Only a theory

Another talk about science and religion in contemporary Islam to an audience with a high percentage of Muslims, another encounter with the “evolution is only a theory” meme. Sigh.

This time it was a hijab-wearing Iranian student. She asked what the problem would be if Muslim scientists were to favor alternatives to evolution. After all, it’s only a theory, isn’t it? As I understood it, the implication of the question was that disputes about theory shouldn’t matter too much, and that scientists should deal with hard facts.

This isn’t just a problem of being misinformed about how “theory” as a scientific term differs from the colloquial equivalent of a mere guess. It’s hard for anyone without a close acquaintance with natural science to appreciate the role theories play in doing science. Without close interaction and mutual correction between theory and experiment, you simply do not have a mature science. Theory is not optional to scientific activity. It’s not something you can brush away if it doesn’t appeal to your religious sensibilities.

It is especially galling that people who dismiss theory very often do so in favor of religious convictions that, by scientific standards, typically do not even rise to the level of being a respectable mistake.