June 19, 2014

You Keep Using that Word
Creationists, please stop using "theory" like you know what it means.

Yesterday, I posted about how not all Christians are the enemy in the world of evolution versus creationism. Many of them are sound and reasonable people.

In that post, I quoted a letter writer to the editor of the News Review, who was sharing his opinion on why evolution and creationism are not the same.

Today, my Google alerts triggered with a response to that letter that proves that the debate truly isn't over yet. The letter was headed "Scientists and creationists each take a leap of faith."

Here's what it said:

Scientists also exercise faith 
Recently the Public Forum printed a letter from a cosmologist here in Roseburg in response to the debate about teaching creationism in schools. His opinion was that the Big Bang theory and the theory of evolution are provable science. The cosmologist might be surprised to learn his beliefs are not necessarily out of line with what some creationists believe. 
If one were to read the Bible, he would find that God created the universe by speaking it into existence. The cosmologist calls this the Big Bang theory. Although there were no human witnesses to the event, if one believes that it was God’s voice which created the universe, it may have been quite loud – a big bang indeed.
Scientists call the cause of the Big Bang a singularity — that moment in time and space when all the matter in the universe was poised to begin expanding from one very small spot as if from an explosion (Big Bang). Creationists might point to the first words in the Bible and say this was the cause. “In the beginning God created…” = singularity. “God said,” = Big Bang. 
Even scientists describe their explanations of natural phenomena as theories. Theory = belief. The Bible is a very reliable and accurate document, having been proven through comparison with other sources and sciences like archaeology. Those portions that believers take on faith are no more difficult to believe than the theories science uses to explain creation such as the Big Bang, singularity, and evolution. The honest scientist must also take these on faith.

The part that I really want to deal with today is what I've put in bold--the idea that a theory is a belief.

Let's dive on in, shall we?

How does the dictionary define these terms?

First, let's get some definitions out of the way. Let's start with the idea that "Theory=belief".
a supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something, especially one based on general principles independent of the thing to be explained.
"Darwin's theory of evolution"
synonyms: hypothesis, thesis, conjecture, supposition, speculation, postulation, postulate, proposition, premise, surmise, assumption, presupposition; principles, ideas, concepts; philosophy, ideology, system of ideas
  • a set of principles on which the practice of an activity is based. "a theory of education"
  • an idea used to account for a situation or justify a course of action. "my theory would be that the place has been seriously mismanaged"
1.an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists.
"his belief in the value of hard work"
  • something one accepts as true or real; a firmly held opinion or conviction. "contrary to popular belief, Aramaic is a living language"
  • a religious conviction. "Christian beliefs"
2. trust, faith, or confidence in someone or something.
"a belief in democratic politics" 
synonyms: faith, trust, reliance, confidence, credence, ideology, opinion, view, conviction, thinking
So let's consider these for a moment.

A theory, according to the dictionary, is based on general principles, especially if those are independent of what is being explained. What does that means exactly?

Look at it this way. My older son and I have been reading Sherlock Holmes and the Hound of the Baskervilles. In that book, Holmes is working to develop his theory. His theory involves looking at all of the facts of the case, doing his own research, exploring the issue, and coming up with an independent explanation based on his own analysis.

In that book, there's also a rampant belief. That belief is that a supernatural ghost hound is loose on the moor, killing the Baskerville descendants for the crime of their forefather, Hugo. Most of the population in the book, with the exception of Holmes and Watson, express some measure of belief in the hound. They base this not on independent facts, but on things like a story that's gone around, and the apparent footprint of a hound, and an apparent hound attack. These are not independent facts, because they are parts of the explanation itself. If there is a hound, of course there will be attacks and footprints and noises.

So does that mean, then, that Holmes discounts that just because it seems to prove the hound story? Quite on the contrary. He looks at each phenomenon and looks for all possible explanations. He looks for independent verification.

While the definitions above are quite different enough to prove my point, I'd also like to point out that evolution isn't JUST a theory. It's a scientific theory. The term has a very specific definition when related to its field.

Scientific theory is defined as:
a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that is acquired through the scientific method, and repeatedly confirmed through observation and experimentation.
This is, quite clearly, different from the definition for belief above. Remember, belief is the "acceptance that something is true". Acceptance implies that there may or may not have been repeated experimentation to explain the results.

Misusing the terms for scientific theory belittles them.

I'm going to leave this part to a quote from an astrophysicist named Dave Goldberg from a piece called 10 Scientific Ideas that Scientists Wish You'd Stop Misusing, which is worth a read, my friends:
Members of the general public (along with people with an ideological axe to grind) hear the word "theory" and equate it with "idea" or "supposition." We know better. Scientific theories are entire systems of testable ideas which are potentially refutable either by the evidence at hand or an experiment that somebody could perform. The best theories (in which I include special relativity, quantum mechanics, and evolution) have withstood a hundred years or more of challenges, either from people who want to prove themselves smarter than Einstein, or from people who don't like metaphysical challenges to their world view. Finally, theories are malleable, but not infinitely so. Theories can be found to be incomplete or wrong in some particular detail without the entire edifice being torn down. Evolution has, itself, adapted a lot over the years, but not so much that it wouldn't still be recognize it. The problem with the phrase "just a theory," is that it implies a real scientific theory is a small thing, and it isn't.
LiveScience explains it like this:
A large part of the confusion stems from the fact that there is a big difference between how the word "theory" is used in science and how it is used in ordinary conversation. A hunch, conjecture or an educated guess can become a hypothesis. But a theory is much more. 
In science, a theory is an explanation that binds together various experimentally tested hypotheses to explain some fundamental aspect of nature. For an idea to qualify as a scientific theory, it must be established on the basis of a wide variety of scientific evidence. Its claims must be testable and it must propose experiments that can be replicated by other scientists
If I can step in and insert my personal beliefs here, I truly believe that this is a result of poor science education in our schools. Every person that has been through public school should understand the difference between a "theory" and a "scientific theory".

Theories are carefully formulated.

Theories, first, are used to explain related hypotheses. That means two or more hypotheses must exist first.

These basic tenets are tested, the results recorded and then they are retested. A critical part of a scientific theory is that the results are repeatable.

Theories are consistently revisited. Tenets are tested in different ways. New hypotheses develop, and these too are tested--ones that are proven are added to the theory. Ones that aren't are forgotten.

Even if parts of the theory itself are proven "wrong", the theory shifts, and typically the entire thing does not come crashing down. It absorbs new information and adjusts.

This quite different from "belief", which is often steeped in centuries of tradition and resistant to change.

 Theories are NOT educated guesses.

Scientific theories are not educated guesses. They are explanations made based on data, experimentation, and repeatable results. We are talking about the theory of evolution here, but there are many theories at work in our daily lives. Here's a short list:

Germ Theory: Germ theory states that microorganisms exist within the body and are responsible for disease. I would say most of us are comfortable accepting this theory as true.

Cell Theory: Cell theory has three basic precepts: All living organisms are made of cells, the cell is the most basic unit of life, and cells come from other cells. Interestingly enough, cell theory also expanded to include the ideas that energy flows within cells, DNA is passed from cell to cell, and all cells have the same basic composition chemically--because, ya know, scientific theories change as new information presents itself.

Theory of General Relativity: Einstein's Theory of General Relativity helps explain why objects are attracted to each other--i.e., it explains why gravity happens. You may be familiar with Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation, which can help calculate how strong the pull of gravity is. However, the actual attraction itself is still a scientific theory.

We are all comfortable with these theories, and many others, I'm sure. Yet we continue to see the assertion that because something is "just a theory" it is on par with belief. My seven year old believe in Santa Claus; does that mean that Santa is now as relevant as gravity or the cells of my body? I think not, personally.

In short, theory as it is used in common use and theory as it is used in scientific use are two entirely different concepts. Anyone that cannot articulate that difference should most certainly refrain from using this point in discussion.

That's something I wish our letter writer would heed.

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