Just a Theory

Just a Theory November 30, 2012

One more meme image that came to my attention on the theme of creationism:

To be fair, in popular usage, the word “theory” does indeed get used regularly for a hunch or worse – after all, we talk of “conspiracy theories.” So perhaps we should spend less time blaming people who have little science education for misunderstanding the way scientists use the term, and more time explaining to them that, in science, a theory is an organizing framework which interprets and allows us to make sense of a wide array of evidence. And so “the theory of evolution” is not like a “conspiracy theory.” It is like universal gravitation or general relativity – a well-established, well-tested explanatory framework that fits the evidence well.

If we can get a larger number of people simply to grasp that most scientists find the theory of evolution to be a good fit to the evidence, and that most scientists are not stupid or incompetent, we will have made real progress with respect to the public understanding of science. At present, even such basics seem to be inaqequately grasped by many – in the United States, at least.


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  • arcseconds

    I think a conspiracy theory is a theory in exactly the same way as the theory of evolution is, and in exactly the way you describe it: ‘an organizing framework which interprets and allows [the holders of the theory] to make sense of a wide array of evidence’ (*).

    The problem with your average conspiracy theory is not that it’s not a theory. The problem is its relation to evidence.

    (*) the word ‘evidence’ begs the question somewhat, because it implies that the phenomenon actually does support the theory. Also a conspiracy theorist’s ‘making sense’ is a bit different from a scientist’s (but not wholly different). So maybe they need to be in scare quotes for the conspiracy theorist.