“Only a theory”???

February 8, 2012 • 10:02 am

Technicianonline.com, which appears to be the student newspaper from North Carolina State University, has a new editorial called “Evolution: theory not fact” by deputy viewpoint editor Madison Murphy. It not only mischaracterizes evolution, but makes the crucial mistake of dismissing evolution as not a fact but “only a theory” (not her words, but an accurate characterization).  Murphy begins with a somewhat misguided definition of evolution:

The theory of evolution can be explained simply: Complex creatures evolved from simplistic creatures over time. All creatures come from a common ancestor. Over time, mutations in genetic codes were maintained as they aided in survival. This process of mutation is called natural selection. Eventually, these mutations build up until a complex creature is the result.

Leaving aside the hilarious misuse of the word “simplistic,” this paragraph gets natural selection wrong in several ways: mutations aren’t “maintained”, but increase in frequency; the currency of selection is reproduction, not survival alone; and selection is not just a “process of mutation”, but a process that involves the selective disposition of mutations via a deterministic process of gene sorting.

She then appears to favor teaching alternative creationist views, a deeply misguided notion, but in the process also conflates those views:

There are opposing theories to evolution, however, and they are also some of the most controversial theories to ever be discussed in science, politics, religion and education. These opposing theories are creationism and intelligent design. Some people lump these two together, but they are slightly different.

The theory of intelligent design states that the creation of a complex being could not have happened randomly or by chance. There had to have been a higher power that created this complexity. However, according to intelligent design, this “designer” could have been anyone.

The theory of creationism, on the other hand, states the designer was God. The extremes of creationism vary as well. Some people believe in what is strictly stated in the Bible in Genesis without any room for other possibilities. Others, such as Catholics, believe evolution could have occurred the way Darwin describes, but by the power of God. This belief also says evolution cannot account for the creation of the human soul.

Well, yes, IDers do avoid identifying the designer, but the differences are deeper than this.  Many advocates of intelligent design do admit that species evolved over time, and often did so via natural selection.  Some, like Michael Behe, even admit common ancestry of species. IDers usually affirm that not that all organisms were created ex nihilo, but that some features of organisms, like the famous bacterial flagellum, couldn’t have evolved via Darwinian natural selection, and thus required a designer.  Both ID and straight Biblical creationism are creationist theories, as is the theistic evolution described by Murphy in the last sentence.

But I weep for Murphy, and also for her biology professor, when she writes stuff like this:

Recently, I was sitting in a class in which my professor began to speak about evolution. As a believer of Biblical creationism, my interest is often piqued when evolution is brought up in a class. Normally, I do not mind a discussion of the theory since it’s so widely accepted by my peers. However, this time, it was different.

My professor started talking about the Theory of Evolution as if it was a fact. This is a problem. Evolution is not a fact, it’s a theory.

Defined, a theory is “an unproven assumption.” Let’s treat it as such. I have no problem learning about evolution if it’s presented as what it is: unproven. I don’t even mind learning about evolution without any mention of intelligent design or creationism, if it’s presented as a theory. But, when a professor begins to speak of it as though it’s a proven fact, I get bothered.

A scientific theory is not an “unproven assumption.”  Doug Futuyma explains the difference on p. 613 of his book Evolution (the textbook we’re using this quarter in my introductory evolution class). Not only Murphy, but all of us would benefit from reading these two short paragraphs:

A theory, as the word is used in science, doesn’t mean an unsupported speculation or hypothesis (the popular use of the word).  A theory is, instead, a big idea that encompasses other ideas and hypotheses and weaves them into a coherent fabric. It is a mature, interconnected body of statements, based on reasoning and evidence, that explains a wide variety of observations. It is, in one of the definitions offered by the Oxford English Dictionary, “a scheme or system of ideas and statements held as an explanation of account of a group of ideas or phenomena; . . .a statement of what are known to be the general laws of something known or observed.” Thus atomic theory, quantum theory, and plate tectonic theory are not mere speculations or opinions, but strongly supported ideas that explain a great variety of phenomena.  There are few theories in biology, and among them evolution is surely the most important.

So is evolution a fact or a theory? In light of these definitions, evolution is a scientific fact. That is, the descent of all species, with modification from common ancestors is a hypothesis that in the last 150 years or so has been supported by so much evidence, and has so successfully resisted all challenges, that it has become a fact.  But this history of evolutionary change is explained by evolutionary theory, the body of statements (about mutaitons, selection, genetic drift, developmental constraints, and so forth) that together account for the various changes that organisms have undergone.

And, of course, the myriad of facts supporting the theory of evolution is the subject of my book, Why Evolution is True.

What is most striking is that Murphy, like a Muslim who sees a teddy bear named Mohamed, is “deeply offended” at the idea that evolution might be true and its detractors blinkered:

This particular professor went on to state that those who don’t believe in evolution are wrong. He said that there are so many facts proving it’s truth that one would have to be ignorant not to believe it. I found this to be deeply offensive. I am not ignorant simply because I choose to believe one theory over another.

Yes she is, and for several reasons.  First, Biblical creationism is not a “theory,” it’s a fiction. Choosing to believe that over the fact of evolution is ignorance in the worst sense.

There are two ways to construe “ignorance”: as simple non-acquaintance with facts, or acquaintance with facts but choosing to ignore them.  The former is no crime, and is easily remedied by, say, reading my book.  The latter is an intellectual crime, and it’s one that Murphy has committed.  She is indeed ignorant in the second sense because she chooses to ignore the incontrovertible scientific evidence rather than the unsupported claims of her faith.  And she characterizes herself as a “Biblical creationist,” which means she ignores not only the evidence from biology, but from physics, geology, and astronomy as well.  She apparently thinks the earth is just a few thousand years old.  Now that is ignorance—willful, blind, obedient-to-God ignorance.

The misguided notion of evolution as “only a theory” reappears in Murphy’s closing:

If professors or teachers at any grade level are going to teach evolution, they should make sure their students are aware that it is a theory and not a fact. If a student who had never been taught evolution before had been sitting in that class, they would forever think evolution is a fact and those who believe otherwise are nutcases.

Not only do professors need to be wary of what they’re teaching, but students must also be cautious. Students, never take anything a professor says at face value. I encourage you to research things for yourself and make an informed opinion. You never know when someone could be teaching you theory and not fact.

Yes, Ms. Murphy, evolution is a theory and a fact as well.  Those who don’t accept it either don’t know the evidence or, as in your case, are blinded to that evidence by adherence to religion. Perhaps Murphy’s evolution professor didn’t give that evidence, and if that’s true he should have.  That’s why my first two lectures in Evolution are on the evidence for it, and why I wrote my book.  But before dismissing evolution as “only a theory,” Murphy should have “researched things for herself”.  She obviously didn’t.

Murphy’s piece has garnered 259 comments at the site.  Most of them are right on the mark, but some miss it widely. Here’s an example of each (click to enlarge):

181 thoughts on ““Only a theory”???

  1. Apropos of a previous thread, it is interesting to see Murphy, a defender of creationism, put “theistic evolution” under that term.

  2. I am reminded of a student in one of my classes a few years ago who was charged by other students of being ignorant because she rejected the theory and fact of evolution. She replied to the charge, “I am not ignorant. I know the facts, but I choose not to believe them.”

    1. What she cannot accept is the implication that there is no one up in the sky, pressing a button with her name on it.

  3. Nice quote-mine at the end, probably just reposted from some other creationism source.

    Here, let me fix that…
    Evolution Religion is a fairy tale for grown-ups. This (thing that is totally not a) theory has helped nothing in the progress of science. It is useless.”

    1. Well spotted, Eric. the “think for yourself” meme (meaning don’t accept the evidence for evolution) does indeed crop up all over the place in the post-Dover counter-educational creationist literature. “Explore Evolution” is a good example.

  4. Thanks for taking this up. I was appalled by that article, too.

    A Facebook friend chimed in to say that many scientists were just as wrong as the author about what constituted a ‘fact’. I think the author had a long way to go to even be wrong, though.

      1. Actually, her professor was remiss for not thoroughly explaining and defining the term “Theory” in the scientific sense. Once the definition is stipulated as the factual definition, she would find herself to be boxed in. But Creationists never, ever accede to the overwhelming evidence. Ms. Murphy probably thinks she is being “tested by God.”

  5. I never use the expression “theory of evolution” precisely because it invites the kind of ignorant or willful misunderstanding that this student has shown. And I bet she didn’t hear the expression in class, either.

    It’s worth emphasising that calling something a theory says absolutely nothing about its truth. Theories range from the theory of conic sections (a branch of geometry, and as certain as anything can be), through Newton’s theory of gravity (true up to a point), and ideal gas theory (true of a non-existent gas, to which real gases approximate), to the Steady State theory of the Universe (wrong).

    That evolution has occurred is an incontrovertible fact of history. That it continues to occur is an equally incontrovertible fact of observation. That evolution is driven by natural selection operating on random mutations is indeed a theory, and a pretty good one, subject to possible refinements (neutral drift? inheritance of epigenetic factors?), like other scientific theories.

    1. Pace my comment below, you are right that “theory” is too fluid a term, even in science. As an erstwhile physicist, I cringe when cosmologists use the term “M-theory”, which is still highly speculative. Maybe biologists have higher standards!

      The “theory of X” construction seems to correlate to stronger senses than the “X theory” construction. (Although “quantum theory” is rather strong.)


            1. Kind of a dick thing to say, man. Public school teachers in the U.S. are usually expected to have an undergrad degree in the subject they’re teaching and a master’s in education and they’re expected to pay down their student loans on a salary that in many cases won’t go above $50,000 a year until they’ve been working 5 or 6 years in a single district (if they switch districts it will take even longer). Most of them work really fucking hard for little money and just about no respect.

              Disrespecting teachers the way you did is one way to ensure our educational system never gets any better. Kudos.

              1. Those are certainly not the requirments where i live. Then again, i live in Wyoming so that makes sense. lol

      1. A lot of physicists (and almost all mathematicians, if thinking through to their logic classes) use “theory” to mean a set of statements (or propositions, whatever) closed under a deduction relation.

      2. I am not a scientist. Please excuse me if my question seems silly. Considering that “theory” has different meanings and its more commonly used meaning is not the one used by science, why must scientist continue to use the word at all? I don’t like caving in to morons, but this argument has been repeated ad nauseum. Instead of being able to move on to more interesting arguments, we continue to get hung up on this one which is basically a waste of time and allows the other side to appeal to non-scientists. Why should someone who is not involved in scientific work of any kind be expected to understand the scientific meaning of the word “theory”?

          1. I understand, but I have always accepted evolution as fact, but I didn’t know the scientific definition of “theory” until a couple of years ago and so I had no idea how to respond to the “just a theory” comment. Out of curiosity I happened to buy “Origin” at a tag sale and at the same time I started reading Christopher Hitchens and that led to Dawkins and so on until I’m actually here reading the posts of a brilliant mind about evolution. I’ve accepted my own atheism for the last 40 years without ever being able to put together a decent argument in defense of my non-belief and throughout that time if somebody said evolution was only a theory I had no argument except to say it was a very good theory. My point is that the word “theory” gets in the way of acceptance of evolution by the average person.

        1. Someone who is not involved in scientific work of any kind shouldn’t be expected to understand the scientific meaning of the word “theory”.

          But anyone who is critical of science certainly should! And shouldn’t equivocate between scientific and quotidian meanings (as in “just a theory”) to mislead the unwary.


          1. But they are critical of science and they are given forums like the NC State newspaper in which to spout their blather. And that means that once again those who know better have to defend the Theory of Evolution from an attack that couldn’t be made if the word “theory” wasn’t used by scientists once a theory is proven. But I am wasting my time suggesting something that will never happen. Everyone has a good argument why people like Murphy should know, or at least take the time to look up, the proper usage and meaning of “theory”. Bear in mind though that nobody does anything because you think he or she should.

            1. I expect this suggestion will be ignored, for the reason you just stated (“…nobody does anything because…”).

              Go read up on the word “theory”. Theories are not proven. Mathematical statements are proven. Theories are supported by evidence. Theories are developed. They may be improved. They may be abandoned. They may get stronger. But they are not proven.

  6. I do not see another apology in the offing! 😉

    Never mind about rejecting evolution, if Murphy doesn’t even know what “theory” means in science, she really hasn’t been paying attention. Unless she’s being wilfully ignorant about this as well…


    PS. Jerry: You have a book on evolution? Who knew?

    1. That would be a waste. There are plenty of good books on evolution, probably including WEIT, in the university and public libraries. She’s not going to read those, either.

    1. Good point. As Laplace pointed out, it is a hypothesis, and of no use as a hypothesis.

      And it is a hypothesis that Occam’s Razor gives the buM’s rush with an emphatic “heave ho”. There are thousands of competing “goD” hypotheses, none agree with the others, and none fit with the body of evidence at all, none are consonant with any other branch of science, and none are of any practical application whatsoever. That pretty much takes care of the “goDs” hypotheses.

      Whereas….There is one–and only one–scientific theory to explain the characteristics of life here on Earth, and it works not only with all the biological data, but is consonant with all the rest of science.

  7. Yes, evolution is a fact and a theory, but I think we need to admit defeat on ever getting the scientific meaning of ‘theory’ across to hard-core faith-heads. Let’s just call evolution a fact, on every possible occasion.

    Both Why Evolution if True and The Greatest Show on Earth could equally well have been called The Fact of Evolution, and perhaps they should have been.


    1. Another thing that might help is to try to make sure that we say “hypothesis” when that is what we mean, rather than using “theory” in its colloquial sense instead.

      Admittedly “M-hypothesis” doesn’t sound right, though.

        1. Hmmmm….If it is all a random cosmic accident, shouldn’t it be “Mm-Doh!Nuts Hypothesis”?

          (Or would that be the version from the UID cosmologists–the UnIntelligent Designer cosmological theory. Somewhere, before the Big Bang, there was a sign: “Don’t touch the singularity”….) {Doh!]

    2. Since evolution is a central principle of every branch of biology, why not simply call it the ‘principle of evolution’ vice ‘theory’?

      [/junior pedant]

    3. “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.” *

      Neither honour nor, obviously, good sense being involved, there is no reason whatsover to give in; not on the meaning and use of theory, nor on anything else.

      * Winston Churchill at Harrow, October 29, 1941.

    4. Since religious, theologists and philosophers can have their own personal “truths”, but no one can own a fact, I agree wholeheartedly.

      As I have a physics background I also tend to view the existence of the process of evolution as a (tremendously) observable fact, nice as a well tested theory is.

      We give the 19th century theologians a modern clout with an understandable but unfortunate sentimental connection to the origins of the field. That is the origin and mold of creationist denialism, even if later “scientific creationists” made their contributions.

      1. Only lacklustre philosophers have decided their “personal truths”; good philosophers sincerely try to find the actual truth.

        As a group they have a track record of disagreeing, principally because most of history has lacked the kind of rigour and evidence-gathering technology that we are now developing.

        Cognitive science, for instance, can be used to enhance our theories of mind, and in time it may also enhance moral philosophy by giving us some kind of evidence.

        On the other side, stuff like epistemology is mostly agreed-upon. No sensible philosopher would deny the utility of the razor, scepticism, empiricism, pragmatism, etc.

        With regards to OP:

        ’nuff said?

    5. Careful with your typos there, Richard! That “evolution if true” might end up getting quote mined by some disreputable creationist to suggest you lack certainty on the truth of evolution!:-)

      1. Uh, a Freudian slip, perhaps?

        Or maybe a subconscious functionality, since I myself, an ID adherent, am still open to alternative explanations to account for novelty and complexity generation.

        WordPress w/o editing functions. Damn …

    6. Unfortunately I think you’re right Richard. There just isn’t any reasoning with people who don’t want to see the evidence. It’s sad but true.

      The tragedy is, once you start reading about evolution, it is endlessly fascinating. I’m no scientist, but I’m finding my appetite for knowledge in this subject constantly growing. I’m currently reading Sean Carroll’s “The Making of the Fittest”, and again I’m finding wonderfully clear writing, overwhelming evidence, and also humility. I don’t see “arrogance” anywhere, I see scientists openly admitting what is known and what isn’t, and what the evidence points to.

      The fact of evolution sounds perfectly appropriate to me.


    7. Semantics is difficult. Popper described tools to verify simple observations, we use them and make them better, but there is no tool to verify something so complex as theory. Workaround goes to verification of simple observations predicted by the theory… Nightmare. That lives a space for speculations and arguments without a merit…

  8. I think everyone that says “just a theory” should be required to do one or more of the following:

    * Hold live high tension wires without any protection (Electricity is just a theory)

    * Jump off a highrise building (Gravity is just a theory)

    * Go to Japan and explain to the residents of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Fukushima how Atomic Theory is just a theory.

  9. There are two ways to construe “ignorance”: as simple non-acquaintance with facts, or acquaintance with facts but choosing to ignore them.

    I’ve always felt there were at least three types of ignorance: simple ignorance (“non-acquaintance with facts”), willful ignorance (“I don’t know, and I don’t want to know”), and prideful ignorance (“I don’t know, and that’s a virtue”).

    The last is the worst, most destructive kind of ignorance, and is unfortunately the type we are seeing more commonly nowadays, particularly in connection with anti-science people such as this.

    1. …try as I might, I can’t come up with an example of your third type of ignorance without having religion poke its nasty little head into the scenario.

      Can you think of a non-religious instance of prideful ignorance?

      1. In fiction. Sherlock Holmes dismissing information that wouldn’t help him solve crimes. IIRC, he said he would deliberately forget the information about the planets that John (or was it James) Watson had just imparted to him.

        IRL, not always religion, but any kind of woo… I’m reminded of the Simpsons episode where a new math teacher has the students “feel” numbers, much to Lisa’s disgust.


        PS. I think Homer is still around…

        1. I believe it was in “A Study in Scarlet” that Holmes reveals that he did not know that the Earth orbits the Sun, rather than vice versa, and will try to immediately forget that fact. That’s what I say (and do) whenever anyone mentions anything about some group of entities called “the Kardashians”. I’m not sure if they are an alien race or a group of famous people, but either way I try to not, to quote Barbara Bush, let them bother my beautiful mind.

          1. As I recall (and I could be wrong), the reason Holmes was going to forget that fact was due to the theory that there was only room for so much information in the human brain, so he wanted to leave room for more useful (to him) information.

            I have no idea whether that theory is credible.

      2. Nationalism. Many Americans, for example, don’t know much about the world outside the USA, and are proud of that fact.

        1. Really? They’re proud of it? I know that most Americans are thoroughly ignorant about anywhere not the USA but I didn’t realise this was a cause for pride, fascinating! Why? Because it would sully their beautiful minds to put facts about inferior, un-American places into them?

          I do agree that you can’t know everything and therefor some discrimination must be used in what one does learn. OTOH I’m a knowledge junkie so I know all kinds of stuff I don’t need to know.

          1. Yes, in my experience, truthspeaker speaks sooth. There is a prideful self-identifying with ignorance, and a distrust of those who are, by not being ignorant, too visibly not of the same [by definition therefrom virtuous] tribe/group.

            I have encountered it so many times, and still find it inexplicable.

        2. It was pretty amazing when Newt Gingrich campaigned against Mitt Romney by criticising the fact that he can speak French! Presumably his campaign managers believed that for a lot of voters that would be something that would make Romney a suitable POTUS. Which category of ignorance does that fall into? Truly weird!

          1. That’s because “French” is a four letter word in the circles Newt’s trying to appeal to. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if some of those people still had freedom fries and freedom toast.

            1. According to the Wiki on Newt Gingrich,

              He spent six months in Brussels in 1969–70 working on his dissertation entitled “Belgian Education Policy in the Congo 1945–1960”.

              That would intimate fluency in French (or Flemish?). Certainly the requisite colonial documents would be in French.
              So it is yet another hyperhypocritical posture from Gingrich. [Aside: How can someone get away with this sort of in-your-face dishonesty? Could I, if I wanted to? I can’t imagine it. It bewilders me that he has any credibility. He shits on everything and everyone. I don’t get it.]
              He makes Nixon look like a figure of towering intellect and integrity.

            2. “Freedom toast”? I have seen “Freedom fries”, but not “Freedom toast”. Is anyone really that stupid? That hypocritical? I would facepalm, but I’m too gobsmacked and saddened to even move.

              My Nana, a Cockney in her day, used to make the same thing as French toast, but she called it “eggy fried bread”. That’s what I grew up calling it, and I had to learn that that is not the name other kids knew it by. I thought “French toast” would be a baguette re-heated in the oven or over a fire. But that was in the 1960s, and the issue wasn’t Francophobia; that’s the name she knew it by. I think “French toast” was the U.S.ian name.

      3. You haven’t encountered people gleefully describing their ignorance of maths or science? You haven’t come across journalists who guffaw their way through science stories and treat trivia as though it were greatly serious and important? You were never snubbed or made fun of at school because you were interested in science?

        The world is beset with people who think ignorance is a badge of pride. It seems to me that there’s more of that type of ignorance around than the other two put together. Religion doesn’t have a monopoly on it, but it does have a big share of that cake.

      4. Some atheists will be proud of ignorance of theology, religious history, and comparative religions. I am specifically not talking about milder things like:
        – “I don’t know theology, and I’m neutral about that.”
        – “I don’t know theology, because it’s below my threshold of things important enough to bother to learn.”
        – “I don’t know much theology, but I don’t need to know much to recognize there is no evidence for the existence of God and/or plenty against it.”

        I’m talking about people who would feel ashamed, dirty, soiled by knowing more about it, even if it came free of time spent learning or mental capacity. They’re out there, and a lot of us may not fall into the category but can sometimes present ourselves that way.

        1. Where in that list of “examples” does pride appear?

          I think you need more than that to assert that some of us (Which ones? Do tell!) would feel ashamed, dirty, soiled by knowing more about it, even if it came free of time spent learning or mental capacity.

          1. Hmm… rereading I recognize that I misunderstood your first sentence. The list was a NOT THESE collection. Sorry, ’bout that.

            Still, I do feel you need to provide some evidence of atheists showing prideful ignorance.

            1. I admit I do not have any right at hand, and it may take some looking. I’d probably start with a search at Pharyngula in threads where the Courtier’s Reply comes up. I am NOT accusing PZ of this sort of prideful ignorance, nor am I saying the Courtier’s Reply is a fallacious response. I’m just saying that it’d be a likely place for some commentators there to pipe up with this attitude, going overboard in rejecting the Reply.

              I’d also want to make it clear I do realize that atheists tend to be better informed about theology, comparative religion, and religious history than theists. I’m just saying that I expect I could find some who are positively proud of what they don’t know that way.

              I’m off to search. If I find something, I’ll post it. If I don’t, consider it a conjecture based on… less than what someone could find in a few minutes’ search.

              1. Right then, some searching later –

                I’ve failed to find a good example. I’m not satisfied with how well I’ve been able to search Pharyngula comments. But there’s a good bit of discussion around the Courtier’s Reply at http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2012/01/02/nice-list/ and no one there presents a clear example of prideful ignorance of theology. (None at http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2012/01/26/the-absurd-whiteness-of-be-scofield/ either, though that one didn’t seem as promising.)

                So – I’m left with just an impression I’ve gotten reading atheist blogs for about three years. That’s not quite nothing, but it’s not enough for me to ask anyone else to take it seriously.

              2. OK. My equally subjective lack of memory of such things from my many years of reading atheist blogs/books/etc. carries equivalent weight. Except that I don’t need to demonstrate the negative. 😉

      5. This turns crucially on what counts as a religion. If fascism, stalinism and some sorts of sports-fan-ism don’t count, then the history of those include non-religious invincible ignorance.

    2. I’ll argue that “simple ignorance” ranges from cluelessness (Dunning Kruger effect) to laziness (not willing to find out.) The purpose of higher education is to instill habits of looking beneath the surface and recognizing reputable sources.

  10. The same people who claim evolution is “just a theory” also claim the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus are historical facts, when there is no evidence at all that Jesus every existed.

    1. ??? Only a very fringe few might make that case. The vast majority of historians, archaeologists and scholars find enough evidence to believe Jesus existed. As to him being god that is a different story.

      1. Please quantify “vast majority” for each of:
        • historians;
        • archeologists;
        • scholars (please also identify the discipline of these “scholars”).

        Please quantify “enough”.

        Please qualify “believe” (given that many Christians and others believe Jesus existed in the absence of any evidence).

        And with citations in all cases please!


      2. As someone who is trained in archaeology, my BS Detector has just been triggered. I can not express in words the volume at which it is shrieking.

        1. Is there _any_ non-fringe archaeological evidence claimed for Jesus today? I’m not at all trained in archaeology, but I raised an eyebrow for that claim too, as I’m not familiar with current archaeology being used to support a historical Jesus.

          1. Of course Jesus existed. There were thousands of him around. (‘Jesus’ being apparently a modern rendition of Yeshua).

            Now, as to which of the thousands of Jesii is The One and Only, that may be a little more problematical…

  11. I become sick to my stomach every time I read something so ignorant about evolution. I cringe and feel sad, because I’m afraid we are doomed. We are outnumbered by religious zealots who believe what they want to believe and aren’t shy about spreading their beliefs. I think one day my head will explode. We sure can’t be evolving as a species when the intelligent and educated among us are the only ones who have stopped trying to overpopulate the planet. That’s another story for another time. Once a week or so I post the following on my facebook page because I am so sickened by the “just a theory” people:

    According to the United States National Academy of Sciences,

    The formal scientific definition of theory is quite different from the everyday meaning of the word. It refers to a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence. Many scientific theories are so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter them substantially. For example, no …new evidence will demonstrate that the Earth does not orbit around the sun (heliocentric theory), or that living things are not made of cells (cell theory), that matter is not composed of atoms, or that the surface of the Earth is not divided into solid plates that have moved over geological timescales (the theory of plate tectonics). One of the most useful properties of scientific theories is that they can be used to make predictions about natural events or phenomena that have not yet been observed.[
    So please don’t say evolution is “just a theory”. Please read the following from dictionary.com: A theory in technical use is a more or less verified or established explanation accounting for known facts or phenomena: the theory of relativity. A hypothesis is a conjecture put forth as a possible explanation of phenomena or relations, which serves as a basis of argument or experimentation to reach the truth: This idea is only a hypothesis.

    Very few if any of my fb “friends” bother to read it, but I think every discussion of evolution has to start with an understanding of the definition of the word “theory” according to science. I wish scientists had a different word to use, because those people who believe what they want to believe sieze upon the word and hold on like an attack dog.

    1. Good point. I wonder if Jerry gets vocal creationists in his intorductory evolution course? I recall that PZ does, but his is a state university. Of course this level of ignorance should be dealt with long before college.

      1. I teach at a ‘one sigma” private university (25-26 ACT) and something approaching half of our incoming freshmen embrace some sort of creationism.

        My guess: science is hard and superstition is easy and too many have the attitude of “If I don’t understand it easily it must be BS”.

      2. PZ teaches at a state university but the branch he teaches at is know for being tough academically. I don’t think they have guaranteed admission there, but I could be wrong.

        1. I don’t think that there’s a guaranteed admission, either, but I would imagine that it is still easier to get into UMM than UofC, especially for in-state students.

          Even so, at either school, there will be students in Biology 101 who are taking it as an elective, and who are not necessarily that scientifically literate. Not that JAC’s course is necessarily Bio101.

          1. No, UMM is picky about who’s admitted. I’m a 1970 grad and it is an academically challenging school. The science dept. is especially good.

    2. There have been several studies that show ~25% of incoming college students were taught creationism in high school and a greater percentage were not taught either evolution or creationism. These numbers seems to be fairly uniform across the US (it’s not a deep south phenomenon). It’s no wonder many students are unclear about a basic and fundamental biological concept.

  12. Dear Ms. Murphy:

    Doesn’t matter what you believe. If you can’t recite the evidence for evolution as prescribed by your professor, you get an F.

    It’s all laid out in the syllabus.

    What you choose to do with your new-found knowledge of the facts of evolution after you leave the class is your business. But it’s the college’s business to provide them to you as you have taken a course on the subject. It would also be an abrogation of the responsibility of the professor to the university should he accede to your wishes and not teach his course.

    You’re also free to take a course on Islam and not end up “believing” in the tenets of that religion upon completion. But you’ll have to demonstrate an understanding of those tenets if you want to pass the course.


    1. Well, that’s it isn’t it?

      People like Murphy look on science as another kind of religion that, like Islam, but unlike their flavour of Christianity, or vice versa, is not true. The might end up being able to demonstrate an understanding of the subject matter, but they never even anticipate being willing to accept it as true.

      They really, really don’t get that science truly is a “different way of knowing” — the only one that actually works, allowing us to understand, and model, how the world works.

      And they really don’t see the irony that it’s ultimately only through science that they’re able to live as they do and, in particular, to communicate as they do.


      1. If science deniers suddenly lost the use of the fruits of science, I think science denialism would practically vanish overnight.

        1. At the very least we wouldn’t have to read their screeds on the internet. Or in books printed with movable type.

  13. Lolz. They just don’t have the tools to know why and how it’s true.

    It’s as if their skeptical ability is malfunctioning in some way.

    Since they cannot understand how it really works then they become skeptical about it and fall back on something they do know.

    Problem is the world of magic is very easy to grasp lol.

  14. Oh my! Dear Madison – Hopefully someday you will look back on your statements with chagrin. You are, in essence denying all the physical sciences and over 99% of the professors and researchers in the world. To do this takes great naivety or unwillingness to investigate the facts. You are young and searching for truth. Your comments in the school newspaper are honest but terribly wrong. Your last paragraph was excellent. But, change the word “professor” to “religious leader” and read it again. You are on the right track, but going in the wrong direction.

  15. I’m back at NCSU as a grad student in a teaching program (science), so this is my turf again.
    I don’t always pick up that paper, but I’m heading off now to read it and the comments. I’ll also be keeping an eye out for someone to follow up in the paper.

    Jerry, how about a letter to the Technician?

    1. I haven’t had a Bio class at NCSU in many years, so at least it’s good to know professors there are not creationist apologists.
      I hope my creationist niece at NCSU gets that professor!

  16. I found the Facebook page of Theo Tsourdalakis of the inane pro-creationism comment above, and the only piece of information his Info page offers is that he likes Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed… Quelle surprise!

  17. It takes an arrogant ignorant fool to completely misunderstand the scientific meaning of the word theory. Mind you I blame the Oxford English Dictionary for including two versions for the meaning of this word. Ho Hum onwards and onwards.

    1. We can talk about the two different meanings of “theory” being different, but I think they are in some ways similar and it might helpful in teaching people about what “theory” means in a scientific context to talk about how this meaning is similar to how theory “theory” is usually used in a non-scientific context.

      Madison is using “theory” as a term similar to “speculation” or “conjecture”, which is how people use it often in everyday speech. But when people say “I have a theory” they are usually speculating about some kind of causal relationship or trying to give an explanation of how something came to be. These conjectures are separate from the facts they try to explain and certainly may have very little confirmation, but everyone accepts that they still can be better or worse and are subject to arguments for and against which would include available evidence

      I’ll give you an example of such a non-scientific theory. Consider Amanda Marcotte’s discussion of why Maggie Gallagher’s experiences lead her to be against gay marriage:


      This is a theory in the non-scientific sense, yet it is similar to a scientific theory in some ways in that it attempts to explain something. This is how Sherlock Holmes used “theory”. Ind by the end of the story, most of his conjectures were right.

      So people who say “just a theory” are wrong not only about what “theory” means in a scientific speech, they are wrong about about how “theory” is usually used in a non- scientific context. They treat “theory” like it some alethic operator or epistemic relation nested in some hierarchy or operators or relations. I can assure you as a fan of modal logic that we do not really think there are any absolute hierarchies of of operators and relations.

      Madison is simply incorrect even in a non-scientific sense when she makes the “just a theory” case. Even colloquial theories can have cases made for or against them. Some are better or worse, or even true or false.

      The difference between a scientific theory and a colloquial theory is scope. Scientific theories attempt to explain broad ranges of phenomena. Science seeks broad generality. Colloquial theories might be limited to small numbers of events or even single events.

      My distinction even works for conspiracy theories. No conspiracy theory simply asserts a fact, it attempts to explain accepted facts by asserting other claims to provide a causal framework.

      So suck on it OED. My analysis is better. Leaving out the “just a theory” idiocy, even everyday nonscientific theories can have more or less to be said for or against them. I am sure Madison understood this when her friend tried to help her figure out why her HS boyfriend dumped her. They made speculations and appealed to evidence and prior claims about the nature of human behavior. They made theories.

      The difference between a scientific theory is simply that science tries to achieve a higher lever of generality and is more rigorous about how it deals with evidence and arguments.

      The OED is wrong.

  18. I took an online Organic Chemistry course from NCSU last year, and imagine my surprise when the last set of PowerPoint slides was Dr. Kay Sandberg laying out the case for Intelligent Design.

    True story.

    1. Fortunately she was fool enough to use the school newspaper to make her ignorance public – she’ll be treated with the appropriate respect for a few months.

  19. In another one of her columns, Madison mentions she’s an Education major. Ugh.

    It’s so sad. Perhaps she’ll teach at a fundie school.

    1. As a 1987 grad of what was arguably the second-best state Education program in Colorado (Pueblo; the one in Colorado Springs was considered the best, strangely enough), I am sad to report that 1/2 the graduates were young-earth creationists (by show of approx 200 hands, after a silly evo vs cretin “debate”). Approximately 100 ignorant-and-proud-of-it types subsequently went out into the wide world, many of whom to teach in Colorado public schools. (whoops… I meant to “teach” in Colorado public schools).

  20. So my daughter comes home from school a few days ago. I could tell by the look on her face she’s annoyed. So I ask her what happned. She says a girl in her science class is making her mad and she finally had it and yelled at her. I’m thinking “great. I see a visit to the principals office in my future”. she explanins that whenever they watch a movie and they explain how something came to be, this girl makes the same comment. Under her breath but its loud enough mine can hear it from across the room. For instance the movie will say this is how this was made she’ll mutter “thats not true. God created it” Well, my little diplomat had, had enough. She said it again and mine yells “Shut up, “Anna”! Every time you say that we ALL get a little bit dumber!” I did my best not to laugh, I really did, but a little snicker still came out. All I could say to her was “don’t yell in class” lol

  21. And she characterizes herself as a “Biblical creationist,” which means she ignores not only the evidence from biology, but from physics, geology, and astronomy as well. She apparently thinks the earth is just a few thousand years old. Now that is ignorance—willful, blind, obedient-to-God ignorance.
    Just for the record Biblical creationist could refer to the ‘young earth’ variety (rejecting age of earth/universe evidences of physics, geology, astronomy) and the ‘old earth’ variety (accepting age of earth and physical science evidence but not necessarily accepting a naturalistic evolutionary theory.)
    “My professor started talking about the Theory of Evolution as if it was a fact. This is a problem. Evolution is not a fact, it’s a theory.”
    How bout Ms. Murphy reserve judgement and pay good attention in class…listen to her professor…study…THEN make an informed decision on where evolutionary theory stands? Unfortunately her current ignorances and biases cloud her judgement.

  22. I say, let them rattle the rocks around in their mostly hollow skulls as much as they want. Leave ’em in the dust. They’re seeking attention and we’re giving it to them. Good science will eventually trump the creotards. Evidence is evidence, regardless of what the wingnuts believe. Onward through the fog …

  23. “I am not ignorant simply because I choose to believe one theory over another.”

    I do not buy the theory of gravity. Objects simply cannot fall by themselves. They require an intelligent dropper. As an example, let’s consider Murphy’s article. That excrement could not have gotten on the paper by itself, it required a dropper. Murphy is therefore an intelligent dropper, ergo Jesus.

    I am I ignorant, Madison Murphy, for believing the intelligent excrement dropper theory over the gravity theory?

  24. I went to the original article. Currently, there are almost 300 posts. I can’t say I read all of them, but I skimmed through maybe half. I, as a Brit, constantly hearing about the dumbing down of the US was surprised to discover the overwhelming antipathy towards the views expressed by Ms. Madison. There are only a couple which support the writer in anything like as unequivocal a way as does the Theo T guy and perhaps another half dozen or so which are a bit lukewarm: more of the live and let live variety. And this at a Southern State University. Perhaps things are not so bad as one is led to believe.

  25. One of the frustrations in introducing the scientific method to newcomers is we can’t get there early enough, before familial and tribal influence establishes a wall.
    It is my experience that basic scientific research tends to bounce off such walls, and in the world of technology, the refrain is “show me the product!” Perhaps we could take a lesson here and find a beneficial product of evolution other than abstract knowledge and potentially dangerous mutated viruses.

    1. There are a number of beneficial products of evolution: DNA, photosynthesis, sex, sight, the origin of our species. Just to name a few beneficial products, from my subjective perspective, of evolution. Try Nick Lane’s Life Ascending.

    2. That’s silly. Creos will happily use the radioisotopes used in medical imaging and radiation treatment for cancer all the while blithely denying the radiometric dating techniques based on the exact same physical principles.

      I’ve very literally seen creos saying: “But that’s technology! It has nothing to do with science!”

      1. The only way to understand that I can see is in terms of technologists as literally miracle workers … After all, since one notion of technology is based on science, what do you call someone whose manipulation and stuff in a magical context leads to power and change, not truth?

        (Cue technomages …)

  26. Seriously, Jerry Coyne is some lucky bastards’ biology professor, how stoked would you be? The scientists at my university are awesome, and indeed, one of them is Tim Flannery, but imagine if Jerry Coyne was one of them. I’d be stoked out of my superman undies!

  27. Note to young writers: If you think you have something important to say, write it down. Sleep on it. Revise it. Talk it over with a roommate. Sleep on it. Talk it over with a person who might think differently. Sleep on it. Revise it. Then throw it away and save yourself a lot of embarrassment.

  28. Science would do well to come up with a new word to describe scientific theories. Something that even the most dimwitted nut can understand.

  29. “evolution is a scientific fact”

    I always have a problem with this statement.
    Unless “fact” in science means “a theory with an extremely low probability of being false”
    There is always the proviso that a scientific “fact” can be overturned if enough evidence becomes available to refute it.
    So it’s not a fact like my name is BillyJoe is a fact…wait

    1. No… evolution is a fact; the theory of evolution is a theory, and, in fact, one with an extremely low probability of being false…

      See the Moran article cited above.


          1. Sorry, Ant, I was making a flippant comment on BillyJoe’s comment downthread from yours:

            So it’s not a fact like my name is BillyJoe is a fact…wait

            Uh….My comment was not as witty as I thought just before clicking “Post Comment”….

      1. Agree. Evolution IS a fact, as much of a fact as gravity. How it works – by natural selection through mutation, etc – is the theory, just like the theory of gravity is the Einstein part about mass warping space. Sounds confusing to the average joe but it really isn’t.

    2. BillyJoe,

      A scientific “fact” is established as a result of a properly conducted, reproducible experiment or measurement. That the living organism on Earth have been changing over geological time, and that they are all genetically related, is a fact; it has been demonstrated by the study of fossils and confirmed by genetics. The theory of evolution by random mutation and natural selection proposes a comprehensive explanation of these discoveries.

    3. Facts are what is the case. We’re allowed to make claims about what is the case when we have sufficient evidence, etc. Consequently, “Evolution is a fact” is a justified statement, and one with a rather high truth value to boot.

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  31. Mirriam-Webster’s online dictionary does give a definition of theory as “an unproved assumption”; it is definition 6,b. Definition 1 is “the analysis of a set of facts in their relation to one another”.

  32. Ms. Murphy is not only ‘ignorant’ in her belief, she is also stupid, since her ignorance is willful and willful ignorance is stupidity.

    Students such as Ms. Murphy feel rhetorically empowered by the ‘theory/fact’ distinction, getting their supposed intellectual ammunition from Christian propaganda reinforced by campus organizations like DRL and Intervarsity. I see the shutters of young minds clanging down all the time when I (as a professor of humanities) attempt to inculcate and sharpen the critical-thinking skills that would allow them to scrub the scales from their mental eyes.

    Thus do I become their ‘enemy,’ whom they have been conditioned to distrust and who occupies the (necessary) place of Satan in their cosmology.

    Much if not all of this indoctrination is concrete in them by the time they get to college. This means I have little opportunity to shape the vessel; rather, my only alternative is to ‘break some crockery.’

    1. I read them, mainly critical of her ignorance. One in particular from Brandon Moore, graduate, biomolecular engineering may be worth a reading. Here’s an excerpt:

      “I too am frustrated by the way scientists use things like evidence and deductive reasoning to draw conclusions. And the way they teach theories by presenting this evidence to students is nothing short of criminal.”

      It’s at http://www.technicianonline.com/viewpoint/letter-to-the-editor-theory-not-fact-like-gravity-1.2697069#.TzRIyoH7O6s

  33. If nothing else, at WEIT I have learned it is important to check citations. In pursuing the Prof. Louis Bounoure quotation at the end of the second example I found this clarification (refutation?) at TalkOrigins.


    which provides important details to the credibility of “Prof. Bounoure, Director of Research, National Centre of Scientific Research” which he never was, although he seems to have been an accommodationist of the first rank.

  34. When I was at NCSU I had a similar encounter with a professor. I believe the class was History of Science and Technology. I well remember being shocked at what the professor was saying. I can’t recall the exact words, but it was something along the lines of “Evolution is true. If you think otherwise, you’re wrong. Deal with it.”

    This is a good example of how accomomdationism doesn’t work. If the professor had given a speech about “some people disagree, but there is a general consensus among scientists that… ” it would have meant nothing to me. Some times the best way get somebody to learn something is to directly tell them they are wrong.

    But it’s also not fair to be mean to Madison, or to put down NCSU for accepting students who don’t believe in evolution. I graduated at the top of my class from a high school in North Carolina, and took AP biology and scored a 5. But I didn’t know hardly anything about evolution, and certainly didn’t know it was a fact.

    And not because my school taught intelligent design, or creation science, or the controversy. I never learned evolution because I could tell my teacher thought the subject was incredibly boring, and she taught it in a way that didn’t make any sense.

  35. 301 comments (or more — there were 301 in yesterday’s Google cache) no longer appear attached to the article’s webpage. Intentionally deleted? I would hope not.

  36. gee….i am again and again astonished about these kind of articles. Religion is still so deeply rooted in the US and the “scientific” scene….

  37. Why do scientists use a special definition of “theory” when talking about evolution? I don’t get it. Coyne’s own scientific writing shows that he uses “theory” in the same two ways common among scientists, neither of which supports the special claim for evolution by its juxtaposition with the word “theory”. TheoryA (abstract, analytical) refers to a body of related abstract statements about some topic, like music theory or population-genetics theory, or “Theory and Speciation” (Barton and Coyne). The standard of validity for a statement in theoryA is that it follows from its assumptions– whether those assumptions are true or false. It applies to a hypothetical world, not necessarily the real world– no fact about the real world can kill music theory or Fisher’s fundamental theorem. When we refer to “theoreticians”, typically we’re talking about TheoryA mavens. By contrast, TheoryC (concrete, conjectural) refers to a big hypothesis. While the standard of validity for a theoryC is its truth-value, what makes it a theory is that it is a conjecture, not necessarily a true conjecture. The HIV theory of aids and the prion theory of disease are true conjecture; while “the exon theory of genes” and “the neutral theory of molecular evolution” are doubted by most biologists– but this has never stopped us from calling the “theories”. This is why Coyne, when he is not using the tired old “theory”-means-its-true argument, refers (for instance) to the “cis-regulatory theory” of evo-devo (Hoekstra and Coyne, 2007), even though he doesn’t think its true.

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