THE POWER OF THEORY By Staff Writer | Nov 1, 2010 | Archives
Jensen Henry In 2009, Florida Citizens for Science hosted its first annual Stick Science Cartoon Contest. Participants were invited to address a common misconception in science using only rudimentary forms of illustration. One of the award-winning submissions was simple (even for a stick figure competition) yet poignant: stickman Isaac Newton sitting under the proverbial apple tree. The caption? “Don’t worry, Isaac. It’s just a theory.” Despite its simplicity, the cartoon confronts an enormous misunderstanding about an extremely complex issue, the theory of evolution. Don’t worry, I’m not going to rehash all of the arguments for evolution here. For one, I don’t have nearly enough room. More importantly, I doubt that even the most well-formed defense for evolution would be enough to change the minds of our antievolution friends out there. Instead, I will have to settle with debunking one of the anti-evolution groups’ favorite arguments — that evolution is “just a theory.” It’s a guess, a hunch, a silly conjecture dreamed up by amoral scientists who have spent too much time drinking heathen coffee in their dark labs. First Name
What these detractors of evolution fail to understand is that the word theory means very different things in the science and nonscience communities. Colloquially, “theory” is used to describe a statement of speculation or postulation. For example, I could Email Address
theorize the next Star Trek movie is going to be fantastic, but I have nothing more than the good reviews from the first one (and a mild J.J. Abrams affliction) to back me up. However, in science, a theory is used to indicate “a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world,” according to scholars at the University of California.
SUBSCRIBE Yoshinori Tomoyasu, assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology at Miami University, expresses the same sentiment. “In science, theory is one of the strongest statements (we can make),” he said. “A theory is a proven idea based on observation and evidence. It never becomes the truth, that’s how science works. As a science community, we are fairly certain that it represents the truth.” The same perspective on theory applies to other scientific concepts as well, including gravity, the germ model of disease and the idea of a spherical earth. Remember learning about the flat Earth versus round Earth debate we studied in elementary school? Scientists used trigonometry, astronomical observations and advanced mathematical techniques to develop the spherical Earth theory. It was not until centuries later that Magellan actually circumnavigated the globe. In addition, one of the most heartening features of a theory is that it can be repeatedly tested and revised as additional observations are recorded. If the theory cannot be modified to explain the new evidence, then the theory can be discarded. If the theory can be confirmed by the research, its strength is actually improved. The theory of evolution is no exception. “Darwin had massive amounts of work and many years of observations,” Tomoyasu said. “Now, we have molecular biology and top-notch science (techniques). We are revising, remodeling to make the theory stronger. Darwin was wrong in many aspects, but the message of the theory is still valid.” Many anti-evolution advocates may point to observations that supposedly disprove the theory of evolution. While questioning everything is an important part of science, they fail to realize that doing so does not lend any credence to their own argument. People against evolution surround themselves in a blissful cloud of pseudoscience in which they decide an idea first and refuse to amend it. The beauty of a real scientific theory is that you don’t decide the truth, your observations and evidence do. Only then do you have a theory that has the potential to stand the tests of not only future researchers, but also time. Considering that Newton’s theory of gravitation is more than 300 years old, I would say “just a theory” could not be a better compliment.
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