Religion 101

As I mentioned in my previous blog entry, a sizable proportion of the American public in general fails to understand that in science, a theory is not just a working hypothesis or a mere educated guess, but actually a systematic, comprehensive, testable, and scientifically well-supported explanation of observed phenomena. Theories never become facts; theories explain facts.

The theory of gravity explains the fact of gravity. The theory of relativity explains the phenomenon of relativity. The theory of evolution explains the fact or phenomenon of evolution.

Using “theory” in this precise, technical sense, creationism does not qualify as a scientific theory. It provides no such systematic, detailed, comprehensive, testable, or scientifically well-supported explanations of anything. There is no genuine empirical evidence to support its claims. It is neither testable nor falsifiable. If the evidence one day compels scientists to re-think or even abandon evolution, scientists will do so, since they are committed to the scientific method, and to following the evidence wherever it may lead. By contrast, no conceivable evidence of any sort can ever convince diehard creationists to abandon creationism; this only underscores the reality that creationism is a faith-based position, rather than a evidence-based position.

Given that creationism is ultimately not a scientific conclusion based upon empirical evidence (it has none, despite what creationist books and websites attempt to present as supporting evidence), it should seem transparently clear that creationism simply has no business being taught in science classes.

Many creationists erroneously argue that their religious belief in divine creation, as described in the biblical book of Genesis, is every bit as much of a “theory” as evolutionary theory (again confusing scientific theory with the colloquial sense of “theory” as a mere hypothetical possibility). If both are “just theories,” they often argue, then neither yet qualifies as “proven fact” (again failing to realize scientific theories never become facts, but instead function as explanations of facts, while also failing to understand that evolution is both theory and fact). And if, in their minds, both creationism and evolution are both just alternative “unproven theories,” then why not teach both? Why not give both “theories” equal time? Why not just let students decide for themselves?

This might at first sound merely like a reasonable appeal to “fair play,” at least among those who do not fully grasp or appreciate the critical distinction between a legitimate scientific theory and a “theory” in the looser colloquial sense of the term. The problem, of course, is that evolution is a genuine scientific theory (in the precise technical sense of the word), whereas creationism is not. In other words, evolution is real science, and creationism simply isn’t. Science classes are not (or should not be) in the habit of giving equal time to non-scientific alternatives. After all, we don’t expect teachers to devote equal class time to teaching about both astrology as well as astronomy, or to alchemy as well as chemistry, or to arguments in favor of a flat earth. Teaching creationism alongside evolution would give the false impression that creationism was somehow on par with evolution as a scientific theory, when in fact such is simply not the case.

Sometimes proponents of teaching creationism alongside evolution in science classrooms argue that it should be done simply in order to “teach the controversy.” However, the problem here is that within the scientific community, there simply is no controversy. Contrary to what one often reads in creationist literature, evolution is by no stretch of the imagination “a theory in crisis.” Like any scientific theory, the theory of evolution is open-ended, constantly being added to and improved upon as new data comes to light; as part of that ongoing process of discovery, scientists will continue to debate among themselves the details or precise mechanisms of this or that particular aspect of evolutionary theory. However, this by no means implies that the theory itself is coming increasingly under question; in fact, quite the opposite is true. Every new development thus far has further strengthened the theory, rather than in any way undermined it.

Based upon literally mountains of evidence from multiple disciplines all seamlessly converging in favor of it, the theory of evolution is in fact accepted by the overwhelming majority of scientists worldwide. Within the U.S. alone (itself a major bulwark of creationism), polls indicate that about 95% of scientists generally, and over 99% of scientists specifically working in relevant fields such as life sciences and earth sciences, accept evolutionary theory and reject creationism.

(To be continued, in Part Four)