Particularly problematic is the use of the word theory. For example, the disclaimer that the Cobb County, Georgia, Board of Education approved to insert into the textbook Biology by Kenneth Miller and Joseph Levine (2004) and other texts that include discussion of evolution read, “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the evolution of living things.”2 But the colloquial meaning of theory is very different from the scientific meaning. The general public interprets the word theory as a guess or supposition—“you have your theory and I have mine.” In science, a theory is a broad overarching explanation that accounts for a wide variety of empirical observations. To avoid this confusion, Pennock uses the term evolutionary science rather than evolutionary theory. “This is a way of avoiding a word that we know is going to trip people up,” he said.
Many other terms commonly used in evolutionary science have ambiguous or multiple meanings, including adapt, selection, and even evolution itself. These terms need to be defined and used carefully to avoid confusing scientific and colloquial meanings.
Getting Learners Hooked
In countering attacks on evolution, the scientific community tends to be reactive, said Pennock. A legislative proposal needs to be defeated. The statements of a creationist politician need to be countered. From this perspective, the discussion becomes a debate, with each side presenting its best arguments.
The scientific community needs to think about becoming more proactive, said Pennock. In this way, people could be reached before the discussion becomes a debate.
This approach is complicated by the large percentage—approximately 40 percent—of people in the United States who believe that evolution is false (Figure 2-1). Even 32 percent of students with a college education answered “no” to the question, “Do you think that the modern theory of evolution has a valid scientific foundation.” In fact, among high school biology teachers, 40 percent think that “there are sufficient problems with the theory of evolution to cast doubts on its validity” (Berkman and Plutzer, 2011).
The best opportunity, suggested Pennock, lies in reaching the 20 percent of Americans who are unsure about the accuracy of evolution. “That has to be a primary target, not initially to reach those who are opposed
2 The full text of this sticker reads: “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.”