Theories, laws, facts

By Sean Carroll | September 19, 2005 11:57 pm

Could we just agree to tell the truth about this from now on? The New York Times has an interesting story by Cornelia Dean on the training that museums have started to give their docents and employees on how to deal with creationists. A sad commentary on our current state of affairs that such training is becoming necessary, but probably nobody reading this blog is surprised.

But as a supplement to the article, the Times reprints a FAQ from a pamphlet handed out by the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, N.Y. It includes the following question:

Is evolution ‘just a theory’? A “theory” in science is a structure of related ideas that explains one or more natural phenomena and is supported by observations from the natural world; it is not something less than a “fact.” Theories actually occupy the highest, not the lowest, rank among scientific ideas. … Evolution is a “theory” in the same way that the idea that matter is made of atoms is a theory.

This is right in spirit, but the truth is not so very scary or technical that we can’t just fess up to it. The truth is that the hierarchy of “hypotheses” and “theories” and “laws” and “facts” that many people are taught in elementary school (or wherever) has absolutely no relationship to how real scientists use those words. Which is, that they are completely inconsistent and sloppy with their use. There is no procedure by which an ambitious young Hypothesis accumulates some promising support, and is brought up before the Most Supreme Council of Learned Scientists to be promoted to a Theory.

The reality of the situation is that it’s a mess. I can invent a half-baked idea tonight and call it a “model” or a “theory” and nobody cares, or would even notice. The Standard Model of Particle Physics is much closer to objective truth than Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation, and the General Theory of Relativity is somewhere in between.

And “facts”? Eavesdrop on some scientists at work. You will go years without hearing any of them talk about “facts.” They’ll talk about data, and measurements, and observations, and experiments — those are things with identifiable meanings that we can work with. But call something a “fact” and you’re making some absolute metaphysical claim that isn’t the kind of thing scientists like to do. Likewise “proof.” Mathematicians and logicians, who deal with abstract symbols independent of any connection to nature, prove things. Scientists don’t. They figure out that certain beliefs should be held with greater and greater confidence, but proving something is simply outside the domain of science.

Which does bring us to the one almost-subtle point in this generally easy-to-understand business. Science never gets anything 100% right; it is always working on a better understanding, improving on the best current theory (or model, or whatever). But it does get some things right enough. The Big Bang, the round earth, Newton’s Laws, the Standard Model, natural selection — none of these is “proven” correct, but they are all correct, within certain domains of validity. There comes a point when, even though you can never (even in principle) prove an idea to be a fact, it becomes well-enough established that maintaining a skeptical attitude is a sign of crackpottery, not wisdom.

So let’s just quit the charade and let the unwashed masses in on the truth as far as “theory” is concerned. It’s a shorthand term for a model of some part of nature — but the label implies absolutely nothing about how true that model is. (The phlogiston theory didn’t stop being a theory once we knew it wasn’t true.) What matters isn’t whether we label something a “theory” or a “law” or a “fact,” it’s whether we label it “right” or “wrong.” As in, Darwin was “right,” the creationists are “wrong.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science
  • The Anti-Lubos

    At the same time, I think you have to concede that a theory does have to make falsifiable predictions; as you say, they don’t have to be right, but they do have to be there. It is possible for an idea to be sufficiently empty of content that it fails even to earn the label “theory” or “model.”

  • http://capitalistimperialistpig.blogspot.com/ CapitalistImperialistPig

    The gap between science and the popular understanding is probably not much diminished by the use of phrases like “unwashed masses” or “kindergarden version.”

  • http://www.iac.es/galeria/erwin/ Peter Erwin

    The problem is that the word “theory” does have common uses outside of science, which encourage non-scientists to think of scientific theories-with-a-capital-T (evolution by natural selection, Big Bang, General Relativity, etc.) as embracing the kind of half-assed speculation people engage in every day. (As in: “Well, my theory about what’s really going on in this season of 24 is…”)

    And I’d disagree with you slightly about the actual situation in science (at least from my perspective ;-). Yes, you can come up with a quick, half-baked idea and call it a “theory”, but I suspect other scientists will think you’re being a bit pompous; that’s we why also have the terms “hypothesis” and “model” (and “toy model” and “cartoon”…). The word “theory”, in a scientific context, does imply some intellectual weight: some structure, some consistency and coherence, some elaboration, some serious work put into it.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Anti-Lubos. I think what Sean is saying is that we don’t care in general – the word “theory” just gets thrown around with abandon. Your requirement is certainly one of the things that must be satisfied to qualify as science though.

    I do think the museum training is fine though. It is in the right spirit, and given time constraints should work OK.

  • http://iso42.blogspot.com Wolfgang

    Sean,

    I would think there is a much better answer to this “just a theory” argument:

    If evolution is “just a theory” then it is also “just a theory” that Jesus Christ
    lived and walked on the earth approximatley 2000 years ago.
    Actually, the latter is “just a theory” as far as I know 8-)

  • Adam

    Personally, I think it’s pretty important that scientists remember that it’s not about ‘right and wrong’ but about whether or not it’s been disproved (‘wrong’) with the absence of disproof not meaning ‘right’. That scientists are sloppy in their terminology is irrelevant to how the creationist/ID types should be replied to, I’d say; sure, it perhaps doesn’t flatter the average scientist to point that out (but again, is it relevant? How we speak in day to day usage and what we understand underlies our work are different things), but the attack levelled by creationists and, particularly, the ID people, is at the foundations of science and it back upon those that we should fall to prepare our refutations.

    I don’t think that evolution is ‘true’ (or even particularly scientific*, to be honest, for all that it’s more scientific than any other attempted explanation; furthermore, I think that this deficiency is unavoidable and certainly shouldn’t be used as a rod with which to attack Darwinism/evolution. Indeed, I think that the use of ‘scientificness as sole criterion of worth’ is as much a crock as it was when the logical positivists attempted to use it to demarc meaning from non-meaning) but it’s a ‘good theory’, in fact, the ‘best theory’. I think that if we claim evolution to be ‘true’ or ‘right’ (at least, without qualifying that by ‘right’ we mean something like ‘best theory yet to be disproved’) then we’re not only making a mistake of logic but we’re giving ammunition to the loons.

    Of course, the criterion of worth for deciding what is the best theory not yet disproved is hardly uncontentious in itself. But I do think that, if nothing else, we should make clear that it’s not a symmetrical situation, that while we can perhaps find theories to be ‘wrong’, we can’t prove them right. To my mind, saying ‘right enough’ is just an invitation to a handwaving competition and, frankly, we’re outnumbered in terms of hands; better to stick to the logical foundations of the scientific endeavour, I say. Even if the handwaving ‘right enough’ approach could win the argument, it’d be winning in the wrong way, I think, and I don’t believe that winning on this battleground is so important that it doesn’t matter how we do it.

    *All I mean by this is that it’s hard to make predictions that can be falsified. It’s not a criticism, because the difficulty is in the subject matter rather than the approach, a statement that can’t be applied to ID ‘theories’ (which perversely adds additional difficulty into making disproveable claims).

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  • http://iso42.blogspot.com iso42

    > I think that if we claim evolution to be ‘true’ or ‘right’ (at least, without qualifying
    > that by ‘right’ we mean something like ‘best theory yet to be disproved’) then
    > we’re not only making a mistake of logic but we’re giving ammunition to the
    > loons.

    Adam,

    please do me a favor: The next time you state that the sun will rise tomorrow
    (or is very likely to rise tomorrow), you should qualify that this is based on
    “the best theory yet to be disproved”. Then you would not make a mistake of
    logic and not give ammunition to the loons.

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  • Adam

    Iso42

    You are perhaps misreading what I said. I am talking primarily about the debate with the ID/creationists, not the everyday usage of language when the people you are communicating with understand what’s implied (indeed, I asked if the everyday use was even relevant to this issue). So, when I say to myself that the sun will come up tomorrow, I am aware of the inductive implications of the statement on the face of it and, thus, don’t need to qualify it.

    When I am teaching physics, however, I make the point (early on) that we can’t prove anything and from then on I would use normal language, having established what really underlies my statements (unless I believe that the class is already aware of the nature of science, in which case there is no need to). That’s a perfectly acceptable verbal shorthand, I think. When debating with ID/Creationist types who base their attacks on a misunderstanding of science, I believe that it behooves us to be precise, as it is in this way that we will best confound their arguments. The shorthand I mentioned previously is only for use amongst groups where we all know what it abbreviates; when we are talking to a group who patently don’t, as evidenced by the thrust of their attack, the shorthand should be eschewed in favour of precision.

  • http://iso42.blogspot.com iso42

    Adam,

    you make a good point:

    > I am talking primarily about the debate with the ID/creationists, not the
    > everyday usage of language when the people you are communicating with
    > understand what’s implied

    ID and Creationism is not the everyday usage of language …

    Very good point!

  • Anonymous

    Adam,

    Evolution is plenty falsifiable – see TalkOrigins.org for an exhaustive list of evidence and potential falsifications.

  • http://nigelcook0.tripod.com/ Darwin

    String theory is an interesting example of a model, not a theory. The 10/11-D M-theory is really a mathematical model that explains supersymmetry and is also consistent with supergravity with 6/7 dimensions rolled up in to the Calabi-Tau manifold.

    Is this reality? Witten seemed to think so when he wrote: ‘String theory has the remarkable property of predicting gravity’. (Edward Witten, Physics Today, April 1996.)

    Since Witten had proved the equivalence of 10-D string theory with 11-D supergravity in 1995, he was entitled to write that from his perspective. But I don’t think it particularly helpful to talk like that, it sounds a very similar to Edward Teller’s hyping description of the X-ray laser (Teller said something like: ‘it has the remarkable property of being the size of an executive suitcase and able to shoot down the entire Soviet missile force, if in its field of view’.)

    No field theories are currently causal: beyond the vague idea that gauge boson exchange gives rise to force, there is no interest in treating fundamental forces as arising from a physical cause like radiation pressure.

    In 1919, Theodor Kaluza wrote a paper that put 5 dimensions instead of 4 into the metric of general relativity, obtaining electromagnetism. In 1926 Oskar Klein suggested the extra dimension was unseen normally because it was rolled up into a small (sub-atomic sized) circle, forming the fundamental particles of matter. However more dimensions were found to be required to explain supersymmetry in the standard model and the weak force.

    It is clear that gravity is the major problem in physics. In Dr Randall’s book ‘Warped Passages’, on page 6 we read: ‘A tiny magnet can lift a paper clip, even though all the mass of the Earth is pulling it in the opposite direction. Why is gravity so defenceless against the small tug of a tiny magnet? In standard three-dimensional particle physics, the weakness of gravity is a huge problem [the ‘hierarchy problem’, the differences in the strengths of the fundamental forces]. But extra dimensions might provide an answer.’

    However, Dr Randall’s suggestion that a dimension is stretched out does not offer a quantitative prediction of the coupling constant for gravity, a factor of only 10^-40 or so of the electromagnetic force strength.

    It is obvious from the sort of input you can put into string theory that you are not going to get the coupling constant for gravity, 10^-40.

    To answer this you need LeSage, who suggested gravity is a pushing effect in 1748 and used it to predict the nuclear atom (because the force would have to penetrate atoms to act on every particle of matter, not just on the outer surface area of a planet): George Louis LeSage, Lucrece Newtonien, Nouveaux Memoires De L’Academie Royal de Sciences et Belle Letters, 1782, pp. 404-31. It is online at http://www3.bbaw.de/bibliothek/digital/struktur/03-nouv/1782/jpg-0600/00000495.htm

    In CERN preprint EXT-2004-007 and in two Electronics World articles I showed that Feynman’s ideas on presenting general relativity as a compressing force of the spacetime fabric were equivalent to the Lorentz contraction: the spacetime fabric pressure when moving shortens objects in the direction of motion, and the contraction term in general relativity supplies the same effect for gravity.

    ‘… the source of the gravitational field can be taken to be a perfect fluid…. A fluid is a continuum that ‘flows’… A perfect fluid is defined as one in which all antislipping forces are zero, and the only force between neighboring fluid elements is pressure.’ — Bernard Schutz, ‘General Relativity’, Cambridge University Press, 1986, pp. 89-90.

    ‘It was proposed that a mechanism of gravity should be developed to rigorously test all of the consequences of the physical fluid model for the fabric of space… The success of this model for gravity has implications for the unification of fundamental forces via quantum theory.’ — Nigel Cook, ‘Solution to a Problem with General Relativity’, CERN Document Server paper preprint EXT-2004-007.

    The paper is at http://nigelcook0.tripod.com/ and shows that for the correct mechanism of gravity due to LeSage, the critical density is exactly .5e^3 (or about 10 times) higher than the true density. Hence most of the dark matter is eliminated, enabling an energy balance to become feasible. This predicts the strength of gravity, G.

    Notice that Einstein and Dirac recognised the importance of spacetime fabric (they called it ether, although it is radiation and is not the same as the 19th century models):

    ‘According to the general theory of relativity space without ether is unthinkable.’ — Albert Einstein, Leyden university lecture ‘Ether and Relativity’, 1920. (A. Einstein, Sidelights on Relativity, Dover, 1952, p. 23.)

    ‘… with the new theory of electrodynamics [vacuum filled with virtual particles] we are rather forced to have an aether.’ — P.A.M. Dirac, ‘Is There an Aether?,’ Nature, v168, 1951, p906. (If you have a kid playing with magnets, how do you explain the pull and push forces felt through space? As ‘magic’?)

    I think this is consistent with string theory, not an ‘alternative’ as such, because string theory is a successful explanation of the standard model, not force strengths.

  • Adam

    Anonymous:

    I’m not saying that it’s not falsifiable, I’m saying that in principle statements about past events of relative complexity over extremely long periods of time are more difficult to subject to exhaustive falsifiable investigation than are, for example, statements about the conservation of momentum. That evolution can occur is what we can show, of course.

    As I say, it’s not a criticism. As an aside, I don’t think that we can claim that any other scientific theory is truth, either. I don’t think that ‘scientificness’ (in the sense of ‘falsifiability’) is a measure of worth for anything other than how scientific something is; that I don’t think that evolution is as scientific as other theories isn’t a measure of the theory’s worth. As a further aside, I also don’t think that there is any point trying to disprove ID or Creationism in total (given that you can always Deus ex Machina your way out of any scientific attacks on them), or show that they are worthless, or try to show that God doesn’t exist or that, if he does, he doesn’t do anything; the aim is to show that ID and/or Creationism don’t belong in a science classroom. They aren’t ‘competing theories’ in the scientific sense, even if they are alternative explanations for the same observations.

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  • Watcher

    Sean you may have implied this but didn’t make it explicit or emphatic enough for me: in order for the enterprise you describe to be successful, scientific theories have to make predictions which allow them to be tested. Here’s what you identify as a key passage:

    Which does bring us to the one almost-subtle point in this generally easy-to-understand business. Science never gets anything 100% right; it is always working on a better understanding, improving on the best current theory (or model, or whatever). But it does get some things right enough. The Big Bang, the round earth, Newton’s Laws, the Standard Model, natural selection — none of these is “proven” correct, but they are all correct, within certain domains of validity. There comes a point when, even though you can never (even in principle) prove an idea to be a fact, it becomes well-enough established that maintaining a skeptical attitude is a sign of crackpottery, not wisdom.

    To expand, or paraphrase, there has to be some mechanism whereby reasonable people can agree on what is well-established and what isn’t. To function successfully, different factions in the scientific community have to be able to arrive at consensus on what is inbounds wisdom and what is out-of-bounds crackpot. This agreement is ultimately based on the goldstandard of experimental observation. So there is a kind of moral obligation theorists have to derive predictions from their models which make them vulnerable to empirical refutation. Basically this is for the good of the community, for the continuance of this tradition you allude to: of being able to reconcile opposing views by recourse to observation.

    A key part of the quote is “Science never gets anything 100 percent right,” and it could be said that proving theories right is not what it’s about—its about proving them wrong (or restricting the range of validity.)

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    Adam wrote:

    I’m not saying that it’s not falsifiable, I’m saying that in principle statements about past events of relative complexity over extremely long periods of time are more difficult to subject to exhaustive falsifiable investigation than are, for example, statements about the conservation of momentum. That evolution can occur is what we can show, of course.

    What are the current experimental limits on the non-conservation of momentum at redshift z=10?

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2005/09/cft-and-tomato-soup-can.html Plato

    So does it come down too, “is it just guessing, or does it have a predictable value”? Am I moving away from the valuation sought by scientists?

    Tried looking for statement I asked of Lubos in reference to my nine year old grandson. My grandson concluded after I explained what a model was, that it was based on previous work done and extensions of it, that he figured it was still guessing.

    I thought he might be right? It inspired this.

    So thanks Sean for the wise counsell. Maybe Lubos can add his comment in relation to yours, that further dialogue can further establish, a true and sanctioned method by all scientists to this “valuation” being assigned.

    Lee and Lubos should continue their talk without interruption, to make it clear what demands are being placed on further idealizations about this perspective that is driving scientists forward?

    It’s ramifications in cosmological arena. Would this all be considered responsible?

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2005/09/cft-and-tomato-soup-can.html Plato

    should read:

    Lee and Lubos should continue their talk without interruption…

    Lee and Lubos

  • Adam

    Arun:

    Search me. But if you’re trying to say that conservation of momentum is comparably falsifiable to evolution, you’d have to be a bit more precise for daft old me to understand. Is the hot debate (if there is any) over conservation of momentum centered around whether momentum was conserved billions of years go? If it is, such a debate would also be difficult to falsify (although at least we have, in principle, direct evidence of events from billions of years ago; indeed, it’s as if it’s happening in the now, to a large extent, observationally, for all that it’s faint). I was talking about whether momentum is conserved today as the (somewhat offhand) exemplar. The question of ‘how did current life come to be as it is’ is a more difficult topic for falsifiable investigation (one could indeed make the same claims about cosmology, although in some sense cosmologists do have direct contemporary evidence for some times, even if contaminated).

    In any case, I would reiterate that I put no merit in the idea of ‘scientificness’ or falsifiability as some sort of a criterion of objective worth in any case. Just so we’re clear; I’m not accusing you of taking my comments that I don’t personally think that evolution is as ‘scientific’ as some other theories as some sort of condemnation of it, but I’d like to reiterate anyhow that such is not the case. ‘Scientific’ isn’t the same as ‘good’, at least not so far as I’m concerned. I also don’t think that it’s a problem in the ID/evolution debate, because that debate is about whether or not ID should be taught in science as a competing scientific theory to that of evolution and clearly it isn’t. ID is enormously ‘unscientific’ and is, of course, enormously less ‘scientific’ than the theory of evolution and, thus, shouldn’t be taught in science lessons. Such scientific debate that takes place amongst the community, that is accessible, would indeed be interesting to include (Dawkins and the other chap, I think, mentioned that in a piece that was quoted in this very blog; the one where they unfortunately said that the Scopes Monkey trial took place in Kansas), but ID isn’t it.

  • joke

    Adam,
    This is bizarre. Are you equating “scientificness” with amenability to precision measurement? So somehow particle physics is more scientific than geology, cosmology, evolutionary biology? That is hard for me to understand. I don’t think that’s a very constructive definition of science.
    Joke

  • Adam

    joke:

    No, I’m equating it with falsifiability. It’s not an idea I invented, incidentally, and it isn’t uncontentious.

    I would say that some areas of physics weren’t particularly scientific, for that matter (arguments about interpretations of quantum mechanics, for example).

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    Thinking about it over lunch, I’d say evolution is as much of a fact as the conservation of momentum. That is, given some basic things, such as organisms that reproduce, but with variation, and this, in a non-random way, results in variation in reproductive success, I’d be hard-pressed to prove that evolution does not occur.

    The question that is open is are the mechanisms of evolution described so far sufficient to explain all that we see, or are there additional ones? E.g, Lynn Margulis’s theory of symbiogenesis is a significant addition to the original mechanisms of evolution described by Darwin.

  • http://iso42.blogspot.com iso42

    Adam,

    > I was talking about whether momentum is conserved today

    as they say: tomorrow, today will be yesterday.
    All we know is based on memory and documents from the past.
    There is no qualitative difference between a lab-logbook, a fossil
    or The Holy Bible. They are all documents from the past and we can
    never be certain that they are not misleading.

  • Adam

    iso42:

    The nature of the risk of them being incorrect is different, though, I think, as is the likelihood of information being lost, to that contained in the evolutionary record. I’m not, incidentally, subscribing to the idea that the future, the present and the past are the same thing, although I certainly have the working hypothesis that they have the same rules.

    On the subject of falsificationism, though, here is an interesting page of criticisms (many of which don’t bother me, but do motivate those that aren’t falsificationists): http://www.galilean-library.org/falsificationism.html (linked from the wikipedia page on falsificationism, I think).

    My main concern, actually, is not what science is or isn’t* so much as the idea that something that isn’t science (or, at least, not as scientific as something else) is less meaningful. I just wouldn’t teach it in science class (whether or not I believed it; evolution, however, is certainly the horse I’d back in the race to explain current day diversity of species).

    *I mean, I’m very interested in this question, but I’m also concerned that the criterion for what is and what isn’t science doesn’t become a line, implicitly, between what is and what isn’t good, or does or doesn’t have worth, etc.

  • http://iso42.blogspot.com iso42

    > The nature of the risk of them being incorrect is different

    I would not use the word “incorrect”. Memories and documents are what they are.
    It is our task (as scientists and in every-day life) to sort them into a consistent world view. Evolution is as important to this consistent world view as are
    Newton’s laws.
    Creationists on the other hand assign a high value to one document only and
    ignore all other evidence.

  • Adam

    Arun:

    Maybe I’m not a million miles away from your position, perhaps, although I would say ‘fact’ to describe something that we can get from scientific theory (so in that sense, I wouldn’t describe either as fact, not unless I was using it as shorthand, in the sense I spoke of earlier, for ‘something we’re assuming is true for lack of persuasive reason not to’). My statement was about which was ‘more scientific’, rather than which one was ‘factual’, in any case. My personal belief is that momentum is conserved and that evolution happened (and, like you, I’d paint ‘evolution’ in broad strokes), but I’m happy (eager!) to admit that I could be wrong.

    The point about scientificness (from my position as a falsificationist), though, wasn’t that evolution would be hard to disprove (because, let’s face it, ID is impossible to disprove if it is accompanied by omnipotent intelligent gawdlike force) but as to whether it is easy to make and test falsifiable statements from evolutionary theory to answer questions like “did ‘evolution’ cause the range of species, etc, that we see today”, where I’ve put ‘evolution’ in inverted commas to indicate the fuzzy vagueness of the term as we are using it, as you and I both mentioned. ID clearly fails this test woefully, but I don’t think that the lot of the evolutionist is a particularly easy one, either, in this regard, for all that they certainly can do some pretty impressive stuff with regards to falsification. The difficulty is not a flaw in evolutionary theory, nor the result of a deficiency of talent, but rather, it is inherent in the subject matter.

    As I say, the idea that one theory might be ‘less scientific’ than another theory in a different (and more testable) area doesn’t bother me a jot. The key fact, when deciding what theories to explain species diversity belong in the scientific curriculum, is how scientific they are compared to each other. Consequently, one can’t make the case for including ID in a biology lesson as a competing theory to evolution.

    Finally, and at the risk of being momentarily right on topic, I support the Museum of the Earth/Ithaca solution, because the silly ‘it’s only a theory’ attack on evolution is best rebutted first by an explanation of what ‘a theory’ really is, in science.

    Well, I said ‘finally’, but I clearly didn’t mean it. Finally (really), non-falsificationists won’t, in all probability, be persuaded by anything I say at all; falsificationists who do believe that evolutionary theory is as scientific as anything else in science will agree with me that falsificationism is important but disagree with me (perhaps from a position of more knowledge!) on the respective levels of falsifiability. In any case, we’d both agree that ID doesn’t belong in a science classroom.

  • Adam

    iso42:

    Rather than ‘incorrect’ we could say ‘unreflective of what actually happened’ or question the correlation of what is written with what occurred? Clearly we can systematically doubt ourselves into the ground.

    I don’t care about ‘world view’, though, so I wouldn’t care to assess relative importance. I just work in, and study, science because it interests me, because I like a puzzle.

  • Adam

    In reply number 27, the first line should read “Maybe I’m not a million miles away from your position, perhaps, although I wouldn’t say ‘fact’…”, ie, ‘wouldn’t’, not ‘would’.

  • Torbjorn Larsson

    The discussion of evolution here and in the post on Lisa Randalls NYT piece seems a little unclear to me.

    If I paraphrase PZ Myers in http://pharyngula.org correctly, we should distinguish between the observation(s) of evolution (antibiotics resistance, fossil record, observed speciation) and the theory (theories) of evolution based on random variation (sex, mutation) and nonrandom selection (culling).

    We should regard the numerous observations as well established facts and the later theories like neodarwinism as well established theories. The origin of life is irrelevant to the theorys validity (but would be nice to know some day). Randalls discussion on chromosome number or Adams on ‘exhaustive falsifiable investigation’ he would likely call old ‘god of the gaps’ arguments.

    I wish he would have walked us through his reasoning again. Instead he seems to be rather upset (http://pharyngula.org/index/weblog/comments/danged_physicists/) by Randalls piece and this thread.

    A propos Myers, it is perhaps also appropriate to mention that he takes Adams term ‘Darwinism’ as a sure creationist sign, if I remember correctly. (The theory has long since evolved from Darwins views.)

    It is also a common creationist fallability to state that evolution theory can not be falsified. It can, and it has been modified several times, see above. See
    http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/CA/CA211.html for a simple correction and
    http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/evolphil/falsify.html for a full discussion.

  • Torbjorn Larsson

    Oh, and ‘evolutionist’ is another of Myers telltale signs of creationists. Assuming I still remember correctly.

  • Chris W.

    A great piece by John Allen Paulos appeared in the Guardian on September 8 (and more recently on Edge.org). An excerpt:

    So far, so good. What is more than a bit odd, however, is that some of the most ardent opponents of Darwinian evolution – for example, many fundamentalist Christians – are among the most ardent supporters of the free market. They accept the market’s complexity without qualm, yet insist the complexity of biological phenomena requires a designer.

    They would reject the idea that there is or should be central planning in the economy. They would point out that simple economic exchanges which are beneficial to people become entrenched and then gradually modified as they become part of larger systems of exchange, while those that are not beneficial die out. Yet some of these same people refuse to believe natural selection and “blind processes” can lead to biological order arising spontaneously.

    I’m afraid the significance of this point will go largely unappreciated.

  • Adam

    Tobjorn Larsson said:

    ‘Oh, and ‘evolutionist’ is another of Myers telltale signs of creationists. Assuming I still remember correctly.’

    I’ll defer to your superior knowledge. To me it was meant to take the same role as ‘physicist’ or ‘biologist’, ‘thermodynamicist’, etc. For myself, I haven’t claimed that evolution isn’t falsifiable, I just ventured my personal opinion that it is less prone to a falsificationist investigation program than some other theories in science. But then, as I say, that doesn’t bother me much; I’m a scientist, but I don’t worship at the Temple of Science.

  • Fyodor

    To Chris W:
    “So far, so good. What is more than a bit odd, however, is that some of the most ardent opponents of Darwinian evolution – for example, many fundamentalist Christians – are among the most ardent supporters of the free market. They accept the market’s complexity without qualm, yet insist the complexity of biological phenomena requires a designer”

    Right, that is an interesting point. Of course, one cannot resist the mental image of the canonical Guardian reader reading this and reflecting uncomfortably that this line of reasoning, in reverse, turns him into the economic equivalent of a creationist. But no, of course, the canonical Guardian reader is constitutionally incapable of doubting that The Market is Always Evil.

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  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    The free market has a considerable amount of design in it.

  • Adam

    What’s called the ‘free market’ does, at least. But it’s not particularly free (it’s just freer than some people would like).

  • Torbjorn Larsson

    “I’ll defer to your superior knowledge.”

    My knowledge on this, as on many things, is severely limited. Here I am mainly regurgitating my impression of Myers knowledge on http://pharyngula.org/ . He is a biologist and an energetic evolution proponent. Read him directly for superior knowledge in this.

    On the specific term ‘evolutionist’ my impression is that Myers thinks:
    -creationists reads the same evangelical texts were terms like ‘Darwinist’ and ‘evolutionist’ is misused.
    – he is a biologist and evolution is just one well established theory in this area that every biologist use. The specialist on evolution are probably called just that.

    However, regarding falsification I heartily sympatice with your intentions. Falsificability gives trust to theories and efficiently kills faithbased reasoning; I know hands on of examples. But I don’t think that it is realistic to think that every statement of a theory must be falsificable. I don’t see why at least a single central falsifiable statement is not enough to lend trust.

    I also think the ‘god of the gaps’ argument shows that one must acknowledge missing knowledge and less trustful ad hocs, else one open up a backdoor for faithbased reasoning anyway.

  • Adam

    I think that if the faithbased reasoners were able to ask decent questions to attack the gaps, they’d be doing it by demonstrating erroneous predictions from evolutionary theory and they’d actually be doing science and, therefore, doing us a favour. As it is, they’re just pointing out deficiencies (or what they believe are deficiencies) in the theory but their Big New Idea, ID, is a busted flush, scientifically. In essence, they’re saying ‘theory A has some areas that aren’t pinned down yet, let’s replace it with theory B, to which I am emotionally attached, that makes no falsifiable predictions at all‘.

    I don’t have a problem with areas of a scientific endeavour being ‘unscientific’, as I see the description as being representative of the overall whole. ID, though, just isn’t scientific in nearly any degree. The more different falsifiable statements we can make from our theory, the better, I say. I think that some areas of investigation will lend themselves better to this than others, but the damning thing about ID is that it effectively represents an attempt to try and avoid asking falsifiable statements but the IDers still put it forward as a ‘scientific alternative’.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Sean has a good point in asserting that the definition of “theory” is all too fuzzy, and the ensuing discussion “proves” by any practical measure that attempts to clarify it will go over the heads of at least 99% of the literate population.

    How ’bout we take a step backward and try to establish a comprehensible definition of “science”? So far I haven’t found anyone literate (which I use as a baseline of age & education below which such discussions are useless) who doesn’t seem to get it when I say science deals only with what can be measured and tested.

    This has several advantages, including that it concedes there is much of reality (religious devotion & other emotions, concepts like “America”, etc) that exists but is not in the realm of science. The “measurement” part also points to the actual daily work of science (as opposed to the Hollywood version), and the “testing” part implies the process of building & checking hypotheses, if the conversation continues in that direction.

    Best of all, in present context, the question, “What in (whichever variant of) the idea of creationism can be measured or tested?” – whether in a friendly chat or a heated debate – leads one’s audience to a much better understanding of why science advocates draw the lines the way we do.

  • spyder

    The Onion weighs in w/ its usual satirical stylings on this topic:
    EVANGELICAL SCIENTISTS REFUTE GRAVITY WITH NEW “INTELLIGENT FALLING” THEORY

    KANSAS CITY, KS-As the debate over the teaching of evolution in public schools continues, a new controversy over the science curriculum arose Monday in this embattled Midwestern state. Scientists from the Evangelical Center For Faith-Based Reasoning are now asserting that the long-held “theory of gravity” is flawed, and they have responded to it with a new theory of Intelligent Falling.

    “Things fall not because they are acted upon by some gravitational force, but because a higher intelligence, ‘God’ if you will, is pushing them down,” said Gabriel Burdett, who holds degrees in education, applied Scripture, and physics from Oral Roberts University.

    Burdett added: “Gravity-which is taught to our children as a law-is founded on great gaps in understanding. The laws predict the mutual force between all bodies of mass, but they cannot explain that force. Isaac Newton himself said, ‘I suspect that my theories may all depend upon a force for which philosophers have searched all of nature in vain.’ Of course, he is alluding to a higher power.”

    Founded in 1987, the ECFR is the world’s leading institution of evangelical physics, a branch of physics based on literal interpretation of the Bible.

    According to the ECFR paper published simultaneously this week in the International Journal Of Science and the adolescent magazine God’s Word For Teens!, there are many phenomena that cannot be explained by secular gravity alone, including such mysteries as how angels fly, how Jesus ascended into Heaven, and how Satan fell when cast out of Paradise.
    The ECFR, in conjunction with the Christian Coalition and other Christian conservative action groups, is calling for public-school curriculums to give equal time to the Intelligent Falling theory. They insist they are not asking that the theory of gravity be banned from schools, but only that students be offered both sides of the issue “so they can make an informed decision.”

    “We just want the best possible education for Kansas’ kids,” Burdett said.

    Proponents of Intelligent Falling assert that the different theories used by secular physicists to explain gravity are not internally consistent. Even critics of Intelligent Falling admit that Einstein’s ideas about gravity are mathematically irreconcilable with quantum mechanics. This fact, Intelligent Falling proponents say, proves that gravity is a theory in crisis.

    “Let’s take a look at the evidence,” said ECFR senior fellow Gregory Lunsden.”In Matthew 15:14, Jesus says, ‘And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.’ He says nothing about some gravity making them fall-just that they will fall. Then, in Job 5:7, we read, ‘But mankind is born to trouble, as surely as sparks fly upwards.’ If gravity is pulling everything down, why do the sparks fly upwards with great surety? This clearly indicates that a conscious intelligence governs all falling.”
    Critics of Intelligent Falling point out that gravity is a provable law based on empirical observations of natural phenomena. Evangelical physicists, however, insist that there is no conflict between Newton’s mathematics and Holy Scripture.

    “Closed-minded gravitists cannot find a way to make Einstein’s general relativity match up with the subatomic quantum world,” said Dr. Ellen Carson, a leading Intelligent Falling expert known for her work with the Kansan Youth Ministry. “They’ve been trying to do it for the better part of a century now, and despite all their empirical observation and carefully compiled data, they still don’t know how.”

    “Traditional scientists admit that they cannot explain how gravitation is supposed to work,” Carson said. “What the gravity-agenda scientists need to realize is that ‘gravity waves’ and ‘gravitons’ are just secular words for ‘God can do whatever He wants.'”

    Some evangelical physicists propose that Intelligent Falling provides an elegant solution to the central problem of modern physics.

    “Anti-falling physicists have been theorizing for decades about the ‘electromagnetic force,’ the ‘weak nuclear force,’ the ‘strong nuclear force,’ and so-called ‘force of gravity,'” Burdett said. “And they tilt their findings toward trying to unite them into one force. But readers of the Bible have already known for millennia what this one, unified force is: His name is Jesus.”

    Source: http://theonion.com/news/index.php?issue=4133&n=2

    In science it often happens that scientists say, “You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,” and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time someting like that happened in politics or religion. – Carl Sagan

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  • Ciro

    It seems to me that you fail to distinguish hypothesis from theory. The former is a speculative idea and the later is an hypothesis that has been proven to your peers. You are grammatically (and logically) incorrect if you state “my theory is…” unless you have proven it. You should say “my hypothesis is…”.

    Yes, I know, nobody does this kind of distinctions, but I suggest you do.

    And I would like to point to the funny spyder that his “gravity as intelligent design” was actually a theory many years ago: planets and stars were supposedly made of a substance different from earth, wind, fire and water, the four “materials” in vogue, called the “quintessence” or fifth essence. Its properties? Well, the main one was that it did not fall, like the other four substances. That is why Newton’s ideas were so startling: the heavens and earth were united, because they were made of the same stuff.

    Finally, ID does make some falsifiable predictions: mainly that I am intelligently designed. ID can not explain the human embrionic evolution with gills and tail, the appendix, the senility, and all the inherited defective traits that an intelligent designer should eliminate from my body. And I am not fat nor ugly, or my complains would be louder, because the guy has had 15 billion years to get rid of those things… For an almighty being this seems to be a quite lazy design :-) ID advocates predict I should be perfect, or they have no intelligent designer behind life. And I am not even talking of diseases, death and the Superbowl TV ordeal… :-)

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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