When does a theory become fact?

Is it a theory Is it a law No, it's a fact

The word theory has different meanings in the colloquial and scientific sense. This ignorance is not only exploited by the representatives of a creationist worldview. Richard Dawkins calls for a rethink.

I once tried to convince the attendees of an atheist conference in the USA that the imprint "In God We Trust" on the American banknotes is an insignificant cosmetic detail. We should stop moaning about it and devote our energies to more important issues, including the tax-exempt status of religious communities. I was resolutely reprimanded by the esteemed civil rights activist Edwin Kagin, who has now sadly passed away. He said the label is really an important issue because many Americans who are not that familiar with the history of the country (the phrase was not added until 1957) refer to the label "In God We Trust" as evidence America was founded as a Christian country.

Our habit of speaking of the "theory of evolution" is equally abused to mislead people. A lot of people are unsettled by the phrase “just a theory”. The purpose of this essay is to clear up the confusion. I suggest stopping using the term “theory” when talking to creationists.

"We should stop talking about 'theory' when it comes to evolution and instead insist that evolution is a fact."

Today the creationist “just a theory” whine is answered by explaining the meaning of the term “theory” in the natural sciences. It is pointed out that the meaning differs from everyday word usage, where the term “theory” is used as a synonym for “hypothesis”. In my book "The Lie of Creation" I quote two definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary:

Theory, meaning 1: A system of thoughts or statements used as an explanation or representation of a group of facts or phenomena; a hypothesis confirmed or proven by observation or experiment which is considered or presented to be an adequate explanation of the known facts; a designation of what is considered to be general laws, principles, or causes of something known or observed.

Theory, meaning 2: A hypothesis suggested as an explanation; a mere hypothesis, speculation, conjecture; a thought or a set of thoughts about an object; an individual conception or idea.

The party line among scientists is to argue in terms of Meaning 1 for evolution. To this day, I've done it that way. Now I want to deviate from the party line. I now believe that the debate about the correct use of the term "theory" is a battle to be lost. We should stop talking about "theory" when it comes to evolution and instead insist that evolution is a fact.

I know: You can be sure that philosophers will even bathe the meaning of “fact” in a cloud of fog. A fact can never be more than a probationary hypothesis, a hypothesis that has so far defied all attempts at rebuttal. The more strenuous these attempts, the more justified it is to mark something as “fact”. I like the way evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould has put it into context: “In science, 'fact' can only mean something that it would be perverse not to temporarily agree to. I guess tomorrow apples could rise instead of the sun, but this possibility doesn't have to be dealt with in physics classrooms for as long. ”Dishes, newspapers and each of us use the term“ fact ”in a way that few people use in everyday life Causes problems. It is a fact that New Zealand is in the southern hemisphere (that Barack Obama is the US President at the moment, that it is now raining in Oxford, that grass is green, etc.). In this everyday sense, evolution is a fact, and so should we represent it to a lay audience. We fail to convey “Theory, Meaning 1”. So we forego it and speak openly of evolution as a fact that it would be perverse not to agree with.

"Today no scientist who knows about it has any doubts about the fact of evolution."

Our failure to convey Meaning 1 is in part blamed on people's everyday tendency to switch straight to Meaning 2, where a theory is understood as a "mere" hypothesis with reservations. We must admit, however, that scientists themselves use the term “theory” in a way that, in a confusing way, appears inconsistent to the poor layperson. The "string theory" contains elements of importance 1. It is actually a "system of thoughts or statements", but it is very far from being "confirmed or proven by observation or experiment". It is not even clear how one could approach their testing by observation or experiment. And yet it is always referred to as “string theory” and not “string hypothesis”. "Game theory" is not something that can be "confirmed or proven". Rather, it is an inference method based on the mathematical study of games that has proven useful in various fields. Marxist theory is definitely, "a system of thought or assertions used as an explanation or representation of a group of facts or phenomena" for economic and sociological contexts (and as a normative political recipe), but again one has to ask who “needs” them?

Charles Darwin has referred to his "theory" several times, and in his day it was a theory in the sense of meaning 2: a hypothesis the evidence of which did not convince some scientists in his day. In the 150 years that followed, it moved from Meaning 2 to Meaning 1. This fact suggests that there is a continuum from meaning 2 to meaning 1 that can be historically traced in this case. Today no scientist who knows it has any doubts about the fact of evolution. It is an indisputable fact that we share common ancestors with our cousin gorilla and with our more distant cousin kangaroo.

Some scientists speak of the fact of evolution in contrast to Darwin's hypothesis about its mechanism (natural selection). You would classify natural selection, but not evolution itself, as meaning 2 theory. Others think that natural selection, the only mechanism that produces adaptive evolution, is so well documented that its historical development from meaning 2 to meaning 1 has now been almost as complete as that of evolution itself.

In our brawls with them, creationists primarily attack evolution itself and less natural selection. So we can set aside the status of natural selection and focus on the fact of evolution as something so well supported by evidence that it would be perverse to deny it. It is a fact beyond reasonable doubt that if you trace your ancestors and your dog's ancestors back enough, one will eventually come across a common ancestor. It is a fact beyond reasonable doubt that when you consume fried fish with french fries you are eating distant relatives of yours, namely a fish and a potato that goes back even further in your ancestral gallery.

"It is a fact beyond reasonable doubt that when you consume fried fish and fries you are eating distant relatives of yours."

Anyone who wants to replace the “theory of evolution” with a “law of evolution” brings even more confusion into the debate. It is by no means clear that evolution is a law in the sense of Newton's laws, or Kepler's laws, or Boyle-Mariott's gas law or Snellius' law. These laws describe mathematical relationships, generalizations about the real world that always remain true when measurements are taken. Evolution is not a law in this sense (although certain generalizations such as Dollo's law and Dope's law have been included in the corpus of Darwinian theory with some doubt). In addition, the "law of evolution" awakens unfortunate associations with vast over-generalizations that link biological evolution, cultural evolution, linguistic evolution, economic evolution and the evolution of the universe. So let's not make matters worse by making evolution a law.

Let's just give up trying to explain the specific scientific meaning of "theory". The term invites you to be misunderstood by laypeople who want to misunderstand it, and even scientists who use the term by no means consistently. The meaning of "fact" in the ordinary sense (it is a fact that New Zealand is in the southern hemisphere) and the scientific meaning (the evidence of evolution is so strong it would be perverse not to agree) are close enough to avoid confusion for anyone who is not the most doggedly pedantic philosopher. Let us postpone the question of whether natural selection is also a fact to another day. Now let's clear up the confusion by strategically withdrawing from the term "theory" when debating with creationists. Let us sacrifice a farmer for a strategic advantage and convey once and for all an unmistakable message that anyone can understand and that is undoubtedly true in an everyday sense. Evolution is a fact.

Evolution is a fact.

Translation: Andreas Müller

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