by Katie Bowell, Curator of Interpretation
Alright, I admit it – I watched the Miss USA pageant last Sunday. What can I say? I’m a sucker for sparkling evening gowns and a giant tiara. While I normally watch the program for the glitter and glitz, I was surprised and intrigued by one of the questions asked in the pre-competition interviews: Should evolution be taught in schools?
Neutrality is the name of the beauty pageant game on controversial issues, and that’s how most contestants answered. However, their neutral responses were so full of mis-information that the women came across sounding ill-informed with respect to evolution and the alternatives they were using as comparison.
For example, take Angelina Kayyalaynen, Miss Washington’s, answer:
[...]Facts should be stated and we should know the facts as to how the world evolves because it does. But as far as when it comes to little theories and what not, you should probably want to stay away from those. I believe in the truth and the truth only, not somebody’s, you know, imagination or hope of what not so I think facts not theories should be taught.
There’s also Kia Hampton, Miss Kentucky’s, response:
I do feel that evolution shouldn’t be taught in schools because there’s…so many different definitions, like how do you teach a child the true meaning of evolution when so many different cultures have their different beliefs and sciences have their different theories[...]
Finally, Keeley Patterson, Miss Mississippi:
I think evolution should be taught as what it is. It’s a theory, so I don’t think it should be taught as fact, but I do think our children should know the theories.
What concerns me is that in almost every response, the contestants completely misrepresented the concepts of scientific “fact” and “theory.” So here are some working definitions for next year’s contestants and the rest of us:
- Scientific Fact: A scientific fact is any observation that has been repeatedly and independently confirmed and accepted as true and has not been refuted.
- Scientific Theory: A scientific theory is not a guess or a hunch. It’s a substantiated, supported, and documented explanation for scientific facts and observations. Scientific theories connect all the facts about something, providing an explanation that fits all the observations and can be used to make predictions. In science, “theory” is the explanation.
Evolutionary biologist and author Stephen Jay Gould explained these concepts beautifully in his 1994 essay “Evolution as Fact and Theory“
In the American vernacular, “theory” often means “imperfect fact”–part of a hierarchy of confidence running downhill from fact to theory to hypothesis to guess…If evolution is worse than a fact, and scientists can’t even make up their minds about the theory, then what confidence can we have in it?
Well evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts don’t go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein’s theory of gravitation replaced Newton’s in this century, but apples didn’t suspend themselves in midair, pending the outcome. And humans evolved from ape-like ancestors whether they did so by Darwin’s proposed mechanism or by some other yet to be discovered.
Moreover, “fact” doesn’t mean “absolute certainty”; there ain’t no such animal in an exciting and complex world.
While the winner, Miss California, did state that,
I was taught evolution in high school. I do believe in it. I’m a huge science geek…I like to believe in the Big Bang Theory and, you know, the evolution of humans throughout time[...]
even her use of the word “believe” is inappropriate. Well-established scientific concepts aren’t open for belief the way personal opinion is. But, in the end, the fact that she accepts the tenents of evolution is beside the point.
The point is, there’s no excuse for any of us to be scientifically illiterate. Political, economical, medical and educational policies that are based on scientific information and that affect us all are made every day. This is a discourse we need to participate in, but we can’t participate if we don’t know what’s being said. We need to understand and accept a common language with which to question, debate and decide.
Do you think if I offer to give a crash-course in scientific language to next years’ contestants they might let me wear the big crown for an hour or two?