Published in the February 28, 2014 Santa Maria Times.

The Flood,” a student insisted, “is what killed off the dinosaurs. They lived alongside Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden 6,000 years ago, when Earth was created. Evolution is only a theory.”

She was a member of one of my English 101 classes at Allan Hancock College, and she was not the first or the last student I have encountered who holds similar beliefs. “Evolution is only a theory,” is a phrase they all use.

This reveals a fundamental error in the thinking of those who don’t believe in evolution, and insist the Biblical version of Creation is just as valid as any scientific theory.

Gravity is a theory, but we cannot deny its existence because it is what holds us here on earth. Einstein’s E=MC2 is likewise “just a theory,” but no one can deny the existence of atomic energy. Our knowledge of both is incomplete, for a theory does not explain everything, nor was it intended to. A theory may not provide all of the answers, but it may—and often does—open the door for others to seek further answers.

A scientific theory is not simply a guess or an idea with no proof behind it. It is an explanation of some part of the natural world. Most critically, it is supported by evidence that has been collected through observation and experimentation. A theory begins as a hypothesis, is tested via the scientific method, then is challenged by experts to see if it will stand up to more testing and scrutiny. Once it has gone through this rigorous procedure, it can be—and frequently is—modified as other evidence becomes known. Science is an ongoing process, “a philosophy of discovery,” in the words of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The importance of this distinction between a theory borne of science and an idea simply put forth by someone with nothing to support it cannot be understated. As one Hancock College biology teacher told me, “I spend a lot of time explaining to students the difference between a scientific theory and an idea. A theory is backed up by evidence.”

For example, Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity in 1915—not to be confused with his special theory in 1905—predicted light could be bent by a gravitational pull, but the theory was not tested until a solar eclipse in 1919. The results confirmed Einstein’s theory.

Stephen Hawking predicted the existence of black holes based on his knowledge of gravity and relativity. No one has ever seen a black hole, but it is generally accepted that they exist, based on the evidence Hawking and others have produced. Scientists have also predicted the existence of dark matter and dark energy. No one has ever seen either of them, and we have a great deal to learn about both, but science accepts their existence as fact.

The same science that embraces evolution as wholeheartedly as it embraces E=MC2 has made possible our modern way of life. The science that has given us cellphones, laptops and high-tech weapons of war has no doubt about evolution, because evolution is supported by evidence.

Creationism starts with a belief and then attempts to find evidence that supports it. It ignores evidence to the contrary and establishes a fixed dogma that cannot be tested or challenged. It is not open to change or new ideas.

This was demonstrated in a recent debate between a scientist and a creationist. Both were asked what would change their minds. Their answers are revealing:

Creationist: “Nothing.”

Scientist: “Evidence.”

That says it all.

Mark James Miller, President, Part-Time Faculty Association of Allan Hancock College, CFT Local 6185, Santa Maria, CA