Theoretical Nonsense

15 Jul

Evolution by natural selection is a scientific theory about the origins and development of life. And since it is “just a theory,” scientists (including anthropologists) should teach alternative “theories” like Intelligent Design to be fair, right? Wrong! This disingenuous appeal to fairness is an old trick that plays on different uses of the word theory:

“A scientific theory is not a hypothesis or a guess, as the word commonly means when used in casual conversation. A scientific theory is the one explanation that is confirmed by all the known and validated experiments performed to date. Experiments involving evolution have numbered in the hundreds of thousands over the past 150 years. A theory is thus among the most certain forms of scientific knowledge, and evolution is among the most certain of theories” (Shawn Lawrence Otto 2011:167. Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America).

That’s a wonderfully accurate distinction between a scientific theory and a “just a theory.” Laura Helmuth at Slate.com provided another statement about the far-reaching power of evolution as a scientific theory today:

“Evolution is a theory the way gravity is a theory [unless you prefer the “theory of intelligent falling”]. It’s not a story or an aesthetic choice or one side of a debate; it’s the way the world works. Everything we know about geology, paleontology, isotope chemistry, genetics, taxonomy, experimental biology, biomedicine, biochemistry, paleoanthropology [emphasis mine], and yes, in some cases even psychology … all of it enriches our understanding of evolution. Whatever levels of analysis you care to use, from molecular to planetary, they all mutually reinforce the discovery that all living things evolve through a process of natural selection. Absolutely nothing in the 154 years since Origin was published has undermined the theory.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself – though I have tried 🙂 Evolution is integral to anthropology, and all of science. To pretend that it is “just a theory” is misleading nonsense.

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2 Responses to “Theoretical Nonsense”

  1. bonesofculture 07/16/2013 at 9:41 am #

    Like so many other arguments, the ID/evolution “debate” gets framed as an debate of ideas, but instead is an argument of ideals. The creationists aren’t promoting their creed for its own sake. They’re arguing for the primacy of the spiritual in the world. “Things are the way they are — because God.”

    This isn’t a new or rare position. It is the Western religious ideal (Neoplatonism, Christianity, and Islam, anyway): that the prime mover of the universe is God.

    Creationists further argue that God is separate from “natural” or “random” processes — that we can see the works of God specifically when the world doesn’t act the way we think it should: “miracles.”

    Scientists, by and large, are arguing for the primacy of the physical world — at least in how they study their disciplines. Such an argument rubs the “spiritual” people the wrong way. And every time a “scientist” moves from “the evidence shows that x is true” to a bald statement of “x is true,” they’re asking non-scientists to take the point on their authority.

    That rubs me the wrong way. The authority of science is based on evidence, not on the authority of scientists.

    So does that mean that we should teach ID in schools?

    Let me answer with my own statement of faith “We don’t teach religion in schools — because Constitution.”

    • jayfancher 07/21/2013 at 9:12 pm #

      You make some very good points, especially the difference between ideas and ideals.

      I think the fact that (ideally!) arguments from authority carry no weight in science is one of its greatest strengths. Evidence can prove even an Einstein wrong – and when he was wrong, he admitted it and moved on. Peer-review demands data, no matter how prestigious the scientific authority. No one can withhold information and say “just trust me.”

      However, I think scientific expertise should carry SOME weight. For example, if there’s a debate about global warming between a climate scientist and a dentist, I’m inclined to trust the climate scientist. But not blindly – I still need to see the data.

      Regarding the difference between “the evidence shows that X is true” and “X is true.” Many authors, especially those writing for popular publications, sometimes use “X is true” as a shorthand version of “the evidence shows that X is true.” Readers should always know that there’s an unstated caveat “since all scientific knowledge is provisional, contradictory evidence could be discovered at any time.”

      Thanks for commenting.

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