Wednesday, February 02, 2005

FACTS AND THEORIES...

In the perpetual battle between evolution and the pseudoscience of creationism, it is important, if worth your time at all, to be clear about the exact meaning of words that are used as salvos in the fray. Like I mentioned in an earlier article/post, a favourite and now quite cliche tactic of creationists is to point out that evolution is 'only a theory' and so it may be subject to revision; ergo even their 'creationist theories' should be admitted as 'valid descriptions of the creation of life and mankind'. These kind of statements show a positive lack of understanding of all aspects of science as it is well-understood in today's world. Many words have been written lambasting creationists about their absurd approach, and while I always teem with contention whenever I read about creationism bombast, sometimes I refrain from hurling my own loads of criticism, simply because I don't think it's worth my time seething over all this pseudoscience. I put in my infinitely tiny bit once in a while by perpetually arguing with the (thankfully few) creationists I know, by obsessively criticising them in general whenever the opportunity for doing so presents itself, and by writing posts and articles (like this one) as frequently as I can. (Actually I am criticising the doctrine of creationism, not creationists, although sometimes, you tend to get out your rage on the wrong parties and things. I apologize for that)
Recently, the editor of the journal 'Nature Structural and Molecular Biology', Boyana Konforti
wrote a nice editorial titled 'Theory, fact, and the origin of life' about this precise use of rhetoric in the battle between scientists and pseudoscientists (Feb 2005 Issue). I liked it a lot, and here are a few excerpts, including some illuminating paragraphs by star biologist and anti-creationist Stephen Jay-Gould:

"The latest argument against Darwinism is known as 'intelligent design.' Believers of intelligent design hold that life is so complex that it cannot be explained by the random workings of natural selection. Instead, if evolution occurred at all it could only have been directed by a creator.

The use of intelligent design to limit the teaching of evolution recently came in the form of a statement that school administrators in Dover, Pennsylvania are expected to read saying (among other things) that 'because Darwin's theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The theory is not a fact.'

The religious, constitutional, and political ramifications of intelligent design can and will continue to be debated but not here (at least not right now). Instead, there are two factual problems with the above statement that are worth considering. First, colloquial definitions of the word 'theory' are used to denigrate the place of evolution in the world of scientific knowledge. In science, an idea can be a theory and a fact at the same time. Stephen J. Gould put this well:

In the American vernacular, "theory" often means "imperfect fact"—part of a hierarchy of confidence running downhill from fact to theory to hypothesis to guess. Thus the power of the creationist argument: evolution is "only" a theory and intense debate now rages about many aspects of the theory. If evolution is worse than a fact, and scientists can't even make up their minds about the theory, then what confidence can we have in it? Indeed, President Reagan echoed this argument before an evangelical group in Dallas when he said (in what I devoutly hope was campaign rhetoric): 'Well, it is a theory. It is a scientific theory only, and it has in recent years been challenged in the world of science − that is, not believed in the scientific community to be as infallible as it once was.'

Well evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world's data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts don't go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein's theory of gravitation replaced Newton's in this century, but apples didn't suspend themselves in midair, pending the outcome. And humans evolved from ape-like ancestors whether they did so by Darwin's proposed mechanism or by some other yet to be discovered.

Moreover, "fact" doesn't mean "absolute certainty"; there ain't no such animal in an exciting and complex world. The final proofs of logic and mathematics flow deductively from stated premises and achieve certainty only because they are not about the empirical world. Evolutionists make no claim for perpetual truth, though creationists often do (and then attack us falsely for a style of argument that they themselves favor). In science "fact" can only mean "confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional consent." I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.

Evolutionists have been very clear about this distinction of fact and theory from the very beginning, if only because we have always acknowledged how far we are from completely understanding the mechanisms (theory) by which evolution (fact) occurred. Darwin continually emphasized the difference between his two great and separate accomplishments: establishing the fact of evolution, and proposing a theory—natural selection—to explain the mechanism of evolution.

- Stephen J. Gould, "Evolution as Fact and Theory" Discover, May 1981


The second point is that Darwin's theory of evolution is silent on the 'origin of living things' − that is, how life on earth began. Darwin himself mused that life could have arisen 'in some warm little pond.'

So the next time you are asked about evolution and intelligent design you can avoid the more hot button issues—lack of objective scientific support and separation of Church and State—and instead take the philosophical highground and talk about the importance of knowing the difference between theories and facts and why Darwinism and evolution have nothing to do with how living things came to be, just what happened once they were here."

I really liked the fact that Konforti talks about avoiding the 'more hot button' issues in a tongue-in-cheek manner. If you think about these points, they are the most singular reasons for arguing against the teaching of creationism in schools. But since even such obvious points cannot sway the opinion of the creationists, Konforti wisely advises taking the high road. Talk about the distinction between fact and theory. If even that does not work, in my opinion, now is the time to turn your back.

3 Comments:

Blogger Hirak said...

Creationism is also a theory, right? Full of so many absurdities and self-contradictions that given the 'facts' it does not give a satisfactory explanation or is often agnostic at best.
The methods of science cannot satisfy the believers in Faith, since evidence and proof are methods that they won't accept. Reminds me of a quote,

"Never fight with pigs, cause you only end up getting dirty and they enjoy it!"

5:44 PM  
Blogger Sumedha said...

The unexplained 'origin of life' is the reason I believe in God.

6:43 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Hirak: You are right, although sometimes, I unfortunately succumb to the temptation...

Sumedha: While I totally respect your opinion, I don't agree with it. But putting forth my reasons would require more time and space than my puny blog would allow, so definitely some other time...:)

6:31 AM  

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