Slacktivist is talking sense. He notes a common problem in dealing with creationists:
I find I’m unable to communicate with them — not just because I’m less fluent in the language of science, but because when they start talking about science then words no longer seem to mean what they mean for the rest of us. They use familiar-sounding words, but you quickly realize that they’re using these familiar words in unfamiliar ways, using them to communicate vastly, irreconcilably different things.
In particular, they use the word “theory” in ways that don’t reflect the term’s actual meaning in science. The “just a theory”/”only a theory” formulation he picks up on has a long history in creationism, going back easily to the rhetoric of William Jennings Bryan in the 1920s, and probably earlier.
In part, it rests on a twisted Baconian vision of science that creationists adhere to. In this scheme, science is a process of gathering facts about the world, and letting those observations reveal underlying causes. Facts, in this system, are primary, and theory is secondary – mere interpretation. Creationists, in this vein, often say that they and real scientists use the same observations, but simply interpret them differently because of differing “worldviews,” and there’s supposedly no scientific way to say who is right.
In science as we practice it 400 years later, it works the other way around. Bacon’s reliance on induction proved impractical and error-laden. This isn’t to say Baconian approaches are never useful, but their applicability is limited. A more general approach requires you to start from a theory. That theory (with miscellaneous auxiliary hypotheses thrown in) lets you generate certain predictions about what will happen under specific circumstances. You then either create those circumstances in the lab, or find a natural setting where those conditions apply, and you see whether your prediction bears out. If so, the theory stands. If not, you examine both the auxiliary hypotheses and the theory itself, testing various aspects of those propositions until you find out what was wrong.
In this system, theory is central, and observations are inherently suspect. A given observation may be wrong for any number of reasons, from measurement error to biased sampling methods to faulty premises about what to measure. A theory explains results, and gives you a sense of what to look for and how to understand what you see. At the end of the day, that’s a better reflection of how even Bacon operated.
As Mark Noll points out in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (slacktivist: “the one book you should read if you want to understand American evangelical Christians”), this naive Baconianism seeps out from science and evangelical approaches to the Bible and to society at large. The odd approach to the Bible in which little snippets are strung together out of order to produce a narrative involving the Rapture, etc., is a reflection of this method. Noll quotes Leonard Woods, Jr. in 1822, to the effect that: “the best method of Bible study was ‘that which is pursued in the science of physics,’ regulated ‘by the maxims of Bacon and Newton.’ Newtonian method, Woods said, ‘is as applicable in theology as in physics, although in theology we have an extra-aid, the revelation of the Bible. Bun in each science reasoning is the same – we inquire for facts and from them arrive at general truths.’”
Before you can talk to a creationist about evolutionary theory, then, it helps to get them up to speed on scientific practice, perhaps by using a less fraught example. Slacktivist rightly suggests gravity as a good example, and wonders if it would be fair to tell creationists:
Well, OK then, but gravity is justatheory too, the way you’re using that word. And gravity, as justatheory, has much bigger unresolved problems than the justatheory of evolution does. If we took your standards for evaluating the justatheory of evolution and applied those standards to gravity, then we’d have to conclude that the justatheory of gravity is even more wrong.
This strikes me as utterly fair. Absent a theory of quantum gravity, there are big issues with gravity, problems that will require tossing aside our current understanding and replacing it with something better.
But that something better will bear a strong resemblance to our current understanding. It will have to explain everything we currently know about gravity, but do it better and without failing under extreme conditions. Odds are, the new system of equations will simplify to the existing equations when you make certain assumptions. The existing gravitational theories won’t be wrong, just incomplete.
I use this example myself, and it’s a good one to break down barriers to understanding science in general and evolution in particular.
To fulfill the title’s promise of Bill Maher, here’s slacktivist’s take on the anti-vaxx woo being promulgated by Maher, and a distinction we may have to return to in the squabbles over how anti-creationists should approach religion:
Here I would remind us, again, of Wendell Berry’s distinction between religion and superstition. Religion, Berry said, is belief in something which cannot be disproved. Superstition, on the other hand, is belief in something that has been disproved. The former can be reasonable, the latter cannot. For all of Bill Maher’s railing against religion as “mere superstition,” it seems he doesn’t understand either of those ideas. His latest anti-vaccine, anti-medicine, anti-science crusade is superstitious nonsense. It’s religulous.
Maher, for those who don’t know, thinks vaccines don’t work, and is endangering children by urging parents not to give their kids the H1N1 (swine flu) vaccine. Orac has the low-down. Slacktivist is dead right about Maher. That a non-theist of Maher’s caliber can be subject to the same sort of looney-tunes science denial we see from creationists should tell us something about whether eliminating religion would really eliminate threats to science.