Define “Theory”

School boards across the country (like those in Texas, Florida, and Kentucky) are taking out big chunks from the curriculum and textbooks – including evolution.  This enraged and infuriated us both, as we worried about what that will means for the children in these schools, and the gaps in their education, or worse, mis-information that they are being given. Do schools even have the right to do this?  One of the arguments some groups make is that Evolution is still a theory, not a fact.  So, what then is a theory?

One of the (many) perks of working in education is knowing amazing educators.  So Ruth went to the source (several science educators) to get a scientific definition of “theory.”  Part of the confusion may stem from the fact that there are different meanings of  “theory.” Yes, in general conversation, it means simply “an idea.”  But in scientific research, for an hypothesis to reach the designation of “theory,” it must undergo rigorous multi-step tests that prove many facts to be true.  All “theories” in science have been tested to prove hundreds and even thousands of supportive facts.  Gravitational Theory, for example, is not an “idea”; we know it to be true. Evolution has thousands of supportive facts that no scientist has been able to disprove over the course of 150 years.

In at nutshell, there you have it: Evolution is a scientific theory that has never been disproved, just like gravity or the earth rotating around the sun.  (Or climate change, if you want to dig into another politically charged subject.  Which we will leave as a topic for another day, but highly suggest that you read the fascinating Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth by Mark Hertsgaard.)

Want to read more about the meaning of the word “theory,” specifically as it applies to the discussion of evolution? The science educators we spoke to gave us two great sources:

1.      An essay called “Evolution as Fact and Theory” by the wonderful scientist and writer Stephen Jay Gould.  It’s scary, as you read this, to realize that it was written 30 years ago.  The issues we faced then haven’t changed, they have only intensified with the passage of time.

2.      A great website called Understanding Evolution which helps define the issue of “theory” in science. They state quite concisely:

“All available evidence supports the central conclusions of evolutionary theory, that life on Earth has evolved and that species share common ancestors. Biologists are not arguing about these conclusions. But they are trying to figure out how evolution happens, and that’s not an easy job.”

So next time someone tells you that evolution is just the theory, not a fact, you know where to tell them to go!  (Straight to these resources, of course… what did you think we meant?)


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