Thursday, September 3, 2015

Reader Feedback: How Creationists Misuse the Word "Theory".

People continue to be confused by the mutliple meanings of the word theory. Here a savvy reader provides this helpful guide.

Reader Feedback: How Creationists Misuse the Word "Theory".


Unfortunately for those people trying to understand science, the word “theory” has a very different meaning when applied to relativity, evolution or atoms than it does in common usage. If I say I have a theory that yellow cats are smarter than all other cats, and I’ve based this on my experience with one cat, it’s not a theory in the scientific sense.  

A reader who often comments under the handle paleocello sent this very helpful guide to understanding "Theory" and other words with a more specific meaning in science. His comment wouldn’t post on, but he emailed it to me. I'm posting it here:                        

Your 10/24/11 post on the alleged Nazi connection was excellent. Two weeks afterwards, on 11/8/11, Coel Hellier posted an even more comprehensive debunking on his blog: This casual equating of evolution with Nazism is so intellectually vacuous and morally odious that anyone propounding it should be immediately and vociferously exposed and denounced.

 As for the continuing confusion by evolution's opponents of the colloquial and scientific meanings of the word "theory", this is a rhetorical trick so blatant and hoary that the most parsimonious explanation can only be deliberate, conscious, malicious misrepresentation and prevarication. The American Heritage Dictionary places the scientific meaning of "theory" first in its definitions of the word and the casual meaning of "guess" third. But let's look at the scientific definitions of "theory" and related words as given by the National Academy of Sciences, the nation's pre-eminent scientific organization:

 "Fact: In science, an observation that has been repeatedly confirmed and for all practical purposes is accepted as "true." Truth in science, however, is never final, and what is accepted as a fact today may be modified or even discarded tomorrow.

 "Hypothesis: A tentative statement about the natural world leading to deductions that can be tested. If the deductions are verified, it becomes more probable that the hypothesis is correct. If the deductions are incorrect, the original hypothesis can be abandoned or modified. Hypotheses can be used to build more complex inferences and explanations.

 "Law: A descriptive generalization about how some aspect of the natural world behaves under stated circumstances.

 "Theory: In science, a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses."

 Source: :;  (“Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences, Second Edition”, p.2,  National Academy Press, Washington, DC, 1999)

 If NH legislator Bergevin were invited to attend a Broadway performance of "Mary Poppins" because the show was a "hit", would he recoil in righteous horror from being invited to witness a mob execution?

It is intellectually and ethically indefensible to ignore evidence in one case while embracing similar evidence in a similar case, simply because the evidence to your disadvantage in the first instance but to your advantage in the second.

His first sentence, describing the piece on Hitler as a “post” reminded me that I'm guilty of creating confusion on this very blog. This site is not just a blog, but on Mondays is also the home of a weekly column I write for the Philadelphia Inquirer. These columns are indistinguishable from ordinary blog posts on this site, but they are quite different. The columns are longer and require extensive research and interviews with multiple sources. They are professionally edited and copy edited and most feature a drawing by the Inquirer’s illustrious artist Tony Auth. And they appear in print. 

The blog has been a great way for me to encourage continued discussion and update readers on interesting news. But the posts don't represent the same time commitment or team effort that the columns do. I haven’t figured out the best way to make them easily distinguishable. This site should remain the place for one-stop shopping for all my writings on evolution while properly labeling the two different forms. All suggestions are welcome. And all comments are welcome. They should all post asl ong as they don't use bad words. If you can’t get any comment to post, please email me at




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About this blog
Faye Flam - writer
In pursuit of her stories, writer Faye Flam has weathered storms in Greenland, gotten frost nip at the South Pole, and floated weightless aboard NASA’s zero-g plane. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology and started her writing career with the Economist. She later took on the particle physics and cosmology beat at Science Magazine before coming to the Inquirer in 1995. Her previous science column, “Carnal Knowledge,” ran from 2005 to 2008. Her new column and blog, Planet of the Apes, explores the topic of evolution and runs here and in the Inquirer’s health section each Monday. Email Faye at Reach Planet of the at

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