The Rocket Scientist and I watched the Miss USA pageant. What can I say? I enjoy a good sparkly dress and The Simpsons was a rerun. While I’m not going to say that the program was interesting (because it wasn’t), I was very intrigued when I learned one of the questions asked in the pre-competition interviews: Should evolution should 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. Embodying a culturally-esteemed standard of beauty is no excuse for ignorance.
Putting aside my frustrations that every contestant adopted the false dichotomy that the opposite of evolution is Judeo-Christian creationism, and that none of the women appeared to understand that the U.S Department of Education has declared that “students may be taught about religion, but public schools may not teach religion,” what made me sad was the contestants’ scientific illiteracy.
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.
In each of these responses, 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, 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 a topic, providing an explanation that fits all the observations and can be used to make predictions. In science, “theory” is the explanation.
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 winner of Miss USA, Alyssa Campanella, 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 tenants 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 are made every day that are based on scientific information and that affect us all. This is a discourse we need to participate in, but we can’t participate if we don’t know what’s being said. Understanding and accepting a common language allows us to question, debate and decide, and I’ll be damned if I let you use poor and incorrect words to support your argument.
So here’s my official offer to teach a crash-course in scientific language to next year’s Miss USA contestants. My fee: one hour of getting to wear the big crown.