Reasons to Believe

The Inconceivable Misuse of Science Words

In the oh-so-quotable The Princess Bride, swashbuckling Spaniard Inigo Montoya calls out bossy Sicilian Vizzini on his overuse of the word “inconceivable.”

“You keep using that word,” Inigo says, “I do not think it means what you think it means.”

The same could be said about science terminology. A recent article on LiveScience.com laments the general populous’ frequent misuse of seven science words and phrases. The list includes, “hypothesis,” “theory,” “model,” and “skeptic,” among others. Blame for this lack of understanding, as we at RTB would agree, lies with poor science education.

In a discussion about the article on Science News Flash, RTB astrophysicist Jeff Zweerink describes this common misunderstanding as a “fundamental disconnect between the way majority of the population understands certain things and the way scientists understand certain things.” Part of the problem is the general public’s unfamiliarity with the history behind particular scientific terms.

Jeff points to a few examples of how the disconnect creeps into people’s response to science and scientists. To start, scientists do not view the big bang as some sort of uncontrolled explosion. Rather the theory suffers from a bad nickname that stuck despite its misleading connotations. Likewise, we often refer to Newton’s laws of motion—even though we now know “we can violate them when we go very fast...or in very strong gravitational fields.”

In the science-faith debate, it’s not uncommon to hear Christians use the “It’s just a theory” line to dismiss concepts such as the big bang or evolution—but this is one defense that we ought to put of the shelf. First off, this argument is rendered faulty by misunderstanding the scientific meaning of “theory.” The LiveScience.com article explains:

Part of the problem is that the word “theory” means something very different in lay language than it does in science: A scientific theory is an explanation of some aspect of the natural world that has been substantiated through repeated experiments or testing. But to the average Jane or Joe, a theory is just an idea that lives in someone’s head, rather than an explanation rooted in experiment and testing.

Secondly, and what I would consider more important as a Christian, the “it’s just a theory” jab also alienates and offends people. In discussions I’ve had with fellow believers regarding the origin of life, this off-putting line stops the conversation cold. Jeff points out that no one appreciates this kind of dismissive treatment:

I know as a Christian, if somebody comes up to me and says, “You know, I don’t have to listen to the Bible; it’s just a bunch of oral traditions somebody’s written down...it just can’t be what they said”—well, I quit listening to them because they...haven’t taken any care to understand my position. So how do I engage with somebody who doesn’t have any understanding and doesn’t seem to want any understanding?

This is not to say that we have to agree with the theory of evolution, but rather that we need to be more thoughtful and considerate when we question its validity. Jeff asks his listeners to imagine the impact the church could have if scientists viewed Christians as people who understood and respected their positions, even if we disagree.

Let’s hope such a scenario isn’t inconceivable!

— Maureen

Resources: Check out these RTB resources for more tips on engaging in the science-faith discussion.

Subjects: Scientists