The common charge of creationists, that evolution is “just a theory,” distorts the term “theory” as used in the scientific context. In science, a theory is a testable explanation based on a large body of evidence.55 Because creationists are prevented by law from teaching creationism, the next best option is to discredit evolution, primarily through misinformation, mischaracterization of the fossil record, and misrepresentations about the healthy debate within the scientific community regarding the way in which evolution occurs in a given instance.
“Theories do not become facts; they explain facts,” states the New Orleans Geological Society. To a scientist, a theory “is a concept firmly grounded in and based upon facts, contrary to the popular conception that it is a hazy notion or undocumented hypothesis.” Unlike faith, “science is not a belief system. It is simply a method for studying and accumulating knowledge about nature.”56 Like evolution, gravity, atomic theory, plate tectonics, Copernican theory, geological theory of rock formation, and Einstein’s theory of relativity are all theories based on massive bodies of evidence. All are subject to modification in light of new scientific evidence.
While requiring a physics teacher to teach about gravity as “just a theory” is patently absurd, this is precisely how creationists hope to weaken support for evolution. In Alabama, for example, the state school board ordered that a disclaimer be inserted into all biology textbooks. The disclaimer describes evolution as “a controversial theory some scientists present as a scientific explanation for the origin of living things...No one was present when life first appeared on earth. Therefore, any statement about life’s origins should be considered as theory, not fact.”57 Former Republican Governor Fob James, who at the time was also president of the state school board, pushed for inclusion of the disclaimer, noting that he was taught evolution but “they said it was just a notion, and no more than a theory...And if one wanted to know something about the origin of life you might want to look at Genesis and you can get the whole story, period.”58 A similar disclaimer was recently struck down by the United States Court of Appeals’ Fifth Circuit. The Tangipahoa, Louisiana school district’s disclaimer, read to all elementary and secondary school students before learning about evolution, was found to advance and maintain a particular religious viewpoint—that of the Biblical version of creation—in violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.59
Creationists also seek to exploit the general public’s confusion regarding the ongoing scientific debate over evolution. “There is no longer a debate among scientists over whether evolution has taken place. There is considerable debate about how evolution has taken place…” states the National Science Teachers Association. With regard to evolutionary theory, “there is abundant and consistent evidence from astronomy, physics, biochemistry, geochronology, geology, biology, anthropology and other sciences that evolution has taken place.”60 Says Michael Hadfield, past president of the American Society of Zoologists, “There’s heated debate [in the scientific community], but it’s not over whether evolution is reality...When it comes to the idea of mutation and natural selection causing a differentiation of species, it’s settled for 99 percent, if not 100 percent, of us.”61