Language Matters: On Not Using the Word "Theory" When it Comes to Evolution

Previously I issued A Plea to Scientists to Stop Using the Word "Theory" When Applied to Evolution. With a dozen "Shares" on Facebook at least some people get it (quotes below).

Let me ask just one question: When do scientists stop using the word "theory" and say instead that a discovery is a fact? In my previous post I quoted Richard Dawkins who said "evolution is a fact." Jerry Coyne said the same thing:
Every day, hundreds of observations and experiments pour into the hopper of the scientific literature. Many of them don't have much to do with evolution - they're observations about the details of physiology, biochemistry, development, and so on - but many of them do. And every fact that has something to do with evolution confirms its truth. Every fossil that we find, every DNA molecule that we sequence, every organ system that we dissect, supports the idea that species evolved from common ancestors. Despite innumerable possible observations that could prove evolution untrue, we don't have a single one. We don't find mammals in Precambrian rocks, humans in the same layers as dinosaurs, or any other fossils out of evolutionary order. DNA sequencing supports the evolutionary relationships of species originally deduced from the fossil record. And, as natural selection predicts, we find no species with adaptations that only benefit a different species. We do find dead genes and vestigial organs, incomprehensible under the idea of special creation. Despite a million chances to be wrong, evolution always comes up right. That is as close as we can get to a scientific truth. [Why Evolution Is True]
I call on them to use language commensurate with what they say (I don't know whether or not Dawkins and Coyne do this). But they should. I think it is agreed that scientists in general do not know how to communicate to the lay believing public (Dawkins and Coyne are usually the exceptions). Because of this miscommunication the lay believing public gets a different perspective than what scientists think. For instance, I have argued that there should be more debates between creationists and evolutionists. That's because debates will increase the lay believing public's understanding of evolution like nothing else can, since debates will get believers out to hear the evolutionary evidence for perhaps the first time. I had written:
To scientists like Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers and others following their lead, who have created some degree of social pressure against evolutionists debating creationists, let me try again. I don't think they can consistently argue against debating creationists. Why? They are already doing this, that's why! Jerry Coyne, for instance, debates them in his wonderful book, Why Evolution Is True. He also debates them on his blog. Jerry links to what creationists have said and then responds to them. He seems particularly animated lately by accomodationists, for good reason. Then a creationist will respond. And Jerry will offer a rejoinder, and so on. Now someone please tell me what this is? It's a debate. And it is ongoing, almost everyday. It is a time-lapsed debate. Dawkins and Myers do this as well. They are already debating creationists, almost daily. So they should have no principled objection to participating in, or promoting live creation vs evolution debates...The only consistent way to do this would be for them to simply advance the evidence for evolution and ignore the creationists. Their blog posts would consist entirely of titles like these: "More Evidence for Evolution," "More Transitory Fossils Found," "More Genetic Evidence Found for Evolution," and so forth.
I think the reason why scientists are against debating creationists is largely because of the towering influence of Richard Dawkins, who did not want to debate William Lane Craig. Others, like Jerry Coyne think debates solve nothing. However, Dawkins and Coyne are not thinking of how to communicate to the lay believing public the evidence there is for evolution. If Dawkins didn't want to debate William Lane Craig he did not have to give a reason why he wouldn't. Just say no. And unless Coyne comes out and consistently denounces all debates as not furthering the quest for truth, then why does he single out for denunciation creation vs evolution debates? If he were to consistently denounce all debates (and I don't know what he thinks about debates in general) then at least we would be able to put his denunciation of creation vs evolution debates into perspective. For then, when he denounces creation vs evolution debates, what he's really saying is that he doesn't like debates in general. And if that's so, what he thinks has no bearing on those of us who think debates are entertaining, informative and very important for communicating the evidence against faith in general.

How dare I say this, right? I'm not a scientist. No, I'm not. But I do have an expertise when it comes to helping believers see their faith is false. Scientists habitually do not.

When it comes to the word "theory" as applied to evolution it's the same thing. It does not communicate to the lay believing public what needs to be communicated. Language is important. Language matters.

Let me provide two examples outside of this debate for illustrative purposes.

1) Sexist language. In the past few decades we are trying to rid ourselves of sexist language. It hurts and does not represent the realities that women and men are of equal worth and should be given equal opportunities with equal rewards.

I was on a panel for the Society of Biblical Literature's 2009 annual meeting about Bill Maher's movie Religulous. Biblical scholar Cheryl Exum faulted Bill, among other things, for his sexist language. Here's what I said in response:
She’s right, it is important. But I would like to see an equal stance taken with religious language in our Christian dominated culture. David Eller calls upon atheists to eliminate our use of words and phrases like “heaven,” “hell,” “sin,” “angel,” “devil,” “bless,” “soul,” “saint,” “pray,” “sacred,” “divine,” “baptism,” “purgatory,” “gospel” “the Mark of Cain” “Garden of Eden” “patience of Job” “a voice crying in the wilderness” “wolf in sheep’s clothing” “wars and rumors of wars” “lost sheep” and others. They have no corresponding referent in other non-Christian parts of the globe. This Christian language only serves to continue the cultural domination that Christianity has in western society; much like chauvinistic language does with respect to women.
Afterward Exum came up to me and said trying to rid ourselves of biblical language would be impossible. I asked her what she would say if someone had told her a few decades ago that ridding ourselves of sexist language was impossible. She made an off-handed comment that there are differences and walked away. I don't deny there are differences, but there are indeed similarities since, as I think, religious language does us harm too.

2) Belief and faith talk. Some of us are trying to change how we talk about faith. Peter Boghossian writes that whenever we hear the word "faith" we should think of the definition "pretending to know what we don't know," in his book, A Manual for Creating Atheists.When it comes to faith or belief talk I think we should eliminate or modify it as Boghossian is doing. Previously I have written:
I used to think the position I now hold to was philosophically naive at best, and I have taught university level philosophy classes. Tell me this, do you know the sun will rise this morning, or do you believe it will rise? I know it will rise. Could I be wrong? Yes, but I don't need certainty in order to know something. If a truth proposition has that degree of probability to it then the fact I could conceivably be wrong means nothing. I know it. What does saying "I believe" the sun will rise do? It allows Christians to claim all knowledge is based on faith. Then they slip their Trinitarian incarnational god into that same crack. If the odds for a truth claim are calculated to be 70% then what does faith add to them? 50%? 15%? If we go exclusively by the probabilities there is no room for faith, no reason to believe anything at all. The problem is that we don't have separate words to describe the various probabilities. We only have one word, the word "belief." It covers the whole range of probabilities when we should be using different words to describe them. Other words better describe what we mean, like hope, trust, accept, think, know, conclude, and so on. The word "belief" is a Christian one supporting the Christian faith in the western world. We need a new nomenclature. We are nonbelievers. We don't believe. Let's use language commensurate with what we know.
In the same sense I call on scientists to stop using the word "Theory" when applied to Evolution. What is the probability that evolution is a fact? Why should anyone care that it has not been proved with certainty? Nothing can achieve such heights of proof. Why not use other words instead, like the "evolutionary explanation," "evolutionary framework" or the "evolutionary paradigm"?

[Edit: Richard Dawkins agrees with me (or, more correctly I agree with him)].

Now for the quotes from people who understand:

Smithm Smith: John- keep hammering on probabilities. At some point we just have to say its a fact.

Doug Kiplinger: Glad someone finally said this! Those of us who actually know about and appreciate science know what "theory" means in that context, but others still cling to its broader meaning: a guess or speculation. Thank you, John.

Ed Suominen, co-author with Robert M. Price of the book, Evolving out of Eden:Great point, John. I like to just say “evolutionary science,” which avoids the T word and also conveys the fact that entire scientific disciples are based on the, um, theory of evolution. And when talking about evolution vs. Christianity, I contrast the “reality” of evolution vs. the “theology” of Christianity.

AramMcLean: I just said almost this exact same thing to my wife last night. Funny. But we concluded that the word 'theory' is the least of these delusional people's worries. I mean, they'll just say a 9,000 year old tree was made with 3,000 rings. Or that camels used to live for 1,000 years which is why the recent fossil finds don't add up. Or something. Their misunderstanding of the word theory in regards to science is a moot point really. Though I do like to welcome them to exit their apartment from the fifth floor. After all, gravity is just a theory!
Phasespace: I'm not convinced that it would really change anything.

To which cyngus responded:

cyngus: It can change how one talks and understand about Evolution. Actually nobody has to change anything, just remove "theory" when you talk about Evolution, it will drive Christians mad.


Unknown said...

No, really just no. The difference between a theory and a fact is that a theory has the power to explain the world, facts are at best just data that can lend support to a good theory. Revealed Truths on the other hand may satify our emotions or intuitions, but explain nothing and predict nothing.

To abandon this usage is to abandon the whole point of science, which is that our understanding of the world SHOULD be based on theories instead of myths.
The theory of evolution is better than the myth of creation precisely because it is a theory, and not merely because it happens to be true.

Ultimatley science is not about which facts happen to be true, but about how we go about knowing the world, not the particulars details of history.