Why “The Great Replacement Theory” is not a Theory, and why that Matters
The notion of a “theory” comes from science. As such, the term conveys all the legitimacy upon which the scientific method relies. It should not be tossed around casually like a frisbee in the park.
The so-called “Great Replacement Theory” we are now reading about in mainstream publications is not a theory. Therefore, it should not be called a theory. And it should not be graced with capital letters. Both these practices suggest unearned legitimacy. And, unearned legitimacy carries great risk.
We now know that repeatedly making false claims will train people to slowly accept those false claims. Recent research by a team of psychologists and cognitive scientists warns us that we humans tend to increase our belief in any claims—true or false, reasonable or unreasonable, likely or unlikely—the more often we hear or read about them. So, as we repeatedly encounter something being called a “theory,” we become more easily inclined to agree that it IS a theory. Once that happens, it moves into the realm of science. As such, we begin to attribute it truth status.
What does it mean that a “theory” is grounded in the scientific method? Here’s one statement from Scientific American:
A scientific theory is an explanation of some aspect of the natural world that has been substantiated through repeated experiments or testing.
The American Museum of Natural History expands on this basic principle:
A theory not only explains known facts; it also allows scientists to make predictions of what they should observe if a theory is true. Scientific theories are testable. New evidence should be compatible with a theory. If it isn’t, the theory is refined or rejected. The longer the central elements of a theory hold—the more observations it predicts, the more tests it passes, the more facts it explains—the stronger the theory.
What is now being called the “great replacement theory” has nothing of the attributes of a theory. It has not been “substantiated through repeated experiments.” It has not been “substantiated through testing.” It does not “explain known facts.” It is not “compatible with new evidence.”
Jews are not “replacing” Christians. (As one Jewish studies scholar notes, “America’s Jewish birthrate has fallen, and Jews are barely replacing themselves, let alone the white population as a whole“). Nor are people of color “replacing” white people. True, the demographic profile of the U.S. is changing. But that is nothing new. In fact, it has always been the case. Since the founding of the Republic, new groups of refugees (starting with the Pilgrims), followed by newer groups of immigrants, have continually brought new languages, new musics, new cultural practices, new cuisines, and new religious traditions to these shores. Given this history that undergirds all American history, it should not surprise us that, as one recent study notes, most Americans do not care about the “changing” demographic profile of the American population. “Change” is the one constant of U.S. demographic history.
But some white Christians are afraid of such scenarios. Their fears are stoked by right-wing talk-show hosts promoting outlandish fantasies of racist and anti-Semitic “what-if” schemes. As they have been at other times in the past, these schemes are now being interbraided, with the fate of Western history’s two great “othered” groups—Jews and Blacks—being once again bound by linked stereotypes.
With fear a powerful motivator, these invented “replacement” plots slip easily into the vaunted category of “fact,” once they are covered with the veneer of science . . . simply by being called a “theory.”
Or, should I write, “Theory”?
Adding a capital letter to a word claiming to be something it is not makes matters worse. As one professional author/editor explains it, some people erroneously think that “sticking a capital letter at the front of a word would make it seem more grand, more important, more worthy of respect.” But, as another professional editor notes, this practice is nothing more than “rogue capitalization.”
All of which is to urge:
Journalists and politicians: please stop mindlessly repeating the offensive, misleading, and dangerous phrase, “Great Replacement Theory”!
When referring to this notion—which has inspired all too many recent massacres, from El Paso to Buffalo—don’t be afraid to use more words, if more words are required for accuracy. Call it out for what it is. How about . . .
the dangerous claim known as “great replacement theory” that is rooted in racist and anti-Semitic paranoia.
Update Nov. 2022: I’ve just learned of a new M.A. thesis by Cheryl Hege about “white replacement theory” completed from the perspective of political science. It looks quite promising. If you have an account with ResearchGate, you can find it at no charge online here.