Avoiding the theory trap when discussing evolution



Public opinion polls tell us that we are losing the battle to explain the nature of evolution and its central role in science. One problem, I believe, is letting the opponents of evolution frame the discussion to our disadvantage. Framing involves the selective use of language or context to trigger responses, either support or opposition. As a prime example, we undercut our communications efforts with many nonscientists by defending the ‘theory of evolution.’

Theory is the wrong word to use in addressing the public. In the contemporary U.S., theory means a hunch or idea that has not been established by evidence. It is thus no surprise that polls show that nearly three-quarters of U.S. people think that “evolution is commonly referred to as the theory of evolution because it has not yet been proven scientifically.” Those who advocate adding “only a theory” disclaimers in textbooks know that to call evolution a theory is sufficient to undermine its acceptance.