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What Is a Scientific “Theory”?

David Klinghoffer

ScienceAlert offers a cute infographic, “Common MythConceptions: World’s most contagious falsehoods.” Guess what’s there?

Myth #27: Evolution is just a “theory”

As this equally awesome infographic explains, evolution might be a theory, but there’s no “just” about it.

In everyday language, “theory” might mean a hunch or a guess, but in science, a theory is an idea that’s passed the toughest tests that researchers can throw at it, and has lived to tell the tale.

“Theory” in science represents the highest amount of certainty we have.

Oh really? It sounds like something that should be emblazoned on a protest sign at the March for Science. Actually, our old friend Casey Luskin has addressed this one here in the past (“Is Darwinian Evolution ‘Just a Theory’?”). It’s not quite as simple as ScienceAlert would have it, but Casey does conclude, reasonably, “To avoid confusion and ambiguity, if you want to express doubts about Darwinian evolution, it’s better not to say that ‘evolution is just a theory.’”

However protein chemist Doug Axe, author of Undeniable, offers a more elemental take on the question: This conception of what a theory is itself a myth.

“Theory” in the sense that ScienceAlert wants you to understand it is not the normal usage of scientists. Well, then where did the idea come from?

Ah yes, to torment the deplorable “creationists.” That sounds about right. I should have guessed. To provoke such fear and loathing as to incite evolution advocates to myth-making is, you have to admit, a tribute to the strength of evolutionary skepticism.

Photo: March for Science, by Becker1999 [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

David Klinghoffer

Senior Fellow and Editor, Evolution News
David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and the editor of Evolution News & Science Today, the daily voice of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, reporting on intelligent design, evolution, and the intersection of science and culture. Klinghoffer is also the author of six books, a former senior editor and literary editor at National Review magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Commentary, and other publications. Born in Santa Monica, California, he graduated from Brown University in 1987 with an A.B. magna cum laude in comparative literature and religious studies. David lives near Seattle, Washington, with his wife and children.

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Casey LuskinDouglas Axeevolutionary theoryMarch for SciencemythsScienceAlertscientific theoriesUndeniable