Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Law of Evolution

Clive Thompson has an interesting essay on Wired.com. It's about how damn annoying Creationists are when it comes to the word "Theory". I am so sick of hearing someone say "Well, it's ONLY a theory" when talking about evolution. Little do they know tht tells someone who knows about these things that they are completely ignorant on the subject. I've explained over and over what a theory is in science for years now yet it doesn't seem to have made a dent on the terminology.
The defense against this: a revamped scientific lexicon. If the antievolutionists insist on exploiting the public's misunderstanding of words like theory and believe, then we shouldn't fight it. "We need to be a bit less cautious in public when we're talking about scientific conclusions that are generally agreed upon," Quinn says.

What does she suggest? For truly solid-gold, well-established science, let's stop using the word theory entirely. Instead, let's revive much more venerable language and refer to such knowledge as "law." As with Newton's law of gravity, people intuitively understand that a law is a rule that holds true and must be obeyed. The word law conveys precisely the same sense of authority with the public as theory does with scientists, but without the linguistic baggage.
Quinn is physicist Helen Quinn who wrote about this in an essay for Physics Today. Clive goes on to say:

Evolution is supersolid. We even base the vaccine industry on it: When we troop into the doctor's office each winter to get a flu shot — an inoculation against the latest evolved strains of the disease — we're treating evolution as a law. So why not just say "the law of evolution"?

Best of all, it performs a neat bit of linguistic jujitsu. If someone says, "I don't believe in the theory of evolution," they may sound fairly reasonable. But if someone announces, "I don't believe in the law of evolution," they sound insane. It's tantamount to saying, "I don't believe in the law of gravity."

It's time to realize that we're simply never going to school enough of the public in the precise scientific meaning of particular words. We're never going to fully communicate what's beautiful and noble about scientific caution and rigor. Public discourse is inevitably political, so we need to talk about science in a way that wins the political battle — in no uncertain terms.

I'm all for it . . . OK, now how do we get it done?

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Blue Nine said...

This sounds like a good idea. Let's spread it around the blogosphere (and biology departments as well). Maybe PZ Myers could pick it up.

Yazbec said...

I actually brought this up to PZ a while back in an email and he posted about it(http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2007/11/jebus_no_what_a_miserable_idea.php).
He was definitely against the idea, and I can understand his reasoning. I am not totally on one side of this, as it sounded like a good idea to me at the time, kind of like taking the wind out of the sails of that entire argument...
However, I am not a scientist by trade, and I don't deal in these terms professionally. If it isn't the correct usage of the term, and theory is, then we should hold to theory as the word choice. If for no other reason that the whole point of those blathering creationists is to change science and the way its taught. I think PZ may be right, this could be playing right into their hands.

KevinBBG said...

I read PZ pretty regularly so I'm surprised I missed that one. If I'd seen it I probably wouldn't have done this post.

Basically, PZ is right, the term is incorrect, but we made up all these labels anyway, it's not like we found them and can't change them.

I'm just sick and tired of having to explain what a scientific theory is over and over, and it never reaches whatever it is a fundie uses for a brain. They really are quite convinced that because it's called a theory it's only an unproven guess and I don't think we will ever be able to get past that.

There has been many a time when I wished scientists had chosen a word that didn't get associated with a wild assed, unproven idea with all people outside of the scientific community. Even the non-fundies think evolution is unproven because it's called a theory.

As a framing issue using the word theory has just been a disaster for science.

Yazbec said...

I completely agree, which is why I brought that to him a while back. Using the word theory for concepts as well defined as evolution and gravity is not congruous with the popular understanding of the word, and while it may be that science had that word first (neener-neener), I do feel a bit like that has given so much leverage to active creationists trying to gain entry into science curriculum, for instance, by exploiting public ignorance of terminology.

The more I think about it, I think the damage is done at this point, everyone knows it as the theory of evolution, and it can never become law; it continues to be revised and changed (as it should be!).

Its a tough one for me; I don't think we can use the word law, but I also feel the pull to correct the misunderstanding in the public on the concreteness of a scientific theory.

BTW, I think this is my first foray into your blog, thanks for writing!

KevinBBG said...

Glad to have you here, I don't have that many visitors so every one is valuable.

Unfortunately I haven't been able to keep up a steady stream of posted because my brain won't function.

Check any entries for Darcy to find out why. My wife, who passed away 2 days before Xmas after a very long illness. The last year was pretty bad.

Yazbec said...

I read those shortly after coming in for the first time. I can't recall where I saw one of your comments; perhaps at AE. My condolences to you, of course. Do you read Greta Christina?

KevinBBG said...

No, who is she? I'll do a Google search.

Yazbec said...

To give a bit of back story, I recently lost my mother to cancer in January, and the reading that I did at Greta's blog really helped me feel better about the experience, not to mention how formative she has been in my understanding of atheism. I think she is an absolutely terrific writer, and I hope you like her stuff. If nothing else, maybe her post at this link gives you a similar perspective of peace with death that I was able to gather with my mother's passing.

I know its different to lose a partner though, I think that has to be much harder. Not that losing my mother is easy, but it feels like the natural order of passing. I hope that it in some way helps, even if just a bit.

Link: http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2007/06/comforting_thou.html

Just as an fyi, some of the things on her page are nsfw... I only read at home for the most part...