Helping everyone see the light of evolution

By Carol Clark | eScienceCommons | June 9, 2013

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"If we don't help everyone understand what constitutes science and what constitutes faith, we're bound to run into more problems," says evolutionary biologist Jaap de Roode.

Jaap de Roode likes to tell his Evolutionary Biology students: “I don’t believe in evolution.”

It gets their attention. Then he explains: "Evolution isn't a belief, it's a theory. You may believe in God and have faith in a religion, but when it comes to science, you look at the evidence for a theory and then decide whether to accept it."

Any perceived conflict between science and religious beliefs often comes down to semantics, says de Roode, assistant professor of biology at Emory. "I want all of my students to understand the meaning of ‘scientific theory' and why science is different from faith, but doesn't have to be in conflict with it," he says.

Adding to the confusion is the popular use of the word "theory" to describe a hunch or a guess. In science, a hypothesis is more akin to a hunch or a guess, while a theory refers to a body of knowledge supported by considerable evidence, such as gravitational theory or cell theory.

Despite his efforts, at the end of 16 weeks of teaching evolution theory, de Roode sometimes has one or two students complain on their class evaluation forms that he should include opposing views.

"It's shocking to me that even some seniors, after taking many science courses, still don't understand that scientifically, there is no alternative to evolution theory," de Roode says. "They don't want to fail the class, so they give me the answers they know that I want to see, but they remain skeptical. That bugs me as a scientist, and as a teacher."

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