Opposition to the Theory of Evolution is often proclaimed with the infamous statement, ‘it’s just a theory’; in other words, a guess, a shot in the dark, an idea perhaps not accurate, and thus we can safely ignore it in our reality, especially when church leaders preach that the idea must be rejected.
There likely is no other pet peeve pun that gets the blood boiling for a scientist more than that phrase (well, except maybe for biologists…. “if we came from monkeys, why are there still monkeys” – but that’s for another day). Making the above claim is offensive on many levels, as it seriously misrepresents science and undermines decades of discovery.
Technically, a theory is defined simply as an explanation about a collection of facts. To theorize is to build that explanation. Theoretical science is the process by which we create explanations about the facts as established using our worldly senses; which start out weak and are then tested for validation.
As more facts are gathered during the testing phase (scientific method), theories are either replaced with a better explanation or the initial theory garners additional strength. If supported, a theory will continue to be accepted as the working concept, with modifications as we learn. At some point, when the facts supporting a theory become so numerous, essentially the theory itself can be considered a ‘fact’ for the purposes of further study. That defines a scientific theory – basically, fact building.
Let’s visualize using the notion of a sand castle versus a brick building. A structure as an early explanation on a set of facts, or an emerging theory, is made of sand. It isn’t very stable yet with respect to our confidence level. Likely, it has been built on a minimal amount of known scientifically collected facts and is also influenced by human bias known as intuition (perception of truth), which we seek to minimize with the tool of science.
(A side note – assertions from religious beliefs or spiritual texts are not valid facts in science because they cannot be scientifically tested).
Winds of challenge will strike that sand structure, as scientific research strives to disprove the concept. The sand might erode and completely dissipate. Essentially, if the theory is false, the castle will fall. We then look to build another sand castle as an explanation. If instead the theory is true, with each gust of research wind, falsehood is blown away, leaving in its place a brick as a researched fact supporting the structure. Over time, the correct theory (truth) morphs from an unsteady sand castle into a brick structure with a high level of confidence that is unwavering.
Competing theories only stand as two untested sand castles. We determine which castle (concept) will be supported as facts are uncovered, thus the correct idea (truth) dismantles the competing idea (superseded theory). Once a theory becomes a brick building, however, it is impossible for competing ideas as sand to overwrite a concept already recognized as a scientific theory. Fundamentally, superseded theories, created from intuition and beliefs and outdated information, are replaced with well-tested theory.
For example, a flat earth will never overwrite our understanding of a spherical earth. Galileo scientifically tested geocentrism, the prevailing thought of the day due to religion (bias), replacing it with his theory of heliocentrism. The same is to be said for evolution as the explanation from nature for origins (which, by the way, makes no claims about God’s involvement). While scientific debate continues to correct the details within the theory, the basic evolutionary construct is soundly established as fact. Thus, calling evolution ‘just a theory’ is inaccurate, deceptively so when the process of science is thoroughly understood, properly acknowledged, and respected.
Here is another example to illustrate the procedure. Let’s reflect on the recent election, considering the two inauguration photos shown on social media side-by-side of President Obama’s (2009) and President Trump’s (2017) ceremonies, reportedly taken at about the same time relative to the festivities and clearly from the same exact position. It is an indisputable fact, based on visual information, that the crowd was larger in 2009. This says nothing as to why. No further explanation is given.
From that one piece of data, we could theorize to explain a larger crowd for Obama; 1) either Obama has more public support, or 2) Trump has more supporters but they did not attend. Two competing sand castles likely constructed based on the personal bias (Obama or Trump fan) of whomever is building the theory. To remove personal perception and bias, we use science to test these two ideas to find which one is true.
Did more people view the event from home? Did rain play a factor in keeping attendance low? Was there a problem with the metro? Were both events during the week, or one on a weekend or holiday? Questions are thus asked to generate more facts so we can support one or the other theory. The more questions answered, the more confident we become in the supported theory.
What is not appropriate is to overreach an explanation without correctly establishing the facts through questioning. The pictures were clearly posted to make a political statement, i.e. Obama has more support than Trump. Far more analysis would be needed to definitively state this to be true. Making that claim without doing so is misleading.
Alternative ‘facts’ as skewed information, presented for a purpose other than a pursuit of truth (agenda driven – i.e. support religious beliefs), are also not valid. For example, to refute the side-by-side comparison, another photo was released taken from behind President Trump but at an angle nearly horizontal to the crowd, not from above. This made it difficult, with optical illusions, to determine visually exactly how far away the crowd spread from the podium. Claiming this visual to be an equally reliable data point, or fact, compared to the aerial shot would be deceptive.
We also cannot falsely dispute the undeniable fact of a larger crowd, or even the subsequent facts uncovered during careful research. Yet, that is a common practice with Creation Science, an effort by Christians to put forth an alternative theory to evolution; God created in six days. A procedure as such is not science (i.e. no transitional forms, invalid dating methods, ‘same data, different conclusions’, etc.), but instead is an attempt to invalidate well established and truthful scientific information.
Science is strategically designed to reduce human bias and errors. The process is self-correcting. Knowledge builds on knowledge, thus falsehoods won’t last long as we build scientific theories with confidence. A rigorous peer review process among experts is used to minimize the likelihood of false ideas being advanced. Science can be trusted to eventually root out and eliminated untruths, leaving truths for our reality.
As such, it is utterly disingenuous to label evolution as false. This is a severe criticism of millions of scientists through the years who have contributed to the concept, dedicating their lives to a painstaking and very detailed process. It also misrepresents the doctrine of science. Scientists seek truth out of curiosity and do so not by guessing, but instead through significant effort and the use of science to correct man’s wrong perceptions (ie. flat earth, geocentrism, alchemy, transmutation, etc.) as we establish knowledge for humanity.
In the vernacular of the general public, theory has a connotation of being just a guess. In science, however, theory can mean the idea has been thoroughly tested, in multiple disciplines, over much time, to the point that it has essentially reached truth, upon which other knowledge and theories can be built. If the process results in a model that accurately predicts future discovery, this confirms the concept as an incontrovertible fact, as is the case with evolution.
Today, the Theory of Evolution is a cathedral constructed of very strong bricks. It has been greatly challenge with the winds of research attempting to disprove it, for nearly two centuries and it remains standing. No other explanation even comes close to explaining the complete collection of discovered facts from the multitude of disciplines that align with the idea. With each decade as our understanding grows, the theory becomes better supported. The structure will continue to change shape as we modify the theory to accommodate new information, but the basic concept is solid. Purporting that evolution is made of sand or on shaky ground or ‘just a theory’ is simply not true.
“The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge, for the ears of the wise seek it out.” (Proverbs 18:15)