As you read this, I urge you to conduct a little experiment. Acquire a bowl of M&Ms and get munching — with one condition. Do not eat the blue ones. Pretend they’re healthy.
The Oxford English Dictionary presently defines about 600,000 words. It aspires to be a list of every single word in the English language, from chutney to kowtow to cromulent and from noob, tweet, and lol to verily, egads, and forsooth. Many of these words have dozens of meanings (‘set’ has 464). Complex fields of inquiry, like science, law and philosophy, invariably need extremely specific words to express their ideas, and they do so by picking up words that seem likely candidates and parsing fine meanings into them.
The flipside is that as they develop these obscure lingos of their own, they become increasingly unrecognisable to the common man, and this gap in the meaning and implication of words ends up becoming a gap in communication and what is worse, a gap in understanding. This misunderstanding and miscommunication is more than a mere inconvenience. It is a danger. A danger to the integrity of science, a danger to the faithful dissemination of knowledge, and a catalyst of ignorance. Words matter. Meanings matter. Nuance matters. Context matters. I’d like to limit the discussion here to the definition of three words, which have all suffered by being lost in translation from jargon to common.
The first is ‘science’ itself. Science is not merely a body of knowledge. The body of knowledge is a consequence of science. “The earth goes ’round the sun” — is that sort of thing all there is to science? No. It’s a scientific fact, but merely knowing that the earth goes ’round the sun doesn’t make you an astronomer, any more than knowing that this animal is called a tapir or that fluffy bit of mist is called a cloud makes you a biologist or a meteorologist. Science is not only an assemblage of facts; it is a process. The facts are the output of that process. The only way one may claim to be a scientist is to do science. Science isn’t the book; it’s the act of writing it. It is a performance art.
The second is ‘theory’, and this is the most misunderstood, miscommunicated, misused, and dangerously muddled word in the modern-day discussion of science. The fact that so many people (especially on this continent) do not seem to know what the word means is a serious cause for anxiety. This endangers the Enlightenment and all that we have built in the last four hundred years. Either we will move forward or we will slide back into the superstition and despair of the Dark Ages. The battle for humanity and for truth will be won or lost on this one word. This is Helm’s Deep.
I said before that science is a process. The scientific process or method is the following: observation, of a phenomenon, often natural, and involving the unbiased collection of data; hypothesis, an educated guess as to how the observed process or phenomenon is made possible; prediction, of how a system ought to behave, assuming the hypothesis; experimentation, an attempt to reproduce the observation in a controlled environment; theory, a working model of the phenomenon; and finally, refinement of the theory.
Now read that again. A guess is not a theory; a guess is a hypothesis. You might say, in daily speech, “I have a theory” when you’re guessing how something works but you aren’t sure. Well, stop it. You don’t have a theory. What you have is a hypothesis. You wish you had a theory.
A theory is a proven, working model, not a guess. The theory of relativity is not a guess (your gps depends on it). The Big Bang, while impossible to observe or experiment on directly, is supported by an immense body of confirming evidence, including the expansion of the universe and cosmic background radiation patterns. The theory of evolution by natural selection is not a guess, or bacteria and insects would not become resistant to antibiotics and pesticides. PCB-resistant fishes were observed in the United States last year, and a Totally Drug Resistant strain of tuberculosis was reported in India only this January. When somebody says “evolution is just a theory”, I say, “yes, and your point is…?”
And for the sake of completeness, theories are falsifiable. They wouldn’t be scientific if this weren’t the case. But a scientific theory can only be superseded by another scientific theory — a better explanation of how stuff works. A theory that is not falsifiable is dogma, and there is no place in science for dogma. (Biology does have something called the Central Dogma, a tongue-in-cheek name that vindicated itself when exceptions were discovered. Bon temps.)
The final word is ‘selection’. When we speak of evolution by natural selection, the natural question is “who did the selecting?” ‘Selection’ in everyday speech is a conscious, purposeful, biased action. We might say with a cynical sneer, “he didn’t get elected; he got selected”. Except … not here.
‘Selection’ in the context of evolution is not a conscious act of picking winners or playing favourites. Selection happens as a result of not-dying. ‘Natural selection’ can be summed up as ‘making it alive’, and ‘evolution by natural selection’ could very well be called ‘evolution by managing to breed before dying in a painful and decidedly unfunny manner’, because nature really is a jerk.
Those lissome gazelles weren’t made to order. The podgy slow ones just got et by big cats. Sharks aren’t sleek and streamlined because someone selected them out of a catalogue; they’re sleek because their food sources are fast-moving and scattered. A slow shark is a dead shark. The dark-winged variant of the pepper moth became dominant in England during the Industrial Revolution, when it was better able to camouflage against sooty trees, and thus escape its predators; the lighter-winged variant began doing better once clean air laws were passed, the trees stopped being as dark, and their situations were reversed. There are PCB-resistant fishes and drug-resistant strains of TB because the ones that weren’t resistant died before they could reproduce and pass on their genes.
With all that in mind, look at your bowl of M&Ms. If you’ve followed instructions, all that’s left are the blue ones. The blue ones are the ones that you, the predator, didn’t hunt, because they were camouflaged, or toxic, or disgusting. The other colours were slow or visible or weak, and thus easily culled from the population. If the remaining candy could reproduce, the next generation would be all or mostly blue. That was a simulation of natural selection, a demonstration of an essential scientific phenomenon, and an excuse to eat a bowl of M&Ms. Truly, life is beautiful