Saturday, 28 August 2010

Theories: Splitting Linguistic Hairs and the Work of Anne Elk (Miss)

The work of Anne Elk (Miss), undoubtedly one of the overlooked intellectual giants of our age, serves to remind us of the importance of theories. And indeed, how anyone can hold one … ahem!

I cannot gainsay Miss Elk’s evident expertise in the area of paleantology since I know nothing of Brontosauruses.

But I was fascinated to hear the ‘T’ word occur yet again in Richard Dawkins’ recent More4 documentary ‘Faith School Menace?

To its credit, Madani High School in Leicester was the only religious school which allowed Dawkins access. But its openess provided a clear example of an oft-repeated error, a linguistic error, which helps millions of people to ignore the fact of evolution.

I think it may be a source of frustration to people starting out in some academic disciplines that the first two-thirds of any subject seem to be given over to redefining perfectly good words in English. The social sciences excel in this trait. I’ve certainly spent glowering and resentful evenings over what I seem to remember calling at the time “a pile of nit-picking wank”.

See how articulate I get when I’m angry?

But when the pique has passed and you’ve cleared up the broken crockery, you’re left with very precise language. It’s truly useful.

My dictionary says that a theory is:

1 a system of rules, procedures and assumptions used to produce a result
2 abstract knowledge or conjecturing
3 a conjectural view or idea: "I have a theory about that"
4 an ideal or hypothetical situation
5 a set of hypotheses related by logical or mathematical arguments to explain a wide variety of connected phenomena in general terms: the theory of relativity
6 a non-technical term for hypothesis

Do you think civilian usage tends towards definition 3? I do. If you used a thesaurus it would, under that circumstance, probably allow substitutions of ‘opinion’, ‘supposition’ or even ‘guess’.

Madani High School’s headmaster, Dr Mohammed Mukadam said to Dawkins (24:05):

“None of the reports that I have read says that evolution is a scientific fact. Just says there is a scientific theory which says evolution is there”

Which is why, I suppose, all sixty of the year ten students came to the conclusion that the Koran was filling in the missing bits.

But scientific usage of the word ‘theory’ is different. A theory can also be a fact. A scientific theory is derived from empirical data, contains concepts and testable rules, is good at predicting and is disprovable.

A scientific hypothesis is a tentative theory. It’s more in line with ‘theory’ as used by Dr. Mukadam - definition 6 in the list.

It’s a shame the word ‘theory’ covers such a wide gamut in English, because it leads to a lot of misunderstanding in relation to the theory of evolution. Which is a fact.

That’s my theory. It is mine and belongs to me and and I own it and what it is too. Ahem!


  1. The word theory comes from the Greek 'theoros' meaning spectator, which would fit with scientific observation and materialism.

    It was worrying that the science teacher in that school couldn't explain one pupil's question about why there are still apes if we evolved from them. Letting pupils make up their own minds is fine as long as all the options are equally weighted and the difference between evidence and faith are made clear.

    I haven't thought about Anne Elk (MIss) in a very long time. Thanks for that.

  2. Science is the best defence we have against believing what we want to. (I quote the mathematician Ian Stewart.) In his 2009 Lunar Society Annual Lecture Ian gave his audience the superficially shocking info that a very high % of people in the US don't 'believe' in evolution . . . before reminding that the figure should be zero. For evolution is not a belief system. Evolution no more 'true' that existence of my big toe in this moment is 'true'.

    Many see science as facts, discoveries, even The Truth (according to whatever value of 'true'). Science, however, is a way of thinking that is much more powerful. Whatever a scientist is saying now about their work is just the best story s/he has for the moment. (And great deal of meaning is carried on the word 'just'!) For scientists do that unconfortable and politically troubling thing of changing their minds in the face of evidence.