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There Must Be an Idiom

                                 St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, Nova Scotia

A couple of days ago I read something that I found very disturbing and I was reminded of it today. It illustrates the challenge we have in educating the public about science and, perhaps, why it is so challenging. There must be an idiom which fits. Perhaps you have some suggestions.

So, first I will tell you what I read, then I will tell you why it was more disturbing than what I commonly encounter. If you want to skim, I cannot stop you, but please scroll down to the bottom for the shocker.

The offending paragraph was found in a review of Daniel Loxton’s wonderful children’s book, Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be which appeared in CM Magazine, a publication of the Manitoba Library Association.

Although the text is very good in describing the theory of Evolution, there are points in the book where the author makes comments that could imply that Evolution is more than a theory. For example, “…Charles Darwin revealed the solution to the mystery of evolution” (p. 7). He also makes the comment that Evolution is the most important idea in all of biology (p. 7). Such phrases may lead the reader into thinking that scientists completely understand the theory of Evolution which would be incorrect, else Evolution would be a principle or a law and not a theory. As well, it is a bit bold to claim that evolution is the most important idea in all of biology – biology is a huge field of study with other key discoveries.

This text could be read by a young reader for ‘fun.’…

First, let me address this criticism because it is a common one made by evolution deniers and because it preys on a misunderstanding of science that many laypeople have.

As with most words in the English language, the word “theory” has multiple meanings. In general use among non-scientists, it is often used to express “conjecture”, “speculation”, or some other unproven or untested guess.

None of those definitions are what a scientist means when they use the term “theory”.

Neither a “principle” nor a “law” is a theory which is “completely understood”, either. Laws are simple statements which describe, not explain.

The descriptions given by Dr. Genie Scott, Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education, of the definitions of fact, law, hypothesis, and theory. It occurs about 3:50 into the video.


Theories vary in strength from very weak to very strong. The theory of evolution through natural selection has withstood 150 years of rigorous testing. It is one of the strongest theories in science.

And, yes, it is, by far, the most important idea in biology. It is probably the most important in all of the life sciences including behavioral sciences like psychology. Of course, this is a statement of opinion and I am not a biologist. However, I cannot imagine a biologist of any quality who does hold this opinion. I offer as evidence the words of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whom Theodosius Dobzhansky quoted in his 1973 essay in American Biology Teacher titled “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in Light of Evolution“:

(Evolution) is a general postulate to which all theories, all hypotheses, all systems must henceforward bow and which they must satisfy in order to be thinkable and true. Evolution is a light which illuminates all facts, a trajectory which all lines of thought must follow — this is what evolution is.

So, to summarize so far, a theory is an explanation – it is a set of testable and tested statements about relationships among variables which explains a given phenomenon. Ideas are not called “theories” because we do not know if they hold true. The strength of a theory depends on the quantity of observable facts explained, the quality of the explanation, the amount of testing it has withstood, and many other factors.

Evolution is an amazingly strong theory.

The author of the review does not understand the term “theory” as it is used in science, nor does she understand “law” and “principle”. Although these are often misunderstood by laypersons, they are fundamental to science. They are the language of science.

What is so shocking?

The review was written by an Assistant Professor of Science Education.

Katarin MacLeod is an Assistant Professor in Science Education at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, NS. Her areas of interest include physics educational research (PER), and the incorporation of science, technology, society and environment (STSE) outcomes into science courses at all levels to help students understand the relevancy of science, increase scientific literacy, and to promote citizenship.

That, my friends, is disgraceful.

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11 Responses to “There Must Be an Idiom”

  • Ouch… someone needs to sharpen their basic understanding of their discipline!

    Great post, Barbara!

  • MKR:

    This would not be the first piece of ignorant and irresponsible rubbish to be professed in a school of education.

    • As opposed to “school of non-education”? ;)

      Seriously, though, I know what you’re saying. There has been a great deal of improvement in education education (is there a better way to say that?) and some universities are excellent, but there are still schools which run mostly on BS. Nursing education has also had to dig out of the woo ages and into evidence-based practices.

  • My first reaction was that idiom sounds like “idiot.” But I think using that in your title would be a little harsh.
    I like the video embedded.

  • Julia Baumann:

    Since evolution shines the light on biology I would say she is “In the dark.”

  • RBH:

    Tried to throw you a trackback from Panda’s Thumb but got an error message, so this will have to do.

  • Erin McMichael:

    On St. Francis Xavier’s website (where McLeod works), part of their history statement says that “StFX offered the only university-level education in the region at that time and, partnered with the Roman Catholic diocese, maintained strict academic standards in order to give those who wanted it the best education possible.”

    This might have something to do with her opinion on the Theory of Evolution, or it might not whatsoever; I’m just drawing assumptions. I get so bothered by private universities that disguise themselves as liberal, such as Pepperdine (where my significant other received her degree). I’m not as bothered by strictly religious higher-learning centers like Biola University and Fuller Seminary because they are at the very least up-front with their religious teaching goals. I know that the University of British Columbia will not accept an undergraduate degree from theological institutes such as those because they are not considered acceptable towards obtaining a graduate degree.

    However, places like Pepperdine bother me because some of their courses are a hybrid of science and religion; for instance, one of their *required* lower division courses to fulfill a science requirement is titled “Christianity and the Environment.” Students were also mandated to attend church-like sermons for course credit (they ended up changing the name of the gatherings to something like ‘rallies’ because of complaints from students and/or parents who might not have been Christian) Yet, this university (and countless others, I imagine) manages to get away with granting acceptable degrees to move on to graduate school or the scientific job field. Someone with a B.S. in Physics from UCLA versus someone with the same degree from Pepperdine could possibly land the same job? Disturbing.

    • The reviewer doesn’t appear to be rejecting evolution; she just misunderstands some fundamental concepts of science. A few people have suggested that creationism is at the root of that misunderstanding, but I don’t think there is evidence of that.

      I am not crazy about schools like Pepperdine, who downplay their religious leanings, but the catholic church accepts evolution and, if any religion can be said to be “pro-science”, it is catholicism. The monks were great scholars in the past and even in the movie “Religulous”, the priest that Bill Mahr interviewed said that religion has nothing to do with science. (But I’m not defending the catholic church in any other way.)

      At any rate, StFX is not known for poor science education, but I imagine that it will be if this woman continues to be involved in the development of curricula.