On Language, Precision, and Ethics

Friday, August 19th, 2011

In language it’s important to be accurate. One of the words we’ll be hearing a lot in the future is the word theory. It will be used like this:

I hear your mom was asking about evolution. It’s a theory that’s out there and it’s got some gaps in it. In Texas, we teach both creationism and evolution in our programs.

This is Rick Perry in response to a question about how the old the Earth is. The word “theory” will often be added after the phrase “just a.” In this sense “just” is meant as a replacement for adverbs like “merely” or “simply.” This is not a precise way of talking about the theory of something as a theory being “simply” something tends to minimize the significance of the logic or predictive nature of a theory.

But even Scott Keyes doesn’t use the term correctly in referring to Young Earth Creationism in reference to Perry and whether or not he “subscribes to this theory . . .” because YEC isn’t really a theory in a scientific sense as the only evidence for it comes from assertions of dusty texts and guesses by people who claim inerrancy in the Bible and charge that Evolutionary science has gaps, which is actually part of what a theory should have. There are still loads of gaps in physics. Even with gaps, if a theory provides for prediction and testing, things are looking pretty good. It’s not good practice to claim that your theory is better just because another one has gaps or you don’t like dating methods.

Does Rick Perry know how old the earth is? This doesn’t really matter. Perry could have said that current science puts the age of the earth at this date ( four billion years or so). He might also have said that Biblical chronology asserts another date (say 7,000 years). It would even be better for Perry to assert a belief and say that he holds to the 7,000 year date and can’t stand the former. At least then the child could have asked Perry to argue why he goes with the 7,000 year date.

What he does assert to the questioner as a fact is that in Texas “we teach both creationism and evolution in our programs.” I would assume that this would mean a few weeks of religious education even for people who don’t hold to the authority of the bible or who are Buddhists and then several years of study of science. I have no problem with the teaching of theology in schools, as long as that theology is unrestrictive. I do have a problem when a politician misrepresents ideas to a child. This is unethical. Scientific theories are not just “out there.”

One response to “On Language, Precision, and Ethics”

  1. Josh says:

    “I have no problem with the teaching of theology in schools, as long as that theology is unrestrictive.”

    I don’t think this can be done in a generic atmosphere. At best each doctrine needs its own dedicated course structure and proper teacher, and should be offered as an elective.

    Kas had a philosophy teacher try to teach about the Old Testament last semester and it was a disaster. Not only because the teacher was not a Jew or Christian but because she was decidely in disagreement with both (she said as much) and did not represent Scripture with any kind of care.

    Personally, I’d rather that faith and religion matters were left out of the classroom entirely (elective or not) outside of general historical instruction and its context: Jesus was a Jewish teacher and founder of Christianity and Constantine later made Christianity the state religion of Rome (the very culture that put him to death); Buddha was a 6th century B.C. spiritual philosopher from India; Mohammed was a 7th century Arab warrior-philosopher, political revolutionary and military conqueror, etc.

    Even this is dicey because without the proper context of God (read: respectful), Jewish leaders such as Joshua and David are little more than warmongers “listening to offscreen voices”. I’ve already seen the damage that can do via the History channel ala feeding the fires of Israel’s alleged illegitimacy as a political state in the modern world.

    Beyond history, doctrine and theology should be left to parents, churches, and those accredited private schools dedicated to proper education of a doctrine (as ultimately determined by the parents).