Vail Daily letter: A theory indeed
May 11, 2011
I feel compelled to write in after reading this letter (Nicholas S. Huzella, May 4). It is unfortunately an all-too-common example of one of the more aggravating misunderstandings of how science works. Although I recognize the author is not himself championing creationism in his writing, it is a misunderstanding actively spread by the creationist community in order to try and undermine confidence in evolution by referring to it as “just a theory.” They have been dismayingly successful in misleading people about what that means, to the point where even people who appear to be quite friendly to science have been misled by it.
“A common definition of science is systematized knowledge derived from observation, study and experimentation. Having met those criteria, only then can a theory become fact.”
The first sentence is correct. The second sentence is emphatically not. Theories do not ever become facts, nor are they intended to. Theories explain facts. Facts are easy to come by. “The sky is blue.” “When I drop this rock it falls downward at a certain rate.” “There is a wide diversity of life on the earth falling into certain distinctive patterns.” All basic observations anyone can easily perform.
Theories are the why. Those are a lot harder. Gravity is a fact … things with mass attract other things with mass. We’ve known about the fact of gravity for a very long time. Gravity is also a theory, but we didn’t get a theory of gravity (general relativity) until a guy named Einstein figured one out rather recently historically speaking.
The same applies to evolution. Things evolve … that is the fact of evolution. Genetic composition of populations changes over successive generations, and that is simply not debatable. How and why this happens is the theory of evolution. Science does not use the word “theory” the same way the general public does – theories are not things we are unsure of or harbor some significant doubts about. They are explanatory frameworks which account for all available data, are supported by all available evidence, and have survived all attempts at falsification such that we are extremely confident in their accuracy. Theories are not unconfirmed guesses aspiring to one day be proven right so they can be promoted to the status of fact, theories are the end goal of science. Facts are common; theories win Nobel Prizes.
Evolution is a theory … and it had to earn that lofty status. There is nowhere higher for it to go.