Is There a Better Word?

What do you do when saying “I accept evolution” doesn’t convey the overwhelming weight of the evidence to support it?

You can read the punchline here, by the way.

Every high school science teacher should just put the same question at the end of every test, regardless of the chapter: “In the scientific community, what does ‘theory’ mean?” Maybe then, it would sink in…

(via Calamities of Nature — thanks to J B for the link!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://www.facebook.com/AnonymousBoy Larry Meredith

    also as you once pointed out in an article before, ask them in the test to explain micro and macro evolution and the evidence for both.

    • Anonymous

      Grr.  micro-macro-.  It’s the same thing. 

    • Darwin’s Dagger

      Macro-evolutionary speciation requires tens of thousands to millions of years. You’ve never seen it because it takes too long to occur within the lifespan of a single human (or the 250+ years we’ve been making careful enough observations to measure such a change). Still, there is plenty of evidence for so called macro-evolution. We call them fossils.

      If that doesn’t work, you hit the person in the face with a trilobite ;). 

      • Anonymous

        If you define species strictly by the ability and inclination to breed, you can grow different species of fruit flies in the lab, simply by raising them on different food

    • Anonymous

      How about, what evidence do you have that there is a mechanism that prevents descendants from being so much changed from their ancestors that they are speciated from them?

      If each generation of a population is nearly indistinguishable from the prior one, the existence of such a mechanism is inconceivable. Unless it’s a magical mechanism. And there’s no evidence of that either.

  • Laura Dresow

    If I was ever in a situation where someone actually posed that question — “Do you believe in evolution?” — my response would be, “No. I know evolution is a valid theory with a preponderance of verifiable evidence.”

  • Anonymous

    Also note the mouseover/alt text

  • Less

    I went to a Catholic high school (in Canada), and it actually was on our biology test. The question was: name 3 individuals who contributed to the theory of evolution. We all wrote paragraphs about Darwin, etc… and we all got the ZERO on the question because we were supposed to start our statements with “The FACT of evolution…” My teacher drilled that into our heads and I’ve never forgotten it.

  • Philbert

    I talk about people understanding evolution. 

  • GregFromCos

    I often wonder if the lack of 2 word really harms many in the way we think. It makes it much more non intuitive to see that knowing something through hard facts, and knowing something through lack of evidence are the same things. 

    And not forcing people to be corrected when they misuse the word, allows us to get away with thinking  that something with little evidence is the same as something for which there is lots of evidence.

    Take the case of Casey Anthony, how many “believed” she was guilty? But was there really substantial good evidence? Probably a case where “believe” is a good word. 

    But if asked, “Do you believe, the moon orbits the earth?” The word “believe” seems like an understatement there.

    Often I almost wonder if the answer should not be something more like “The moon orbits the earth.” or “Evolution is true.” And leave the word “believe” out entirely.

  • Jccarter25

    I just went off in a rant on our local NBC Facebook page about this very thing. There’s no belief in science. Something is supported by evidence or it is not. Belief doesn’t enter into it.

  • GregFromCos

    Also, to the term “Theory”. I wish science would do a better job of defining it. It does not automatically mean that it is proven. Take for example “String Theory”. There is no proof for that yet, but it shares the term Theory with Gravity. It seems to me that there should be an additional qualifier to a theory name to tell whether its still just a hypothesis.  Likely I’m just showing my ignorance here, but it does seem that it is used at times when it should not be, which just cheapens the validity of true Theories that have lots of proof for them.

    • Anonymous

      You can’t prove any kind of theory. Scientific proof is a mathematical concept that is possible due to math’s strict formalism. I doesn’t exist in the natural sciences.

      I agree though that quantum mechanics and cosmology have some concepts that are incorrectly called theories. That’s been bothering me lately too. They probably got the name because they are a lot further developed than hypotheses, but they are missing the evidence

      • Nick LaRue

        Steve84 you’re confusing theorem (math based) and theory. Scientific proof is confirmation of predictions based on evidence, you don’t need math for this other than statistics.

        As for the idea that there are ‘theories’ that are unproven, that’s because they’re ‘theoretical’ or highly probable, based on the math and knowledge that we have. The testing will come but at this stage the math or evidence we have confirms it. 

        A theory is not a law, it’s not absolute. It’s what we know based on what we understand. It can be added to, like evolution, but it can also be disproved.

    • Anonymous

      There are two separate definitions of theory at work here. In the case of “string theory”, we’re using the definition meaning “field of study.” The same, for example, goes for “germ theory.”

      The definition of theory as in “theory of evolution” or “big bang theory” is an explanation for an event (or for a type of event) based on observed facts, logic, and possibly other proven theories.

    • ShadowLop

      Me and my brother came up with this to explan theory, fact and law:
      Fact: X
      Law: X when Y
      Theory: X because Z

      X is whatever the subject is
      Y is a defined set of circumstances
      Z is an explanation to answer “why?”

      Example:
      Fact: objects are pulled towards each other
      Law: objects are pulled towards each other when affected by each others gravity
      Theory: objects have mass because of the effect of Higgs boson particles
      TEST IT!

      Many facts make laws, many laws make theories.

      Obviously this is incredibly simplified, but it’s the foundation behind the terminology.

      (if I have it wrong, someone smarter than me let me know)

      • David McNerney

        “…many laws make theories.”

        I don’t know about that.  It suggests a hierarchy which doesn’t exist.

        I liked Stephen Hawkings’ description of a theory as simply “a model” that explains an aspect of nature.  The model should match the facts and have predictive ability.

  • Anonymous

    The English language is so permeated with religious connotation as to make it difficult to converse without including some of it. Our options are to use this language, or do as Laura Dresow suggests above.  

    In the end it is content dependent. At times it does no harm to use the word “believe,” while other situations require an in-depth explanation. To take every conversation where one of these situations arises and apply an involved, circuitous answer might be counterproductive.

  • Montana Atheist

    I remember reading an article on JREF some years ago that addressed a point very similar to this.  Religious people have Faith and it defines their conviction.  I have Confidence.  Confidence based on an observable, testable, and repeatedly demonstrated universe.  I have Confidence in Evolution.

    • Guestpest

      The only problem with the word “confidence” is, it’s also used to describe con-men, short for confidence men. If someone says they have confidence in evolution, a theist might say they were conned.

      • Montana Atheist

        Which is why I always specify that my confidence is derived from skeptical review of the evidence.

  • Sarah D

    Don’t use an “I” statement. Evolution is not a belief or a feeling. It is a fact. No one says “2+2=4.” The statement should just be “evolution is . . .”

    • Rieux

      I concur. Good approach.

  • Surgoshan

    I believe in evolution to the same degree that I believe in my chair; not at all.

    Notice how I don’t fall to the floor.  Because the fact of my chair is no more influenced by the fact of my belief than is evolution.

    • Sven

      No, you have it al wrong!
      Not falling to the floor is caused by not believing in gravity.

  • gsw

    Evolution is.

  • Anonymous

    Richard Dawkins tried to introduce “theorum” (like “theorem” in Math) but it’s never really caught on.  A “theorem is a statement that has been proven on the basis of previously established statements, such as other theorems, and previously accepted statements, such as axioms. ” (from wikipedia) so a theorum works in the same way but not simply mathematically.

  • Darwin’s Dagger

    The simplest and most direct response to being asked if you believe in evolution is to state that “evolution is true.” Then, if they ask you to prove it, share the evidence. Or hand them Jerry Coyne’s book.

  • Filippo Salustri

    “Evolution is fact.”  Optionally followed by “You can choose to believe it, or to live a lie.”

  • http://slrman.wordpress.com James Smith

    I have a problem with the word, “belief”.  I often hear, “Atheism is a belief like religion.”  The difference is, religion is based upon faith.  Faith is professing continued acceptance without supporting evidence and often in the face of contradictory evidence.

    Atheism is based upon observable facts, such as the contradictions and impossibilities of religion.  It is also based upon the total lack of any supporting evidence.  It is knowing, not believing.  That’s a huge difference to me. 

    I do not “believe” in evolution, I accept the evidence that it is a fact.


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