Should we stop talking about 'the theory of evolution' and instead talk about 'the law of evolution'?

From evolution to climate change, the real culture wars are about language, not science. To win these wars, science needs to change the way it talks about knowledge.

Creationists and fans of ‘intelligent design’ have a guerrilla tactic to undermine textbooks that don’t conform to 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, Australian-born physicist Helen Quinn sparked a lively debate with an essay 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 per cent 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 characterised 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.” After all, “That’s just what you believe” is a common way to dismiss someone out-of-hand.

Of course, anti-evolution crusaders have figured out that language is the ammunition of culture wars. That’s why they love plugging words such as ‘theory’ in science. They take the intellectual strengths of scientific language ¬ its precision, its carefulness ¬ and wield them as weapons against science itself.

There is a defence against this: a revamped scientific lexicon. If the anti-evolutionists insist on exploiting the public’s misunderstanding of words such as ‘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 argues.

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 solid. 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 reasonable. However, if they announce, “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 realise 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 rigour. 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.

Via: CosmoMag

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Cool thought...I don't think we should concern ourselves with manipulating semantics as a response to how others manipulating theirs.
I think it would be better to teach people exactly what a theory is, how it is stated and how it is a tested observation. I don't think we should stoop to their level. As much as it infuriates me "intelligent design" is a great marketing campaign. grrr. And it has worked well for them. Our ideas will outshine them anyway and the war will be ours. A theory will be forever more important than a mythology.

If education had any bearing on theists, we wouldn't be in this mess to begin with.
Common sense and progression will never get in the way of good ol' conviction!
To say evolution is a fact is to misunderstand science... All it takes is one instance where you can show evolution does not hold, and you can disprove it. While I can't imagine any case that would invalidate evolution, the point remains.

I think you may be approaching this with some degree of faith, to say evolution is a cold hard fact is silly at best. The scientific method is the best way of approaching a problem and to use an absolute like you did is just bad science.

Maybe I'm parsing and missed your main point, but I think more people need to understand the scientific method before they learn about evolution.
A very good point, Misty. Since they already deliberately distort the meaning of 'theory', why would we expect them to not distort a 'law'?
I had this same thought a while ago. I seriously wonder what stops scientists from referring to evolution as a law.

Is it the very nature of evolution itself that prevents the term from becoming something that doesn't change?

Thanks doone for making it easy to understand.
I agree, doone, thank you for the enlightening. I was not aware of the reason for the distinction between law and theory. It does make sense.
A friend of mine's sister says she is completely uninterested in how the world works because after she dies, God will answer any questions she has.
She is a scary person. My friend is not allowed to be alone in the room with his nephew, for fear that he might mention evolution.

Fortunately, his nephew is a bright and curious lad, and his mother allows him to learn about astronomy, so hopefully he won't be lost to the same willful ignorance as his mother.
You'd think so. Any belief that is so weak that simple questioning can destroy it can't have been very strong in the first place.
No. The law of evolution will suffer the same language barrier problem. They will say "Laws are written by people, voted on by people, changed by activist judges and ignored by prosecutors. Then by initiative measure, we'll pass a new law saying evolution does not exist." Thus not disussing the merits and problems of evolution or creationism. I like the Fact of Evolution. That's much easier and means the same thing to theists and nontheists alike.


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