Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Review: Just a Theory

Just a Theory: Exploring the Nature of Science
Moti Ben-Ari
Amherst (NY): Prometheus Books, 2005. 237 pages.
Reviewed by
Michael Zimmerman

The most common criticism anyone involved in the evolution/creationism controversy is likely to hear is that evolution is just a theory, and thus there's no reason to privilege it over other ideas. Although Ben-Ari does not focus exclusively on evolution, he does pay it significant attention as he attempts to explain what it means for a scientific idea to rise to the level of theory.

He does a nice job, for example, of comparing the theory of gravity to the theory of evolution, pointing out that while there is no public controversy over the former, a great deal more is actually known about the latter. Sophisticated evolutionary mechanisms abound with a great deal of research being produced each year designed to determine the conditions under which each operates. A mechanism for gravity, on the other hand, is still purely conjectural with no solid evidence that gravitons — gravitational waves, and particles hypothesized to be "analogous to the electromagnetic waves and photons that come from electromagnetic fields" — actually exist. In the light, somewhat humorous style that permeates the book, Ben- Ari concludes, "Currently, the evidence [for gravitons] is controversial, so we must live with the embarrassment of risking our lives on a theory whose mechanism is not fully understood" (p 32).

Ben-Ari makes his comparative point very clear: "the theory of evolution more than fulfills all of the requirements of scientific 'theoryhood,' even more than the theory of gravitation.To brand evolution as 'just a theory' is the finest compliment one can confer on it!" (p 38).

The only reasonable conclusion to be drawn from this discrepancy is that those who attack evolution for being just a theory are clearly not doing so on scientific grounds. If the theory of gravity could be interpreted by some to have political ramifications, it too would be attacked by those who disagreed with those political extensions. What's important to remember, though, is that the misuse of scientific concepts, purposefully or ignorantly, when those concepts are brought into the public arena should have no bearing on their underlying scientific validity. Ben- Ari appropriately explains that science is a discipline that strictly imposes self-limitations."Few people appreciate that modern science is quite limited in scope and restricts itself to description and explanation of natural phenomena; on purpose, science does not deal with purpose" (p x).

Ben-Ari deals with the basics of the epistemology of science, how we know what we know, in a straightforward and readable fashion that is fully accessible to the general reader. He covers the importance of falsification, makes critical distinctions between the technical use of terms and the common use of the same words, provides a cursory overview of the use of statistics in science (focusing mostly on medical examples), and offers abbreviated critiques of the sociology of science and postmodern attacks on science. Taken together, all of this allows Ben-Ari to accomplish his main goal of helping readers "distinguish claims that are provisional and debatable, from claims that are so well established that rejecting them drives one over the border that divides real science from pseudoscience, which are activities that illegitimately wrap themselves in the mantle of science" (p ix).

The more sophisticated reader, one who is already fairly well immersed in the evolution/creationism controversy, is not likely to find much new in the book. Similarly, this is not the book for those looking for specific refutations of creationist assertions about their "discipline" or for ammunition to rebut creationist attacks on evolution beyond those of the "it's just a theory" genre.

Ben-Ari ends each chapter with a very short vignette of a famous scientist. These interesting but fairly superficial asides are designed to humanize the face of science and to demonstrate that science is always conducted within a cultural and historical context. The twelve people discussed include such notables as Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Pasteur and Pauling, but, unfortunately only one woman, mathematician Emmy Noether, is included.

By covering topics as varied as the nature of reductionism, geology, and the future of science, in addition to the epistemological approaches mentioned above, in such a short book it is not surprising that Ben-Ari is barely able to scratch the surface of any one of them. He has provided the equivalent of a tasty appetizer, one that might be the precursor to an elegant meal. Many readers will likely finish the book ready for the next, more substantial, course — and that's not a bad thing!

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.