Creationist mistake #1A

In addition to the common misstatement that science believes that everything was created from nothing magically I’d have to say the the creationist mistake that bugs me the most is the insistence on the misuse of the term “theory”. While it is true that the word “theory” has come to be synonymous in common language with “conjecture” this is not the definition used by the scientific community. Allow me to clarify…

In common language you often hear “theory” used as a synonym for “guess” or “speculation”. “Do you know why your car broke down?” “No, but I have a theory.” This usage is just due to the inevitable evolution of language over time. Here are the definitions listed by WordNet:

  • (n) theory (a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world; an organized system of accepted knowledge that applies in a variety of circumstances to explain a specific set of phenomena) “theories can incorporate facts and laws and tested hypotheses”; “true in fact and theory”
  • (n) hypothesis, possibility, theory (a tentative insight into the natural world; a concept that is not yet verified but that if true would explain certain facts or phenomena) “a scientific hypothesis that survives experimental testing becomes a scientific theory”; “he proposed a fresh theory of alkalis that later was accepted in chemical practices”
  • (n) theory (a belief that can guide behavior) “the architect has a theory that more is less”; “they killed him on the theory that dead men tell no tales”

The definition used for theory by non-scientific people is the second one. The scientific community uses the first one. Notice that even WordNet screws it up by having their first example in the second definition confuse the issue. The third definition is neither here nor there in this issue. It’s simply a synonym for “style” or “best practices”. When discussing scientific matters it’s extremely important to understand the difference between “theory” and “hypothesis”. The two are very different from each other which is why there are two separate words. Notice that the second definition makes them synonyms.

I’ll write on this in more depth later, but here’s the shortest of primers on the scientific method.

  1. Form a hypothesis, a testable supposition regarding the causal relationship between two factors.
  2. Perform numerous tests designed to prove or disprove the hypothesis.
  3. If the hypothesis holds up under testing it is promoted to theory, i.e. a supposition about the causal relationship in question that has been proven true, or to be more precise, that has not been proven false since it its logically impossible to actually prove something true.

Notice the extreme intellectual honesty built into the scientific method in step three. In science there are no “facts”, just lots of theories that we believe in and base further research on because they continue to hold up under testing. One such example is the Theory of Gravity. You can easily test this one yourself. Go ahead, pick something up, now let go. Did it fall to the floor or did it float up to the ceiling? Once again the Theory of Gravity holds up under testing. Congratulations, you’re a scientist!

Another example is the Theory of Evolution. This theory has been tested more rigorously than any other and continues hold up. Consequently there are entire fields of science and medicine based on it. For example, every time you take an antibiotic and it works you have tested the Theory of Evolution and proven it true. Tens of thousands of rigorous scientific experiments have been conducted since Darwin’s publication of his hypothesis and every one of them has proven its correctness. We know far more today about how evolution works than Darwin ever did. He knew nothing about DNA, for example, but his basic premise of natural selection has been proven over and over again.

Why does the scientific community get so irritated with the continued attacks on the Theory of Evolution? Because it is just as ridiculous as attacking the Theory of Gravity. And even a Creationist wouldn’t think of doing that! When you read “Theory of Evolution” think of the tens of thousands of individual experiments that have each proven it true. Then, if you must translate scientific into common language remember the the correct translation for a scientific “theory” is “fact”, not “guess”.

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