What is a Theory and What is Not a Theory

Ever since the media (apparently not McCain) decided it would be a good idea to finally vet Sarah Palin, much has come to light. I’ll leave discussion of tax plans and foreign policy to the political boards, but there is one thing which really needs to be noted. Palin has said in the past that she thinks both evolution and creationism should be taught, referring to them as theories. She later backed off that statement. In the past couple of months, she further clarified her position:

Couric: Should creationism be allowed to be taught anywhere in public schools?

Palin: Don’t have a problem at all with kids debating all sides of theories, all sides of ideas that they ever – kids do it today whether … it’s on paper, in a curriculum or not. Curriculums also are best left to the local school districts. Instead of Big Brother, federal government telling a district what they can and can’t teach, I would like to see more control taken over by our school boards, by our local schools, and then state government at the most. But federal government, you know, kind of get out of some of this curriculum and let the locals decide what is best for their students.

To any person remotely familiar with science, there should be a glaring initial error in that statement. It doesn’t have to do with the merits of debating evolution, but with this notion that there are alternative theories to evolution. Given the context of what Palin has said in the past in addition to her beliefs, it’s overwhelmingly clear she has it in her head that creationism is somehow a theory. Insofar as my theory that ice cream is great can be considered a theory, yes, creationism is a theory. But it is not in any way a scientific theory. The requirements to reach this high level are rigorous. For starters, what predictions does creationism make? What experiments can be carried out to falsify the hypothesis? Can others repeat these experiments? Are there other plausible explanations? Are there better explanations?

In the case of evolution, we see predictions a-plenty being made. We could easily falsify the hypothesis by finding a rabbit in the pre-Cambrian. And we can culture any number of species and see how they adapt to their environments. In truth, the evidence is far more overwhelming, far more testable, far more falsifiable, and far more concrete than I’ve just touched on here. But that’s a question for later. The question here is, why doesn’t the daughter of a science teacher know the difference between a layman theory and a scientific theory? Hell, why doesn’t an educated adult know this?

The truth is evolution is the backbone to every field of biology. It is what creates a coherent picture. From nucleic acids to substrates fitting active sites to differential survival of members of a population, evolution provides the only sensical view of life from its beginnings – and it has yet to be falsified to any point that isn’t merely a shaping and strengthening of the theory. Sarah Palin should know better.

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