May Blog

Earth Day. I disagree with those who say we should not have one day but celebrate it everyday. Of course we should work at protecting and enhancing the environment everyday. We should celebrate that work on Earth Day.

People come to the work of protecting and enhancing the environment in a variety of ways. For some it is spiritual. For others it is self-interest at the work place. A discovery of asbestos will garner attention in a hurry. Still others come via the community when a beautiful vista, land or water, and wildlife habitat are threatened.

The question I want to raise here is who sticks with it? Who weathers the storms of attempted threats and intimidations from the powers that be? What about the wear and tear on one’s relationships with partners, family and friends in the heat of battle and the long run?

My answer is straightforward. Who sticks with it? Those who understand science in both general and specific ways are my answer. Let’s take one very important example.

It’s only a theory. How many times have you heard that one? Currently, we hear it relative to climate change. To illustrate, let’s go to another area where this invective is raised. Evolution.

But first a challenge to readers – apply the below to climate change by responding to this blog. Let’s see what comes out of the wash.

That Word Theory

I have never gone through a discussion on evolution without someone saying, “It’s only a theory.” Due to the popular use of the word to mean guess or any old idea, it seems to be an iron law of these discussions. “It’s only a theory” will rise to the surface like fermenting dough. Many teachers and authors have pointed out this phenomenon but few offer a remedy. Like with most vexing problems of getting evolutionary thought across to people, there is no one single answer. Here is what I have found to be effective.

A colleague of mine returned from an American Association for the Advancement of Science convention bearing gifts. He gave to me a copy of Evolution Vs. Creationism – An Introduction by Eugenie C. Scott. And it was even autographed by people from the National Center for Science Education who had advised the lawyers in the Kitzmiller vs. Dover case. What a treasure trove! While thumbing the pages, I came across an interesting passage that considered how scientists and other people rank the terms facts, hypotheses, laws and theories. It stated that most people rank these terms, from most important to least important, as follows:

Most Important
– Facts
– Laws
– Theories
– Hypotheses
Least Important

Scientists rank them this way:

Most Important
– Theories
– Laws
– Hypotheses
– Facts
Least Important

I decided to test this in my biology classes although it can be done in many group settings. Sure enough, I got every possibility starting with Laws, Hypotheses and Facts placed as most important. There was one glaring exception. Never was Theories placed first. Never. And this was after doing a unit of work on the scientific method and in the midst of a unit on evolution. This called for a change in strategy.

Along with presenting the voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle, I now consider the following activity the most important one to foster acceptance of evolution. Have people work in groups of three. Give them four index cards. Ask them to write Facts, Laws, Theories and Hypotheses on the four cards. Then ask them to rank those science terms on their desks from most important to least important.

Now tabulate the class results. Ask how many groups placed Facts at the top of the list. How many placed Laws at the top of the list etc.? Barring a gathering of budding science researchers, Theory will top few if any lists. Ask why they think this is so and let the discussion flow.

Now write the word THEORY in large capital letters. Develop the idea that a theory is an amalgam of facts, laws and tested hypotheses. IT IS THE ONLY CONCEPT THAT POTENTIALLY ENCOMPASSES ALL OF THE OTHER THREE SCIENCE TERMS AND CONCEPTS. I show this schematically by writing the terms Facts, Laws, Hypotheses and drawing arrows feeding into Theory.

Laws >>>>Theories<<<>>>Evolutionary Theory<<<<Endosymbiosis Hypothesis
/
Fossil Data

So evolution is an excellent example of how laws (Mendelian), hypotheses (for example, endosymbiosis or origin of cells) and facts (fossils) blend to put ideas together in such a way as to explain how change through time happens (evolution). In other words, it’s a scientific theory.

Now, it’s your turn. How does all this apply to climate change, the Keystone pipeline etc.? Let me know by responding to this blog. Thanks!
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