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Why Science Will Triumph Only When Theory Becomes Law

Reposted from:
http://www.wired.com/techbiz/people/magazine/15-11/st_thompson

Creationists and intelligent-design boosters have a guerrilla tactic to undermine textbooks that don't jibe with their beliefs. They slap a sticker on the cover that reads, EVOLUTION IS A THEORY, NOT A FACT, REGARDING THE ORIGIN OF LIVING THINGS.

This is the central argument of evolution deniers: Evolution is an unproven "theory." For science-savvy people, this is an incredibly annoying ploy. While it's true that scientists refer to evolution as a theory, in science the word theory means an explanation of how the world works that has stood up to repeated, rigorous testing. It's hardly a term of disparagement.

But for most people, theory means a haphazard guess you've pulled out of your, uh, hat. It's an insult, really, a glib way to dismiss a point of view: "Ah, well, that's just your theory." Scientists use theory in one specific way, the public another — and opponents of evolution have expertly exploited this disconnect.

Turns out, the real culture war in science isn't about science at all — it's about language. And to fight this war, we need to change the way we talk about scientific knowledge.

Scientists are already pondering this. Last summer, physicist Helen Quinn sparked a lively debate among her colleagues with an essay for Physics Today arguing that scientists are too tentative when they discuss scientific knowledge. They're an inherently cautious bunch, she points out. Even when they're 99 percent certain of a theory, they know there's always the chance that a new discovery could overturn or modify it.

So when scientists talk about well-established bodies of knowledge — particularly in areas like evolution or relativity — they hedge their bets. They say they "believe" something to be true, as in, "We believe that the Jurassic period was characterized by humid tropical weather."

This deliberately nuanced language gets horribly misunderstood and often twisted in public discourse. When the average person hears phrases like "scientists believe," they read it as, "Scientists can't really prove this stuff, but they take it on faith." ("That's just what you believe" is another nifty way to dismiss someone out of hand.)

Of course, antievolution crusaders have figured out that language is the ammunition of culture wars. That's why they use those stickers. They take the intellectual strengths of scientific language — its precision, its carefulness — and wield them as weapons against science itself.

The defense against this: a revamped scientific lexicon. If the antievolutionists insist on exploiting the public's misunderstanding of words like theory and believe, then we shouldn't fight it. "We need to be a bit less cautious in public when we're talking about scientific conclusions that are generally agreed upon," Quinn says.

What does she suggest? For truly solid-gold, well-established science, let's stop using the word theory entirely. Instead, let's revive much more venerable language and refer to such knowledge as "law." As with Newton's law of gravity, people intuitively understand that a law is a rule that holds true and must be obeyed. The word law conveys precisely the same sense of authority with the public as theory does with scientists, but without the linguistic baggage.

Evolution is supersolid. We even base the vaccine industry on it: When we troop into the doctor's office each winter to get a flu shot — an inoculation against the latest evolved strains of the disease — we're treating evolution as a law. So why not just say "the law of evolution"?

Best of all, it performs a neat bit of linguistic jujitsu. If someone says, "I don't believe in the theory of evolution," they may sound fairly reasonable. But if someone announces, "I don't believe in the law of evolution," they sound insane. It's tantamount to saying, "I don't believe in the law of gravity."

It's time to realize that we're simply never going to school enough of the public in the precise scientific meaning of particular words. We're never going to fully communicate what's beautiful and noble about scientific caution and rigor. Public discourse is inevitably political, so we need to talk about science in a way that wins the political battle — in no uncertain terms.

At least, that's my theory.

Email clive@clivethompson.net.

TAGGED: --, CREATIONISM


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