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What Is a Scientific “Theory”?

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.