Posts Tagged ‘ Intelligent Design ’

What is a Theory?

Just a Theory. It’s been the catch cry of pseudo-scientists and the ideologically driven who attempt to undermine the public’s perception of scientific evidence and push their own pet alternative. To give them credit, it has worked, in the mind of the general public a scientific concept labeled “Just a Theory” instantly becomes less convincing and a target of misunderstanding. Like any other word, theory has multiple meanings. You might use the word to describe the feeling you have that a particular person is responsible for you missing cookies, or why you didn’t get the raise you were hoping for. While suitable for everyday conversation this is not what is meant when scientists use the word to describe an aspect of our knowledge of the natural world.

So, what is this thing called a Theory? A Theory is more than just a conjecture or a feeling, more than something you came up with after a night out with the boys. It is a description of a particular phenomenon or group of related phenomena that is built upon multiple lines of evidence and can be tested by making predictions and verifying those predictions through experiment and observation. A Theory is not a fact, it is so much more, a theory takes facts and weaves them into a coherent whole that explains why the facts exist and makes it possible for us to point the way towards facts that may yet be discovered.

 Far from a poorly substantiated claim, for a Theory to survive it must be capable of withstanding the criticism of the entire scientific community that it relates to, which means that it must out compete other explanations by being more parsimonious, explaining more facts and making more numerous and more accurate predictions. A new theory may not necessarily replace an old one but just provide a more complete understanding of the world, for example Relativity does not so much make Newton’s Theory obsolete as provide a richer explanation and more accurate predictions. Other Theories have in contrast been completely discredited, such as those listed below.

If a Theory manages to pass the tests thrown at it then it becomes accepted as true by the scientific community at large. This then filters down to the rest of the population and in most cases becomes part of common sense. Germs cause disease? of course! The Earth goes around the Sun? everyone knows that! Mammals evolved from a group of reptiles known as Therapsids? uh, ok. The speed of light is constant in all frames of reference leading to time dilation effects and contraction of a body along the direction of movement with respect to the observer? er, sure. Well you get the point. There are Theories that almost no-one doubts the validity of and accept as true as a matter of course. There are one or two that we have more problems with, either because they are so far outside our way of thinking that we just can’t understand them or because we feel that we have such a firm grasp on how the world is that they just seem intuitively wrong.

It is sometimes offered as a criticism of science that it can never know everything and that it’s conclusions are always tentative. I reply first, that it is not the business of science to know everything, only those things that are amenable to the methods of science and second, that this is the strength of science not it’s weakness. A point of view that can never change in light of new information is doomed to stagnate and become irrelevant. Theories don’t give us the Truth, with a capital T, they provide the nearest approximations to the truth that we can currently know.


Examples of widely accepted Theories:

Germ theory

Plate Tectonics

Quantum Theory

Special and General Theories of Relativity

Heliocentric Theory

Theory of Gravity

Collision Theory

Atomic Theory

Cell Theory

Evolutionary Theory

Big Bang Theory

Intelligent Design – Just kidding.

Discredited Theories:

Phlogiston Theory

Caloric Theory


Luminiferous Aether


Science and pseudoscience, what’s the difference? It’s not a trick question, as you approach the cutting edge of science, where the known becomes the unknown and theories become wild and speculative the line between the two can be quite fuzzy. String Theory anyone? But in general the difference lies in that where science starts with facts and observations and arrives at conclusions pseudoscience starts with a conclusion and twists fact and observation to fit. The two most common avenues to pseudoscience appear to me to be: First, when a hypothesis is retained long after dis-confirming evidence should have rendered it obsolete. Adherents of the “Vaccines cause Autism” movement would fall into this category. Second would be those who attempt to prove their own pet ideology by either conducting flawed research or by willfully misinterpreting the work of others. Creationists and Intelligent Design proponents might fall into this category.

Correctly discerning pseudoscience can be difficult, especially if it appeals to our own biases. Some things to consider are: Arguments from authority, real science shouldn’t be decided by a chosen few, rather it is the sum total of a multitude of efforts and advancements are evaluated by the scientific community as a whole and finally a consensus is reached. Insufficiently detailed references to supporting data, it is important to be able to find the primary sources that are being used to support a position so that you can read it yourself and determine if it has been correctly interpreted. Reliance on testimony, look at the quality of the references used, if they come mainly from personal experience they may not be reliable.

Finally, you may want to look at a larger sampling of the scientific community and see what they have to say about the topic or person you are interested in. There are bound to be many sides to the issue but you may pick up on the general flavour of scientific opinion. Good luck and happy investigations.


(Un)Intelligent Design

Lets start as we mean to end shall we? Intelligent design is not science. The difficulty arises because ID does not make testable, falsifiable claims and/or predictions. One of the lynch pins of the ID movement is the concept of “Irreducible Complexity. This is the assertion that there exists in nature structures and systems that are too complex to have evolved, ipso facto they were designed.

The eye was originally pointed to as one of these structures, however sophisticated proponents no-longer do so for two main reasons :

1. There are now very detailed models showing how the eye could have evolved incrementally and examples at almost every stage in nature.

2. The human eye is poorly constructed. The nerves which carry impulses from the light sensitive cells of the eye come out the front of the cell, gather into a bundle and dive back through the retina to the brain. This has the effect of reducing the light gathering efficiency of the eye and giving us a blind spot.

From my perspective it seems a little wasteful of a deity to handicap us in this way simply to provide a semi-useful metaphor.

So, several other examples of such structures and systems have been put forward to attempt to illustrate I.C. a few of these are: the bacterial flagellum, the clotting cascade and the immune system, astoundingly complex products of nature all. However, all of these have plausible evolutionary pathways, refer to the resources below. Basically this boils down to the logical fallacy known as the “argument from personal incredulity”, it can be re-stated thusly:”I can’t figure out how it happened, therefore it could not have”. This is laziness and arrogance taken to the extreme. The rationale in the mind of such a person roughly consists of “I am an intelligent person, if I cannot find the answer then there isn’t one”.

This leads us to the fact that even if the above examples did not have plausible explanations (as at one time they did not) it does not follow that such explanations do not (or cannot) exist. One of the chief criticisms of ID and it’s ilk is that if we follow it’s lead then eventually we are left with the only answer to “How?” being “The creator (god) did it.” This would be the downfall of science and in this heavily scientifically dependent age, the downfall of our way of life.

“The candle flame gutters.
Its little pool of light trembles.
Darkness gathers.
The demons begin to stir.”

Carl Sagan

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

Resources: ……..Link edited for brevity.


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