Redefining Words: Theories (Aren’t Bills)

Redefining Words: Theories (Aren’t Bills) August 11, 2013

Recently, Ball State University came into the spotlight when their administration had to rein in an associate professor who decided to teach Intelligent Design in a class called “The Boundaries of Science,” and in coming into the spotlight, BSU has illustrated one of the most pernicious redefinitions the modern fundagelical movement has at its disposal: the redefinition of the word “theory.”

So what was all the fuss? Isn’t Intelligent Design, as its proponents describe it, a viable theory that competes with the Theory of Evolution?

In a word, no.

In two words, hell no.

A long time ago, there was creationism, and it was good. (Some of this is from this most excellent NCSE writeup.) Then Charles Darwin and some other folks came up with the idea of inherited traits that evolved over time. Some churches fell right into line. Others flipped their shit and drilled down on the stupid. At this point, we’ve got not one, not two, but three different main schools of creationists floating around.

Young Earth Creationists (YEC) think that the universe really is just a few thousand years old. I know, I know, but really, they think that. Their Bibles say so, and obviously everything the Bible says is literally true, except that stuff about pork and mixed fibers and stoning to death people who work on Sundays. And, well, most of the rules that are hard to follow, like giving away all their money to the poor and murdering brides who aren’t virgins on their wedding night. But the stuff about a six-day creation story is absolutely true. All of it.

Old Earth Creationists (OEC) think that their god created the universe all right, but they’re cool with it being billions of years old. They come up with all sorts of creative ways to explain away the time differences and make the Bible still literally true (minus those aforementioned hard-to-follow parts) yet more or less reconcilable with science.

Intelligent Design (ID) proponents are basically sneaky creationists. Decades ago, American courts banned the teaching of creationism in science classes because, well, creationism isn’t science but religion. But fundies don’t function well in situations where they can’t dominate and oppress everybody else, so they hit upon the ingenious (they thought, anyway) solution of (and I’m being quite literal here) renaming creationism and removing from ID any citations with explicit references to their god. Why, they say with huge innocent doe eyes, who knows just what the creator was? It might be aliens or something!

Sure. Yeah, the rest of us go. Or something. Other than this minor semantic change, ID is not in the least different from creationism, which is why courts keep throwing it out on its ear.

Intelligent Design is going to be my chief focus today, since it’s the threat that still looms over schools all over the country.

One reason that ID has managed to sink its hooks so deeply into America is that for quite some time, we haven’t been taking science education very seriously. I myself am in my 40s and a product of the public educational system, which is to say I graduated long before ID or creationism were required in-group markers for fundamentalists.  There were some of ’em, sure, of course there were. Even back then we had the bumper stickers saying “God said it, I believe it, that settles it!” (though my pastor at the time publicly snorted at these, saying the middle phrase should be left out entirely for a truly more-hardcore-than-thou sentiment). I certainly knew people who took Genesis literally. Just most of us didn’t. Things have only gotten worse since my time. I genuinely think that people my age just don’t realize how deeply entrenched ID concepts and deceptions have gotten with people.

Case in point: the very idea of a theory.

Now, to repeat myself, I was schooled at a time when ID/creationism weren’t nearly as big of an issue as they are today. And even I didn’t actually discover what a theory was until a few years ago while watching a Neil deGrasse Tyson video on YouTube. Think about that. A person in her 40s, someone who actually likes science and is very sympathetic to comprehensive science education, didn’t know one of the most fundamental things about science there could possibly be.

Seriously, I compared “theories” to that old Schoolhouse Rock song about bills. I thought that a hypothesis was like a wild guess, but if it got enough support, it would graduate to theory-hood. And if a theory got enough support, it would become a law. Then and only then was it considered a fact. Until then, it was just a hunch; it wasn’t a done deal or proven for sure.

Just writing that made me cringe, but folks, I seriously thought like this. I had no idea in the world that theories worked differently than that. And judging by how creationists/ID adherents like Governor Rick Perry talk nowadays, they sure don’t know any different than I did. In fact they seem to bank on the fact that their audience won’t have the faintest idea what a “theory” actually is or how it differs from how non-science people use the word.

I’m going to let the American Museum of Natural History explain it, since they did such a great job of it:

A theory is a well-substantiated explanation of an aspect of the natural world that can incorporate laws, hypotheses, and facts. The theory of gravitation, for instance, explains why apples fall from trees and astronauts float in space. Similarly, the theory of evolution explains why so many plants and animals–some very similar and some very different–exist on Earth now and in the past, as revealed by the fossil record.

Don't tell me you don't look at this picture and think of the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Photo of side entrance of American Museum of Natural History (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A theory isn’t just an explanation, however. It’s also a way to make predictions. It asks questions more than it just answers them. Its properties can be tested and falsified–in other words, there are conditions that, if met, would render the theory false. A theory is an explanation of how something natural happens, so it’s not valid unless there are ways we’d know it was false–and also invalid if it doesn’t make predictions about what it’s explaining!

So are you seeing yet why ID isn’t a theory at all?

ID doesn’t make any predictions of its own. Its entire thrust is “NUH-UH!” It seeks to invalidate the idea of evolution, as if that would actually validate their own position that the universe just popped into existence thanks to some unseen “designer.” It doesn’t actually explain anything about the world around us at all. There’s no way to test it, and no way to find out if it’s true or false.

The reason ID doesn’t work like a real theory is that its leading minds aren’t actually scientists at all, much less biologists. The originator of ID, Phillip Johnson, was a lawyer, for crying out loud. When one views lists of scientists willing to sign off on ID, the one thing that leaps immediately to mind is that few of them (WND puts it at 154 biologists out of 514 scientists on one list) are trained in any field relevant to biology–but see Project Steve for a fun jab at the ID list–it’s a list of 1200+ real scientists who know evolution is a fact, but only scientists with names related to “Steve,” like Stephanie, Etienne, Esteban, Stephen, etc., are allowed to add their names to the list–and it sure looks like they have more Steves than ID has scientists, period!

The overwhelming conclusion I am forced to draw after reviewing the evidence is that ID is not a scientific idea but a dogma, and that is what courts all over the country have been saying for decades. ID’s response is to lie harder about being a real science, because clearly if their lies didn’t work before, surely they will magically start working soon if repeated often enough.

One of the main reasons I find ID/creationism to be so deceptive, so blatantly dishonest, is that anybody with even half a semester of advanced science should know stuff like this and indeed one or two of their leaders actually have legitimate schooling under their belts, but despite knowing better these people insist on using the word “theory” in ways that mislead and misinform an increasingly scientifically-illiterate audience. If people actually knew what a theory was, they wouldn’t give ID the time of day, and I think ID’s leaders are aware of that truth.

The lies go a lot deeper than that, though. ID also wants people to believe that there’s this huge controversy over whether or not evolution is true, when there is no such controversy at all. They confuse the question of how life arose in the first place (abiogenesis) with how life changed over time (modification with descent). They misuse big words they don’t understand like “micro-evolution” and “macro-evolution.” They make a big fuss over misunderstood concepts like the “Cambrian explosion” like that demonstrates any support for their theory that it all just, like, happened, man.

In their most deceptive move of all, creationists want children to (in the words of Governor Bobby “Stupid Party” Jindal) “make up their own minds” about whether or not something is real or true, when they certainly wouldn’t allow those same children that same intellectual freedom if the matter at hand was religion and not biology. Or, for that matter, math or geography, which are as done of a deal in terms of facts as biology and evolution are.

It’s impossible to ascribe any kind of charitable motive to why creationists are so desperate to indoctrinate children like that. Could it be that creationists want children to “make up their minds” because they know that children are a lot easier target to persuade with logical fallacies than peer-reviewed journals are? Certainly it doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to know that kids will believe almost anything their parents and authority figures tell them if it’s couched just right, whereas trained scientists will know exactly where the claims are incorrect and misleading.

Thankfully, the backlash against the false ideas of creationism/ID is already underway. In the BSU case, the Freedom from Religion Foundation complained to the university, which convened a panel, which found that yes, indeed, the instructor was overstepping the boundaries a little in his “Boundaries of Science” class (clever way to sneak religion into science classes, though, really, isn’t it?), and the university decided that Intelligent Design simply wouldn’t be part of their science curriculum going forward.

The school’s president, Jo Ann Gora, issued this statement: “Intelligent design is overwhelmingly deemed by the scientific community as a religious belief and not a scientific theory. Therefore, intelligent design is not appropriate content for science courses.” Indeed, it is not.

As expected, of course, the Christian right wing freaked out, claiming that their pet pseudo-science has been singled out for suppression and persecution and constitutes no less than a “blatant double standard on academic freedom.” I liked how Gora preemptively responded to claims like that:

As this coverage has unfolded, some have asked if teaching intelligent design in a science course is a matter of academic freedom. On this point, I want to be very clear. Teaching intelligent design as a scientific theory is not a matter of academic freedom – it is an issue of academic integrity. As I noted, the scientific community has overwhelmingly rejected intelligent design as a scientific theory. Therefore, it does not represent the best standards of the discipline as determined by the scholars of those disciplines. Said simply, to allow intelligent design to be presented to science students as a valid scientific theory would violate the academic integrity of the course as it would fail to accurately represent the consensus of science scholars.

Can I get an “Amen” up in this thang, brethren and sistren? She slapped ID hard in the face by bringing forward not only how discredited this fake theory is in the world of real science, but also demonstrating that academic freedom doesn’t give pseudo-scientists the right to peddle crank theories to gullible kids who don’t know better. There’s a time and a place for pseudo-science, urban legends, debunked talking points, and crank theories. The pulpit, for example. Or religion classes. But at a time when the United States is almost dead last (27th out of 29) in science education among first-world countries, we can’t afford to keep crossing the streams like this. We’ve got to keep religion from mixing with science if we even have half a chance of recovering from this slump. The critical thinking skills that go along with science education may terrify parents and pastors alike, but it’s rather telling that instead of trying to figure out how they can make their religion compatible with critical thinking and facts, these leaders are instead trying to enforce ignorance and keep their kids away from anything that threatens the goat-herders’ fairy tale book’s literal veracity.

Well, let ’em. Every time Ken Ham insists dinosaurs not only coexisted with humans but rode on Noah’s Ark, another ex-Christian breaks free.


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Nonreligious
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment