By Sean Carroll | June 11, 2012 10:58 am
  • Sili

    “theory”? I wasn’t aware they’d managed to produce a testable claim yet.

  • shawn

    Here’s the logical progression:

    A chicken created the Universe
    God is a chicken.
    Chickens are intelligent.
    Therefore, the Universe was created by God.

    Scientists only need to prove that chickens are intelligent, and intelligent design is verified =)

  • eric gisse

    Don’t worry about the cranks and god-botheres, Sean.

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  • martenvandijk

    George Musser’s post is exemplary.

  • Kaleberg

    How does Verlinde’s entropic gravity fit with your theory about rising entropy being a cosmological feature? Would one expect an expanding universe or a contracting one based on a uniform rise in entropy? I know maybe diddly squat about all this, but you both use the word entropy and talk about GR physics-y stuff.

  • martenvandijk

    George Musser’s post is a modern version of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. The drawing is a perfect illustration.

  • Barry

    With all due respect, your use of the term “theory” in your second bullet point is a part of the reason anti-intellectualists continue to use the tired (and incorrect) refrain “it’s *just* a theory” when the facts dispute their theologies. Intelligent design is not (and cannot be) based on a set of observable facts and thus fails the scientific definition of a theory. No matter how the term is used in common speech, this is a science blog and you should take care to make the distinction between hypothesis and theory.

  • Aeronin

    I hypothesize that the Sun will ‘rise’ tomorrow; although vast quantities of historical observational data collected by billions of souls support this hypothesis, the Scientific Method (may its Breathlessly-Whispered Name be Forever Praised), will not allow me **at this time** to elevate said hypothesis’ status to that of Theory, as it is not ‘testable’ or ‘verifiable’ TODAY, at least at these instantaneous space-time coordinates. Even said hypothesis is highly locale-specific in terms of its details of LAT/LONG, GMT, and azimuth.

    I can also further hypothesize, based on past historical observation (Initial Conditions), the current Newtonian or Relativistic Theories of Gravitation, Orbital/ Solar Mechanics (Differential Eqs.), and basic Spherical Trigonometry (adjusted for Earth’s oblation, et al), just at where such hypothetical coordinates I must be to magically transform the 1st hypothesis into actual Observable, Testable Theory at this exact place-instant.

    But as a practical matter, this instant will have washed into the Past err before I ever complete the requisite calculations. So was it ever really possible for the hypothesis **for this instant** to become a testable Theory? When the moment’s past, doesn’t it then become nothing more than simply another Observational Datum? And is this not true wherever I travel, and at whatever space-time coordinate I commit myself to said attempt? Of course, there is no such difficulty in making a prediction for a future space-time coordinate, but then that would then represent a true Theory from the start, not a promotable Hypothesis that by SM definition does not make testable predictions; only Theories (TM) do THAT.

    But in fact, any number of things **may** occur between NOW and TOMORROW that may even prevent such observational confirmation THEN, things that have never here-to-fore occurred in all observational history of Solar activity. I don’t hypothesize that they will, but … it is therefore inaccurate, misleading, and fairly indicative of intellectual bias to casually dismiss any hypothesis as ‘TERRIBLE THEORY’ simply on the basis of **current** un-verifiability. So, while I understand the fine distinction that is so important to some, I don’t think such fine distinction is the true motivation of the author’s original dismissive put-down.

    Perhaps the forensic, past origins of the Universe and its apparent fine-tuning for Observation by living, intelligent beings with an intimate awareness of Good and Evil and the Infinite will always be the province of Meta-Physics or Philosophy, or Religious Faith, and never be amenable to any examination by the Scientific Method. Just how would a **forensic understanding** of the observations of Past Events (not just the Observations & the consequences of the Laws-of-Physics themselves) lead to Hypotheses promotable to Testable Theory of future events anyway? If they can, I’m interested in how people think this would work; if they can’t, I can accept this as well, without becoming insulting and derogatory towards those who desire, nonetheless, to sincerely proffer such forensic ‘non-Theoretical’ explanations …

    And perhaps also, your point is simply that these poor, benighted, Un-Scientific souls, are just clueless Amateurs who simply cannot intellectually grasp, at least with your profound level of understanding, the sublime subtleties betwixt Hypothesis and Theory, and you have kindly, gently pointed out where they have gone astray in their muddled understanding. There-there, now.

    But based on my personal observations over several months of your consistent impolite tone and rather smug choice of wording in these matters, I suspect that the motivation for such rudeness and arrogance lays more in the hostile animus that has taken root in the depths of your heart than in your sincere desire to protect the integrity of the Scientific Method.

    But that’s just my Theory 😉

  • Doug Little


    It’s a terrible theory because a scientific theory is supported by extensive research and repeated experimentation and observation in the natural world. Unlike a true scientific theory, the existence of an “intelligent” agent can not be tested, nor is it falsifiable. Furthermore we already have a theory that explains the diversity of life we see on the planet. It has stood up to some pretty serious scrutiny over the last 150 years, explains all the observational evidence and predicted many things that turned out to be true.

  • Aeronin

    Well, my original argument was that, True, “… the existence of an “intelligent” agent can not be tested, nor is it falsifiable.” – NOW, within the limitations of the Scientific Method, but that does not rule out future developments that would be observable and testable that would then elevate that Hypothesis to Theory (or even Law). IOW, God can show up and reveal Himself, of course, if you will, and settle everything. My Faith tells me this will indeed happen according to what I believe are His Words and my personal experience with Him, but I agree with you that this is not currently scientifically provable. :)

    But if one were to happen upon what appears to be a ‘crime scene’, with signs of forced-entry, ransacked contents, scenes of a struggle with a wallet empty of cash/ credit-cards lying near dead body that has a knife protruding from its chest, any decent forensic investigator would immediately formulate the Hypothesis that an armed robbery/ homicide had occurred, no? And had been committed by another intelligent (in this case malevolent) being. Wouldn’t this be the case even if no fingerprints, hair, or DNA or anything else identifiable to the perpetrator were to ever be found? Of course, a competing Hypothesis assuming the spontaneous generation of highly localized vortexes might also explain many of the observations. But until there’s a capture or confession or an observed vortex …

    And not that I have a particular axe to grind with evolution-of-species as some do, but according to everything I have heard/ read here and elsewhere about the SM and the relevant discussion of Hypothesis vs. Theory, shouldn’t it be called the Hypothesis of Evolution? It certainly fosters interesting ideas in attempting to explain the observed diversity and specialization of life on this planet, but I do think it’s a bit of a stretch to maintain that it “… explains the diversity of life …” and “… explains all the observational evidence and predicted many things that turned out to be true.” Can you cite one prediction that is observable/ testable/ verifiable? I’m open-minded on the subject.

  • Doug Little

    From the talkorigins archive.

    Darwin predicted, based on homologies with African apes, that human ancestors arose in Africa. That prediction has been supported by fossil and genetic evidence (Ingman et al. 2000).

    Theory predicted that organisms in heterogeneous and rapidly changing environments should have higher mutation rates. This has been found in the case of bacteria infecting the lungs of chronic cystic fibrosis patients (Oliver et al. 2000).

    Predator-prey dynamics are altered in predictable ways by evolution of the prey (Yoshida et al. 2003).

    Ernst Mayr predicted in 1954 that speciation should be accompanied with faster genetic evolution. A phylogenetic analysis has supported this prediction (Webster et al. 2003).
    Several authors predicted characteristics of the ancestor of craniates. On the basis of a detailed study, they found the fossil Haikouella “fit these predictions closely” (Mallatt and Chen 2003).

    Evolution predicts that different sets of character data should still give the same phylogenetic trees. This has been confirmed informally myriad times and quantitatively, with different protein sequences, by Penny et al. (1982).

    Insect wings evolved from gills, with an intermediate stage of skimming on the water surface. Since the primitive surface-skimming condition is widespread among stoneflies, J. H. Marden predicted that stoneflies would likely retain other primitive traits, too. This prediction led to the discovery in stoneflies of functional hemocyanin, used for oxygen transport in other arthropods but never before found in insects (Hagner-Holler et al. 2004; Marden 2005).

  • Aeronin

    Interesting examples, Doug – thank you.

    I will look into these further and try to determine for myself whether they truly represent speciation or simply environmental-niche specialization within a species.

    I remember a study (in the 90’s?) trying to determine the origins of ‘Eve’ via a massive population study of Mitochondrial DNA. As I remember, that study had narrowed the search down to 4 possible candidates/ locales, as the ‘Mother-of-All-Living’s DNA only changed via mutation over the millenia. Possibilities included Africa, the Indian sub-continent, South Asia, and another I can’t recall. Other studies have tried to examine languages and dialects to determine migration patterns and cross-flow.

    I like the gill-to-wings example. It begins with a Hypothesis (was the original idea based on similar structures?):

    “Insect wings evolved from gills, with an intermediate stage of skimming on the water surface.”

    Graduates to Theory (makes a testable prediction):

    “Since the primitive surface-skimming condition is widespread among stoneflies, J. H. Marden predicted that stoneflies would likely retain other primitive traits, too.”

    Validates Prediction (tests the premise):

    “This prediction led to the discovery in stoneflies of functional hemocyanin, used for oxygen transport in other arthropods but never before found in insects.”

  • Sili

    I liked the entropic gravity idea, but if Verlinde needs to wed it to MOND, I guess he *is* a crackpot.

    Or with a bit of luck he’s a Margulis, who’s dropped on a wonderful hammer, but now sees the whole world as nails.

    Pity Musser is already drawing in the real nuts in droves. But who am I to call the kettle black?


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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] .


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