Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Teach the definition

I just started reading "Defending Darwin" and I'm already irked. Not by the author's story — to the contrary, it saddens me to no end that the phrase "defending Darwin" still applies to a current struggle, rather than an historical one — but by this:
“What do you teach?” Responding to such a question should be easy and invite polite conversation, but I usually brace for a negative reaction. At least half the time the person flinches with disapproval when I answer “evolution,” and often the conversation simply terminates once the “e-word” has been spoken. Occasionally, someone will retort: “But there is no evidence for evolution.” Or insist: “It’s just a theory, so why teach it?”
I'm not surprised there's often a negative reaction to the idea that one teaches evolution. (I don't understand why the author doesn't say "biology" and save himself a lot of grief, but that's his lookout.) Nor am I especially peeved about that negative reaction: saddened, yes, but not peeved. I've come to accept that this country has a long, long way to go before the damage wrought by literalist readings of the Bible is fixed.

No, what ticks me off to no end is the hopelessly ignorant retort, "It's just a theory".

I was going to explain what the word "theory" means in a scientific context, but fortunately the piece's author, James Krupa, does so just a little way into his essay:

Unfortunately, one of the most misused words today is also one of the most important to science: theory. Many incorrectly see theory as the opposite of fact. The National Academy of Sciences provides concise definitions of these critical words: A fact is a scientific explanation that has been tested and confirmed so many times that there is no longer a compelling reason to keep testing it; a theory is a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence generating testable and falsifiable predictions.


Theory is the most powerful and important tool science has, but nonscientists have perverted and diluted the word to mean a hunch, notion, or idea. Thus, all too many people interpret the phrase “evolutionary theory” to mean “evolutionary hunch.”

Darwin will still have to be defended for a long time to come, both in this country and anywhere else ancient religious writings are held up as incontrovertible truth. But one thing those of us who subscribe to a scientific understanding of existence should not have to do is to fight with the sorry ignorance of what a "scientific theory" is.

Forget "teaching the controversy" — teach the fucking definition!!

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