Call a theory a theory

It’s hard to imagine a more innocuous statement than the one the Cobb County, Ga., school board recently ordered pasted into their biology textbooks: “Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.”
Yet this disclaimer is the subject of a nationally publicized lawsuit, in which the plaintiff alleges that the wording violates the separation of church and state.

So what’s the problem? After all, evolution is indeed a theory. And it seems ironic at best that calling for open-minded, critical thinking would somehow be construed as religious advocacy.

Nonetheless, there are many–folks who insist that evolution is a fact, or well-nigh to it–who read dark intentions between the lines. To them, any talk about critical thinking is simply religiously motivated rubbish.

We are told that the popular distinction between “fact” and “theory”–that one is certain and the other a matter of guesswork–is naive and conflicts with how scientists view the terms. In place, critics offer “more scientific” definitions of “theory”–which exorcise the notion of uncertainty. A theory is not a hunch, an educated guess or even a hypothesis, they tell us, but a well-substantiated naturalistic explanation for related facts.

Hence, evolution’s status as a theory indicates strength and durability, not uncertainty. And if you want critical thinking about evolution, why not include other theories, such as germ theory or the theory of relativity? Indeed, we are told, singling out evolution smacks of a religious agenda masquerading as science.

To many, this is entirely plausible. But it is seriously flawed.

If you look in the science journals, you’ll see that the use of the word theory often diverges from this definition. There, you can read of such things as tentative theories, failed theories, controversial theories, promising theories, and unconfirmed new theories.

Thus, contrary to the definition championed by Darwin’s defenders, scientific theories vary greatly in their trustworthiness. And a school district is fully warranted in singling out such theories, especially when they have been a source of widespread, ongoing controversy – like Darwinism.

Not only is the theory controversial at the cultural level, but some pro-evolution scientists have nonetheless expressed skepticism about Darwin’s theory: The processes that produce bacterial resistance to drugs or changes in birds’ beaks, they say, simply can’t generate the massive diversity that characterizes the living world–much less produce the bursts of wildly disparate animal forms found in the fossil record.

Such skepticism, long evident in scientific literature, has made its way into textbooks. Indeed, one major college text, Biology, reports that “many evolutionary biologists now question whether natural selection alone accounts for the evolutionary history observed in the fossil record.”

There is thus every good reason to state that “evolution is a theory, not a fact,” even in some popular senses of those terms. Of course, that doesn’t mean the label’s backers are free of religious motivation. But motivations notwithstanding, there’s a legitimate secular purpose in urging kids to approach the theory with an open but critical mind.

That’s far healthier than defining critical thinking out of the classroom. I only hope the judge agrees.

Mark Hartwig is a fellow of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture

Mark Hartwig

Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Mark Hartwig has a Ph.D. in educational psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, specializing in statistics and research design. He was an early organizer of the intelligent design movement and for 10 years was managing editor of the journal Origins Research, now published as Origins and Design.