to science, however, can be defined as a myriad of facts evaluated in relation to one another, which are then used to explain phenomena — for example, the Atomic Theory or General Theory of Relativity.

    The difference in meaning is significant. The difference between the two can be deduced to validity, with the common definition being least valid, and the scientific definition being most valid. What makes science science is the application of the scientific method to cause and effect relationships. For explanations to be devised, the cause and effect relationship being experimented on must be observable, measurable and empirical. The everyday use of the word “theory” does not require these standards.

    Upon clarification of the scientific meaning of the word “theory,” there are many people who will, subsequently, reassess their opinions on evolution. But there will still remain those people who will continue to deliberately spread the misconception. These traffickers of misconceptions infiltrate the psyche of their targets with their half-truths with the intent to devalue the theory of evolution.

    In 2002, the administrators of the Cobb County School District in Georgia mandated that warning stickers be put on the biology textbooks used by the school district.

    The warning stickers read, “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material must be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.”

    The problem with this sticker is conspicuous — the administrators were implying that evolution is a sham. They flat-out said that evolution is “not a fact” and “is only a theory.” Out of all the content composing the text, they chose only evolution to be “critically considered.” Why not the cell theory or other theories? The reason they tagged evolution by its lonesome is because the administrators were supporters of intelligent design. They didn’t want students to approach evolution with an “open mind” as they said.

    The administrators were aware that by using the stickers, the students would generate false impressions about evolution. The children would obviously be affected, wondering why someone would put the stickers on in the first place.

    Well, the U.S. Supreme Court was also aware of the false impressions the stickers would generate. The court ruled that they were in violation of the First Amendment, and the stickers were removed. On Election Day, after the court had made its decision, all of the administrators were voted out of office.

    A fair portion of the nearly half of Americans who doubt evolution vindicate their skepticism of evolution based upon this, and other, propagated misconceptions. Evolution, because it’s a theory, is a higher form of knowledge than a fact. Virtually all biologists will agree that evolution is the glue that holds all of biology together. Theodosius Dobzhansky, the late distinguished evolutionary biologist, once said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

    Evolution is by no means only a theory.

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