Not deferential enough: Just a 'theory'

Posted Tuesday, November 27, 2012 in Opinion

Not deferential enough: Just a 'theory'

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by Gina Hamilton

I was chatting with the Cornerstones of Science people today ... their mission is to improve scientific literacy ... and it occurred to me that one of the biggest stumbling blocks to scientific literacy lies in one not-so-simple word.

The word is "theory".

If you ask ten people on the street what 'theory' means, nine of them will tell you that it's basically a guess, what scientific types actually call a 'hypothesis'.  (The other person stayed awake in science classes in high school and college or at least watches 'Big Bang Theory' on television.)

That's why so many people are willing to dismiss tested scientific information that doesn't agree with their worldviews, whether those worldviews are religious, political, or economic.  They honestly, truly believe that a theory is just a guess, perhaps an educated guess, but nothing more than that.  And that anyone can come up with a theory, which are all somehow equal, and therefore they should all be taught in the public schools.

Theories abound in science, and most of them are well beyond question. Universal gravitation is a theory.  The fact that bacteria and viruses cause most disease is a theory.  The notion that the Earth revolves around the Sun and not the other way around is a theory.  A theory, for the record, at least as scientists view the word, is the sum total of all observations, experimentation, and data for a particular phenomenon.  Theories can be disproven in a heartbeat, but they can never, definitively, be proven, because new data is always coming in, some of which might very well disprove the theory.

For instance, a single provable Homo sapiens skeleton cuddled up to a Tyrannosaurus Rex in the same rock stratum would deal a pretty significant blow to the theory of evolution.  But despite more than a hundred years of searching for such a thing, no one has ever found anything that seriously damages the basic theory of evolution, which is essentially descent with modification and a very old Earth in which many different eras saw many different types of life forms.  (The young Earth theory, which had been around until Darwin's era, was blown up literally by finding 'monster things' ... dinosaurs ... in coal pits in England that had never walked on Earth in human memory, moreover, their bones were so old they had turned to stone.) New information is added all the time, now including DNA and other evidence never dreamed of by Darwin, but all the new evidence confirms and supports the theory.

So insisting that evolution be taught side by side with creationism (which is, by the way, a guess based on superstition and nothing else) in public schools  is rather like saying that we should ban unicorns in city limits and faeries at the foot of the garden on general principle, because, after all, you just never know.

What we aren't doing enough of ... in schools, on television, or in the news media ... is explaining the process of science.  How does the Scientific Method actually work? Most students in, say, a chemistry class, might see a part of it, but they miss the huge inner working of the thing because they're never asked to replicate another class' results, or refute another student's research paper, or try to find errors in someone else's data. 

I suppose schools don't encourage this for social reasons, but they're doing their science students a serious disservice ... they only get about a tenth of the way through the method.  Except for the special case of 'science fairs', students never really come up with their own hypotheses, either.  Few are asked to extrapolate the specific information they glean from their experiment to a general scientific principle or mathematical model.

But even if the average science student doesn't have the whole picture (and consequently the post-school adult doesn't either) everyone can be taught the difference between a hypothesis (which is an educated guess), wild superstition, and an actual theory. 

And the first step toward understanding why evolution and not Genesis should be taught in schools (even if you object on religious grounds), or why global warming is real and must be addressed (even if you own a coal mine and don't like the idea on economic grounds), or that universal health care is less expensive and  provides better outcomes than market-based health care (even if you don't like that reality on political grounds), is learning the difference between a real theory, which all the facts, observations, and data support, and a hypothesis, which is yet unproven.

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