Gravity, evolution, and a peek at Bill Maher

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 â 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 â 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.


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This is pretty much issue number one that Dawkins tackles in his newest book. He makes the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that we should just stop using the word "theory" altogether with these folks, and instead talk about hypotheses and "theorums" (a play on "theorem").

Eliminating religion wouldn't "eliminate threats to science". Of course, I've never heard of anyone actually proposing that.

I have seen a fair number of people propose that eliminating religion would eliminate one of the major, perhaps even primary, threats to science though.

But then, isn't at least the pop version of Popper (I've barely read him, so I can't properly judge his writings) almost as prone to mislead as Bacon's method?

You often get creationists of various sorts saying that we don't allow evolution to be falsified--and in a trivial sense they're correct. You might find something that seems not to fit in with evolution, and because "you can only prove something wrong," this single observation is supposed to overrule the value of evolution in explaining everything else. At least in the cheap version of Popper, essentially you should topple any theory that has a negative finding against it.

Of course it never works that way in real science, and no creationist demands that we throw out laws and theories of gravity because reconciliation of quantum and relativistic gravity has yet to occur. And plate tectonics was adopted with a lot of purported falsifications being aimed at it. Theories have to be understood as being somewhat beyond simple falsification (even the Cambrian rabbit would have to be looked at to see if it could be compatible with evolution, although it would be a severe problem for it), that the positivists actually had a point, that a lot of great supporting evidence plays a role in keeping a theory viable, even when questions remain.

In the end, there isn't so much a scientific method as scientific methods, which are related by a core of solid ("prove") logic and axiomatic "assumptions," but applied differently to different situations. Falsifiability is legitimate to demand from IDists (and occasionally has been supplied, to immediately fail observationally), while evolutionary theory isn't going to be toppled by something that simply hasn't been explained yet (and I don't really know of anything not explained that could really be thought of as coming close to "falsification"), not so long as it is the framework within which so much is explained.

Glen Davidson

A theory explains results, and gives you a sense of what to look for and how to understand what you see.

Technically, I would argue that "where to look" is a design decision, and thus philosophically is the cross-over to engineering rather than pure science. For science as practiced anthropologically, this cross-over is a commonplace part of experiment; but I don't consider it a philosophical necessity-- just a practical engineering necessity for learning more, faster.

This, however, is a minor quibble when discussing the practicalities of dealing with a creationist. While I would subtly disagree about whether theory or evidence is primary, defenders of theism have problems with my attitude about the fundamental applicability of mathematics and (propositional predicate) logic... which scientists generally have relatively little problem with.

Glen Davidson: even the Cambrian rabbit would have to be looked at to see if it could be compatible with evolution

It easily could be. The simplest explanation providing such compatibility with our existing evidence is via physics, and we should now expect research into closed time-like curves will be doing better than most of us previously expected. (Or "has done", depending on your frame of reference.)

Popper uses theory as interchangable with hypothesis. He points out that we have theories which have passed some tests, and that we can use those theories in areas where they have passed the requisite tests. This is is what engineers, designers, and builders try to do. A failure, like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, for example, is a matter where the engineers/builders mistakenly tested an hypostesis and succeeded in falsifying it. Doing science when they did not intend to!

I bet your house was built on a flat earth.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 24 Oct 2009 #permalink

"That a non-theist of Maher's caliber..."

All that circumlocution just to get at Bill Maher. Does he remind you of bad gym locker room experience?

A Psych candidate would have a field day with your blathering.

Nice piece.

"....just to get at Bill Maher......."

Sorry, Phil, Bill Maher deserves to be gotten at.

On a person-by-person basis eliminating religious-style (i.e. magical) thinking is necessary but not sufficient for science.

By antipodean (not verified) on 25 Oct 2009 #permalink

Razib at gene expression had a post a few days ago about how the new-agers are more deluded than "traditional religion". Maybe there really is something to the argument that when they dont believe in God, they will believe anything...

I think it's a good idea for people to stop saying they "believe in" evolution and to say that they "accept evolution". And if the word "theory" is a problem, that could be worked on too, though I'd guess the politics of doing that would be too problematic to make it worth doing so.

You don't have any choice, though, if you want to make your case to the public, you've got to do it IN their terms or you're not going to get their attention. And it's a really good idea to not insult them in the process. Someone once told me that you could either convince people or you could make them angry but you couldn't do both. Though, with hardcore fundamentalists, you can't do anything but make them angry. It's not the hardcore fundamentalists that the message has to be geared to, it's the margin that can be added to those who already accept evolution. But you can't make them angry in the process.

It's also a good thing to remember, if they don't understand a lot of other topics in biology first, they're not going to understand any case for evolution. And there are other topics in biology and science that are more important to their lives and the continued life of the earth. Environmental topics, contraception, disease prevention (including inoculation) etc. Face the fact that most people get through their entire lives without the fact of evolution being especially important to them. For most people it's more of a cultural than a practical issue.

It would be a mistake to forget that Maher is an entertainer, a fairly untalented entertainer. He's not especially funny, or witty, or creative. In order to sustain his kind of career he needs to get attention and try to ride the waves of topical culture. I'd guess he's a hero of the anti-vaccinationists just as he was the hero of some new atheists last winter, those with low standards in entertainment.

By Anthony McCarthy (not verified) on 27 Oct 2009 #permalink

Note that Mark Noll advocates that Evangelicals should be Roman Catholics, not Empericists. See Is the Reformation Over?. He seems to think Vatican II cleared things up.