Yesterday, a judge in Cobb County Georgia struck down a law that mandated stickers on high school biology textbooks with the following message:
“Warning this text contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact. Students should approach this material with an open mind, and examine it critically.”
He ordered that the school board remove the stickers immediately, and said that they constituted a violation of the establishment clause, i.e., the separation of Church and State. Bravo, judge!
The learned jurist quite sensibly ruled that since the stickers referred only to evolution, not to the Krebs Cycle, the structure of DNA, the nature of the cell, or other established facts of biology, that this was a focused and unconstitutional attempt by one group to impose its religious views onto the public school students. I don’t know what arguments the lawyers made, but I hope they pointed out that evolution IS a fact! If it is not a fact, none of the rest of the material in the textbook is fact, which is implicit in the judge’s ruling. The poor understanding of science that runs rampant in our society makes it possible for people to trade on semantic slipperiness about the words ‘theory’ and ‘fact.’
In ordinary language, people use the word theory to mean a guess, a hunch, a supposition, or a reasonable hypothesis, but in science, that’s how theories start. Then they are reviewed and tested relentlessly by people who would often like nothing so much as to gain glory by disproving their colleague’s theory with a factual counter-example. (Contrast this with the religious-dogmatic point of view that arrives at a conclusion and then simply searches for reasons to support and justify it.) Theories that make the grade are finally accepted as facts, e.g. the Copernican Theory of the solar system, the Newtonian Theory of Universal Gravitation, the Lavoisier Theory of oxygen, and Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by natural selection.
When a theory is a big, earth-shaking concept, our tendency to call it a theory lingers long after it has been proven again and again. We still talk about the Theory of Relativity because it is such an important concept with so many ramifications. For theories that aren’t so awe inspiring, we drop the theory moniker – nobody talks about Lavoisier’s theory of oxygen anymore because we all know that oxygen exists. We speak about the dead theory he destroyed, the Phlogiston Theory, and in this case, the word theory carries a negative connotation of an idea that was floated, and sank. Scientists are a hard headed bunch – they are not much interested in semantic controversy. That’s the purview of philosophers and dogmatic cranks, so they don’t have any difficulty with the false paradox that a theory, one that is accepted as proved, still is in some small way open to doubt because sometime in the future something that undermines it might turn up. How open minded of them! But know-nothings exploit this semantic difficulty, and the rigorous skepticism of the scientific community to try and further their absurd claims that evolution is just a theory, not a fact.
I bet that most of the people who want this sticker don’t have any problem with the fact of gravity, but actually, there’s probably more scientific controversy over this theory than evolution. Issac Newton never explained the nature of gravity, and he posited it as a force that acts over a distance without intervening material. The theory of the aether was junked at the turn of the 20th century with the Michelson-Morley experiment – space is just that, empty space. Pure and unadulterated. But nowadays, from what I hear about theoretical physics, everything, even gravity, has its source in particles. I won’t weigh in on this as it’s above my head by miles, but you catch my drift. Lets put warning stickers on physics texts, eh?