Friday, January 4, 2008

There's No Conspiracy About Theories

The following disclaimer appeared in the science text books of Cobb County, Kansas in 2002: "This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered."

Many evangelical, Fox News-loving conservatives would like you to believe there is an apocalyptic battle raging over the strength of evolution as a theory. It is their conviction that because the definition of fact and theory differ, this somehow allows for the insertion of their own ideas about how human life in particular began. Evangelicals have submitted, for what is likely the sake of brainwashing their constituents, the theory of Intelligent Design (or simply, ID); that is, that the universe is too complex to have happened by accident and by implication, was designed to be the way it is. However, much like in any given episode of Three’s Company, there’s been a misunderstanding. That misunderstanding comes from the misappropriation of the word, theory.

Let’s pretend its an early spring afternoon in Seattle, its raining, and we’ve got nothing better to do than to pick up the friendly neighborhood Oxford English dictionary. We look up the word theory and this is what we find: 1 A supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something, especially one based on general principles independent of the thing to be explained. 2 An idea accounting for or justifying something. 3 A set of principles on which an activity is based. We also learn that theory comes from the Greek word theoria, which means to contemplate or speculate.

In this sense, evangelicals attempting to sneak religion into the classroom have used the word theory appropriately in the description of their ideas about how life began; ID certainly does qualify as speculation. It qualifies as speculation in much the same way one might speculate JFK was assassinated by inanimate garden gnomes. It’s merely an idea to account for some given incident. The question is whether or not such speculation carries the validity of a theory as the word is applied within the scientific community.

According to the highly regarded National Academy of Science, a theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inference, and tested hypothesis. In short, scientific theories are substantiated by evidence.
For example, The Big Bang is a scientific theory about how the universe began. Based on information gathered from numerous observations and known scientific laws (as opposed to theories, laws have outcomes that can be predicted without fail), we can reasonably infer that a big bang started the universe we live in. If we look at the evidence for evolution, which is all we can do because we cannot observe this action directly, we can be reasonably sure that evolution is the mechanism by which one species becomes another. The particulars may be incomplete, but the inference holds.

The conclusions drawn from the observation of evidence is why the theory of Intelligent Design fails as a scientific theory and should properly be regarded or dubbed as being a hypothesis or speculation. Why does ID fail the scientific qualifications of a theory? Most notable is the fact that there are no tests from which one can infer the universe was designed and that proponents of ID ignore evidence that clearly contradicts what they believe. As George H. Smith said of these two notable failures, “Evidence for Intelligent Design are those things not found in nature.” We recognize designs because we know what man-made objects look like. The last time I checked (which would have been this morning), no man has ever created a universe.
A ruling in early 2006 in an evolution vs. ID case in Dover, Pennsylvania was highly critical of the differences between evolution and Intelligent Design as theories. In a 139-page ruling, Judge John Jones (a George W. Bush appointee no less!) ruled that ID was in fact not a scientific theory because the advocates of ID had made several critical mistakes. Foremost among those mistakes was the direct implication that Intelligent Design invokes supernatural causation, which cannot be tested to have its results predicted. Another flaw pointed out by the judge saw that the idea of an intelligently designed universe was predicated upon circular, instead of linear, reasoning. As it applies to ID, the basis of the argument in question is assumed to be true prior to rigorous (let’s make that any) investigative work.

Theories do differ from ideas that are regarded as facts. Though scientific theories are the best explanation for a given phenomenon based on the evidence at hand, theories are possibly falsifiable if reliably contradictory evidence becomes available. In the light of additional evidence, a theory is also amendable. To consider this is to make the word theory a bit malleable. This does not alter the fact though that in the scientific community, a theory is testable. If reasonable predictions cannot at least be guessed regarding the theory, it was never a scientific theory to begin with. It is merely, at best, a hypothesis. That distinction should always be made clear.

To quote the late philosopher Ashley Montague as it pertains to the debate on what is or is not a theory (particularly as it pertains to evolution); “Science has proof without any certainty; Creationists have certainty without any proof.” I could not put it any more succinctly.

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