Part 1: The Language of Science: Are Creationists Like Humpty Dumpty?

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(Peter Newell [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

Through the Looking Glass.

When this blog post started it was to be a single post to address some of the issues surrounding the Evolution vs Creationism issue highlighted recently in a BBC radio Interview on the Jeremy Vine Programme with Johnny Scaramanga and developed in an on-air debate between Professor Alice Roberts and John Lewis, a curriculum developer for the Accelerated Christian Education programme, on Newsnight, chaired by Jeremy Paxman on 16th June 2014

It quickly became apparent that more than one post is necessary to try and explain my ideas on this issue. Over the coming days I will publish three blogs that examine three difficult and important issues.

  • The language of science and how we use that language in specialist and everyday settings
  • The nature of science and how science reasons to come to conclusions about natural phenomenon
  • The nature of belief and how belief and acceptance are two different things.

Part 1- The language of Science

Two Sides of the Argument

The debate between evolution and creation is often expressed as ‘two sides of an argument’. It is educationally appropriate, creationists argue, to let students examine two possible ‘solutions’ to long-standing problems that affect us all – how did life come into being and is all life related?

The problem is, it’s a false argument. ‘Two sides to an argument’ implies that the two sides carry equal weight; they do not. ‘Two sides to an argument’ implies that the defeat of one side provides victory to the other; it does not.

The recent arguments surrounding the teaching of evolution and creationism in British schools raises some important questions over the nature of science, the language of science and the ‘rights’ of those who are devout followers of a faith to teach their version of science (or for that matter any subject) over and above the accepted scientific consensus.

It’s Just a theory

Yes evolution is a theory, or to be more precise, there is a theory for evolution. But before we get into the pedantic (yet very important) issues over the use of the word we should establish a few definitions.

In science words are used which are also everyday words. Sometimes it is easy – take for example the word ‘conductor’ we may use that word in everyday language for a person checking tickets on a train or someone leading an orchestra. In science it relates to the transference of heat or electricity. The context of the surrounding narrative helps us decide on what the precise meaning of the word is when it is used. Other words are not so easy to distinguish as the vernacular and specific meaning may well be very similar. Theory falls into this bracket. In everyday language a ‘theory’ can be as simple as a speculative guess or an idea with some evidence but yet to be proven. It’s used, for example, in detective novels , films and TV. The detective will have a ‘theory’ about how a murder was committed and by whom. They may have some evidence but as they try to ‘prove’ their theory they are guided to look at certain lines of enquiry.

In science theory has a different meaning. A theory is an accepted explanation of a natural phenomenon and as such, it is evidenced. The un-evidenced idea – the ‘guess’ if you like is the hypothesis – an idea that can be tested scientifically from which a theory may or may not develop. It is the hypothesis in science which leads to lines of enquiry, not the theory.

At this stage then it seems quite simple – when a scientist uses the term ‘theory’ they are not referring to a guess.

There is a problem however. Not all scientists use the term theory in the same way. A physicist, for example, often talks about ‘theory’ with a view to testing out ideas and on the basis of little to no empirical evidence – the physicist ‘theory’ may well be speculative and waiting for evidence and confirmation.

To illustrate this point I published a paper (Williams, 2013) on just this issue. Surveying 189 science graduates it was clear that their grasp of definitions of common scientific terms was poor. When it came to defining what ‘theory’ meant, 29% stated that a theory was an ‘unproven idea’ only 25% saw a theory as an explanatory system of ideas. More worryingly, 34% of the biologists surveyed thought that a theory was an unproven idea. The full paper is available on Open Access here

Another common creationist cry – which also shows an ignorance of the nature of science – is that if evolution was a ‘fact’ then surely it would be a ‘law’ and not a ‘theory’. Laws and theories are two different things and theories exist alongside laws and vice versa.

A theory is an explanation, as noted above. Laws, however, describe things in science. It is perfectly possible to envisage a Law of Evolution in the terms of a description of what happens – e.g. descent with modification would be a good starting point for a Law of Evolution. Laws in science do not
explain how things happen. So Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation describe the effects of gravity it does not explain gravity: The Law of Universal gravitation states that “any two bodies in the universe attract each other with a force that is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.”
This does not tell us what gravity is or what causes gravity, it does not therefore explain gravity.

A hypothesis is the starting point for many scientific ideas. This is a testable question that science has the potential to answer. Hypothesis can be hunches or guesses. There may be evidence there may not. All scientific hypotheses will be testable, if the results of these tests are consistent then it is entirely possible for a hypothesis to develop into a full blown theory. Certainly many hypotheses are discarded and most are modified before developing into theories.

So are creationists like Humpty Dumpty? In some cases yes, when they use a scientific term they do often choose its meaning to suit their purposes. Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of the word ‘theory’. For the creationist ‘theory simply means unproven. The problem we have is that 29% of science graduates (34% of biologists) overall will fail to see this trick of language. They also think that theories in science are ‘unproven’. In the case of evolution the meaning which must be ‘master’, as Humpty declares, must be the meaning that science gives – a well-evidenced explanation of a natural phenomenon. That evolution is a theory does not mean it cannot at the same time be a scientific fact.

In my paper on scientific terminology I offer a solution to this issue.

One possible approach that could improve children’s understanding of the special nature of some of the words used in science may be the adoption of the prefix ‘scientific’ before such words as ‘theory’, ‘law’, ‘fact’, ‘hypothesis’, ‘principle’, to distinguish them from their common everyday use. Adopting the prefix ‘scientific’, to help separate common meaning from a more precise scientific meaning, may help to reduce misunderstandings and strengthen the discipline of science.” (Williams, 2013 p.8)

 

In Part two of this series I will look at creationist misunderstandings (either deliberate or unintentional) of the Nature of Science and how scientific reasoning works.

References

WILLIAMS, J. D. 2013. “It’s just a theory”: trainee science teachers’ misunderstandings of key scientific terminology. Evolution: Education and Outreach, 6, 12.

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Part 1: The Language of Science: Are Creationists Like Humpty Dumpty?

    Paul Braterman said:
    June 17, 2014 at 6:20 pm

    I wonder if by now we can distinguish cleanly between the fact of evolution (yes it happened, and is happening) and the theory or theories of how, not if, it happens (mutation rate dependence, selection, drift, population genetics, fitness landscapes). The “If” was a theory in all senses in the early 19th century; did it happen, does the idea make sense of disparate observations, and does it lead to testable predictions? Now, it’s an established fact, like the periodic table is an established fact, with a theoretical underpinning just as the Periodic Table has a theoretical underpinning in the physics of electrons in atoms.

    I think this approach might clear up a lot of unnecessary confusion.

    James said:
    June 18, 2014 at 8:54 am

    Yes Paul, you are correct. The theory bit is interpreted as though theories are still questioning the phenomenon. if we can get people to understand that theories in science have evidence and are not about the ‘if’ then we would make considerable gains in understanding. My suggestion of changing to the use of ‘scientific theory’ is, I suppose, an attempot to do that – starting from a fresh perspective we can apply a definition to ‘scientific theory’ that sets it apart from the vernacular. The issue is that creationists prefer to keep the water muddy over definitions are it suits their purposes.

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