Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Theories and Facts

There's a trial currently taking place in Harrisburg, PA, challenging the Dover Area School District's policy requiring biology teachers to read a statement to their students regarding evolution and intelligent design. The two-paragraph statement begins:
Because Darwin's Theory is a theory, it is still being tested as new evidence is discovered. The theory is not a fact.
The rest of the statement is no better, but this blog entry will focus on just those two sentences -- mainly on the second one. "The theory is not a fact." What does that mean?

Usually when a person says that evolution is "just a theory," it's because he or she doesn't know what "theory" means in a scientific context. As Stephen J. Gould explained, "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." Not so in science. While usage among scientists isn't always consistent, the essential difference between theories and facts might be framed thus:
theory: an idea that is testable
fact: an idea that is correct
It should be obvious that an idea's testability says nothing about its correctness. Some testable ideas are correct; some are incorrect. Saying that evolution is "a theory, not a fact" is like saying that King Kong Bundy is "bald, not fat." It is possible to be both.

The difference between evolutionary theory and Intelligent Design creationism -- what makes evolution scientific and Intelligent Design unscientific -- is that evolutionary theory is testable. It is in fact being tested all the time. New observations are constantly being made, new experiments being done, that could falsify evolutionary theory as we know it. Many observations would be inconsistent with current evolutionary theory (e.g., "fossil rabbits in the Precambrian" -- J.B.S. Haldane), but no possible observation could ever falsify Intelligent Design creationism.

So evolution is a theory. Is it a fact? Scientists really don't speak much of facts (as opposed to data, observations, measurements, or the like), so that's kind of a funny word for the Dover statement to use in this context. But evolutionary theory has been tested with great rigor for over a century, and it is the only theory of the origin of species we have that has not yet been falsified. Nothing in science can ever be proven beyond all doubt, but the correctness of evolutionary theory is about as sure a thing as the correctness of atomic theory or of the germ theory of disease.

In other words, yes. It is a fact.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Chase said...

I look forward to reading Maurile's blog, with hopefully more references to the Jets and less to King Kong Bundy. Good luck with your blogging adventures!

9:14 PM  
Anonymous GodBoy said...

Ah, key points in evolutionary theory are being continually disproven with a lot of new research(not by bible bashing rednecks but scientists). Atheists often make the mistake in thinking that they are looking at facts to support their theory. But the truth is atheists require more faith in their theory than those who believe in a higher power because of the overwhelming case that is being built for a creator. I believe that science is a search for truth, wherever that truth leads should be welcomed and tested. I believe that the theories of Intelligent Design can be tested and are being supported by scientific research. I don't believe it is neccessary to have every question answered, and for this to stop investigation is rationalised ignorance. I believe that he who seeks will find the answers he is looking for. I don't believe faith in a Creator requires me to have a great amount of faith, just a mind open enough to listen to a theory, testing and evaluating as I go and building a case. If what I saw with my own eyes could support a theory like evolution I would welcome it. But, I see God's fingerprints all over me, the world and the universe.

3:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can see why godboy (sic) would say this: "I see God's fingerprints all over me, the world, and the universe." The world, and life, are mysterious and full of wonder and complexity.

However, unless godboy (sic) is a trained scientist, then his opinion has no factual basis, and is just another "bellybutton." We all have them.

godboy (sic), please expound on the key points of evolutionary theory that are continually being disproved scientificially. Perhaps I am wrong, and I wish to be enlighted.

There are none. Not one key point of evolutionary theory has ever been disproven via peer-reviewed scientific processes. Not one. Ever.

Please listen to me. Science is not an enemy of God. Science does not seek to disprove Him.

Myself, I am a trained scientist. I can tell you that there is room for both a God and evolution. Broadly speaking, I can also also tell you that there is plenty of room for evolution and modified Intelligent Design.

Where it seems to me that Creationists become Quixotically confused is with the Big Bang and the exact Origin of Life. Evolution has no "designs" on either of these theories. Evolution mearly describes what has occured, and is occuring, since Genesis.

The process of evolution is simply the physical manifestation of our genes (our DNA's expression) interacting with our environment and ecology (hot/cold, wey/dry, day/night, etc./etc.) and the changes they undergo under these natural pressures.

How can you argue against this? It doesn't take faith. It is simply common sense.

--The Reverend

6:32 PM  

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