Wednesday, September 16, 2009

«It's Only A Theory»

I see that argument all the time when there are "discussions" (and I use that term loosely) about evolution. "But it's only a theory..."

FYI: A Theory is the highest level of certainty in science, outside of mathematics. Here's a few theories that are in line with evolution:

Atomic theory: Matter is composed of discrete units called atoms.
Cell theory: The idea that cells are the basic unit of structure in every living thing.
Circuit theory: The theory of accomplishing work by means of routing matter through a loop.1
Color Theory: Color mixing and the visual impacts of specific color combinations.
General relativity: i.e. gravitation.
Plate tectonics: Describes the large scale motions of Earth's lithosphere.
Visual Perception: The ability to interpret information and surroundings from visible light reaching the eye.

We accept this stuff as fact. Or at least I would hope you accept that gravity exists, the tectonic plates move, and people are able to see things. Even something you haven't directly seen like atoms2, you accept that they exist. Something doesn't become a theory on a whim. Theories have significant evidence backing them up, and NO evidence3 against it.

So why use the word theory? Why not fact? It would certainly make evolution "discussions" easier. Because modern science is humble. It acknowledges that is it not infallible. Theories are refined as new evidence comes forth.

No matter how corrupt some would have you believe scientists are, no matter what political agendas there might be: the truth will surface eventually if the evidence is solid. We've had to acknowledge that the Earth is indeed, round4.

1: Remember, electrons are matter. Your computer seems to be proof that Circuit theory works.
2: Go ahead, point out that atoms can be seen with an electron microscope, and you just happen to have personally looked through one.
3: Ancient fiction with no basis or proof is NOT evidence.
4: Okay, it's not perfectly round. Earth is 0.17% away from being a perfect oblate spheroid. Smart ass.


  1. "A Theory is the highest level of certainty in science." I don't think this is much better, frankly. It would be more accurate to say that "theory" has no implications as to whether or not it is correct; it's used as a synonym for "model" or "explanation".

  2. The problem here is that the word 'theory' is really synonymous with 'opinion'. Voodoo and astrology count as theories also, as well as the theory that the moon is made of cheese. But then there is a scientific theory - which is distinct from a random opinion in many ways. A good introduction is "What is this thing called science?" by Chalmers. There are several specific requirements for a scientific theory, beginning with a fixed definition involving measurable variables (i.e. things with units). For Newton's and Einstein's theories of gravity, the relations are precise and fixed, and the variables involve mass, force and distance.

    Evolution is defined as something similar to the following: The change in a population with respect to time. Almost all the known theories of physics cause changes in a population with respect to time, including gravity because gravity effects flight and legs sizes and ... Similarly, any biological and physical parameter is a measurable, such as the amount and distribution of sunlight. Thus, it would be correct to say "evolution claims to be the theory of everything". Any equation can be attributed to evolution, and any measurable for this reason, but this doesn't begin to meet the criteria for a scientific theory. Darwin didn't have a specific equation of evolution or any specific measurable variables. Evolution can't be implemented on a computer, thus, it can never predict, explain or provide insight into anything. Spore may simulate evolution with countless equations, but it is certain that nowhere in the program is Darwin's theory of evolution represented as an equation. This is completely different from something like gravity which I actually have to program up and use in simulations.

    The next criteria for a scientific theory is falsifiability. Once a theory produces specific, reproducible results, we need to ask whether or not an erroneous measurement would cause a conflict with the theory. Unfortunately, evolution never makes it to this step.

    Elsewhere I was fussing with a molecular biology professor over this subject and he noted the National Academy of Science definition of theory, which is essentially my first definition that theory is synonymous with opinion. 90% of what goes on in academia is outside the realm of scientific theory, so they have been forced to choose the loosest possible definition.

  3. I just found your blog and enjoyed reading you post. Did you happen to notice that there was an ad for an Intelligent Design site on your homepage? What irony!

  4. @ Looney: Voodoo, astrology, and the like are pseudosciences. The scientific meaning of the word theory does not apply. And actually, Voodoo is a religion anyway, so I could wrap that right back around to Christianity and Intelligent Design.

    You left out the word "genetic" in your description of evolution. It's "The change in the genetic material of a population of organisms from one generation to the next." I don't see gravity or sunlight doing that unless it's a selective force, like wing size on a bird or the amount of chlorophyll in a plant's leaves.

    And Darwin didn't have the genome project, either. Evolution has come so far since Darwin. It's been refined, but nothing has been proven false. For example Darwin knew about selective forces and that organisms changed slightly between generations in response. But there is no way he could have known about the specific genetic mechanisms that allowed traits to be passed on between generations. Evolution has been refined to include this.

    It's like saying "That tree is an evergreen." Then later you find out the exact species of the tree, so you refine your statement saying "That tree is a Sitka Spruce." That doesn't mean you were wrong before.

    Earthquakes can't be predicted, either. Does that mean they can't be used to explain or provide insight? What about solar flares? And no, Spore does not simulate evolution at all. It's a game that resembles intelligent design. Though most of the time the designs are not very intelligent.

    However, there are programs that prove the concept of evolution. The "organisms" in the program are highly simplified and crude, but they have basic reproduction, mutation, and heredity. Once one or more selecting forces are introduced into the simulation, evolution happens. It doesn't always happen the same way each time the simulation is run because the mutations are random; but evolution happens every time.

    @ What's Cool in Alaska: That happens all the time with the ads. The highest bidder gets the placement. I see one for Alien Encounters and another for Telepathy right now. I think those make good company for Intelligent Design.

  5. So... ummmmm..... yeah genomes and pseudosciences....

    Who likes waffles?

  6. Looney: where to start? There are, of course, several related but not identical meanings of "theory". Scientists themselves don't really have a specific definition with requirements; they've dealt with enough that they know one when they see it. To make things more confusing, scientists often use "theory" in the "opinion" sense too, sometimes in the same sentence they use it to mean "scientific theory"!

    Scientific theories don't really need to have precise mathematical equations, the way physics theories typically do; they just need to make specific falsifiable predictions, and they need to explain something not explained by existing theories (otherwise, why bother?).

    Your definition of evolution is terrible. It's not bad as a description, but it's a horrible definition. Here's a better one, off the top of my head:

    "Whenever you have an population of objects that make imperfect copies of themselves, some of the objects will have attributes that make them more likely to make more copies. These attributes will therefore spread throughout the population. Attributes that tend to make the object make fewer copies will tend to disappear, for similar reasons. Which attributes are helpful can be influenced by the environment. These facts combine to cause the objects to change to be better able to reproduce in their environment."

  7. @Nathaniel,

    Well, a scientist is a mythological creature that no one has ever seen. There are, however, intellectuals (people who play with ideas) and academics (people who want to be respected for their ideas), but there is no evidence for the existence of a scientist.

    Actually, evolution is simply a synonym for change. We can spice it up with more words, but that doesn't, um, change anything. In the end, evolution is an attempt to construct science out of word play, which is the only thing that Darwin was competent to do.


    "but nothing has been proven false"

    This statement is certainly true, but for very simple reasons. Because evolution was invented by a theologian, it doesn't have any scientific form - unlike gravity and the rest of the sciences of technology. Without a scientific form, it is impossible to predict anything specific by invoking evolution (again, unlike gravity and true scientific theories). Without a specific prediction that derives directly from Darwin's equation of evolution (which, again, doesn't exist) it is impossible for evolution to ever be proven false.

    Statements can be shown to be either true or false, but it is really tough to show that a non-statement (i.e. evolution) is false.

  8. I like waffles S1x Legi0ns! L

    Wow, hot topic Marfy, nice going.

  9. I don't know what definition of "scientist" you're using if they're nonexistent. And sure, "evolution" can be used as a synonym for change, but "the theory of evolution" is a scientific theory that says pretty much what I wrote in my previous comment.

    And what is a "scientific form"? Do you mean an equation? Because, let me reiterate, just because there are no equations doesn't mean it's not science. How about the germ theory of disease? "Many sicknesses are caused by microscopic organisms living inside of us." You can't make that into an equation either, but it's an explanation that makes testable predictions.

  10. @Nathaniel

    The definition that I am using for scientist is what we all get in America's public schools: Someone who is all knowing, infallible, and never dishonest. After 30 years in high tech, I can assure you that this creature doesn't exist.

    Then you should consider what is the Theory of Change? In fact there are millions of theories, ranging from certain to madness. The Theory of Evolution is really just a holding device for whatever sub-theory an intellectual is playing with at the moment. Sometimes it is perfectly valid. Other times it is merely propaganda. It is better to view The Theory of Evolution as simply the greatest Trojan device ever devised, because it can refer to anything.

  11. @ Looney: Do we have any evidence of God, or that God created every species exactly as it is today? Again, God can't be falsified. Especially when "God works in mysterious ways" or "God will remain hidden to encourage faith." Is there evidence that all the imperfect creatures (and there are no perfect creatures) were created by a perfect God? The Bible just doesn't cut it.

    If there were significant evidence that there was an intelligent creator that created organisms' genetic code exactly as they are now, wouldn't that also be evidence that evolution is false? Wouldn't that be a situation that evolution is falsifiable?

    Or perhaps if we saw organisms with traits ill suited to their environments thrive and reproduce while the ones with favorable traits die out? That situation would be evidence of evolution being incorrect; another situation where evolution is falsifiable.

    I'm sorry to say, but someone can make an observation and a true statement without being all knowing, infallible, or always honest. You have a poor view of humanity if you think everyone is always dishonest, and always lies about everything. Even I'm not that distrustful.

    I've already said that evolution explains "The change in the genetic material of a population of organisms from one generation to the next." That is not a broad enough definition to "refer to anything."

  12. @Marf, I have never argued that there is a scientific theory of creation. Engineering is defined as science + intelligent design, so we make a distinction between scientific theories and design creativity. Intellectuals have effectively asserted that through the vehicle of evolution their expertise on the subject of design is orders-of-magnitude greater than the greatest engineers. Is this a reasonable assertion on their part?

    My argument here is not whether evolution occurred or not, but simply to point out that the assertion "evolution is just a theory" isn't correct, because there isn't a scientific theory of evolution. If there were a scientific theory of evolution, then it would be representable as a well known equation, like the theories of electro-magnetics, or heat conduction, or general relativity, or ... As things stand, if someone says "I used the theory of evolution", you have been given exactly zero information about what was done.

    "If there were significant evidence that there was an intelligent creator that created organisms' genetic code exactly as they are now, wouldn't that also be evidence that evolution is false? Wouldn't that be a situation that evolution is falsifiable?"

    Without an unchanging form for a scientific theory of evolution that makes precise predictions, it is impossible to falsify evolution. Falsification theory was originally invented by Popper when looking at communism. Communism seemed to him to be able to explain anything, no matter what data turned up, so he came up with the idea that a requirement for a scientific theory was that it should make precise predictions that can be conceivably falsified if an experiment doesn't match the theory. Like communism, evolution is constantly in flux with each researcher using different definitions and the same researcher using different definitions on the same day, so that there is no conceivable data set which evolution can't "explain". Thus, when we see a hundred million year old fossil that is identical to a modern creature, we say "evolution explained", and when a new virus unexpectedly appears, we also say "evolution explained".

    "Or perhaps if we saw organisms with traits ill suited to their environments thrive and reproduce while the ones with favorable traits die out?"

    This prediction - which isn't precise - isn't unique to Darwin. Or perhaps we should claim that no one believed that rocks fall downwards before Newton developed the theory of gravity?!!!

    "That situation would be evidence of evolution being incorrect; another situation where evolution is falsifiable."

    Communists could assert that their theory would be falsified if there were a capitalist society where everyone was equally wealthy, but at this point we have trashed the concept of falsifiability!

  13. "If there were a scientific theory of evolution, then it would be representable as a well known equation"

    Dang it Looney, listen to me when I tell you: it doesn't have to have an equation to be a scientific theory. Can you please stop using this false premise, or at least argue that it's true instead of just ignoring me?

    I like physics as much as the next guy, but just because it's not physics doesn't mean it's not science.

  14. @Nathaniel

    "Dang it Looney, listen to me when I tell you: it doesn't have to have an equation to be a scientific theory."

    The credibility of science is with technology, and technology relies on scientific theories that have equations. Without the equation, you don't have anything! :-)

  15. I don't agree that the credibility of science is with technology; I'd say the credibility of science lies in its predictive ability. But in any case, plenty of technology doesn't rely on equations. Penicillin, for example. Or aspirin, or vaccines, or Norman Borlaug's high-yield wheat, or genetically engineered cats that don't trigger allergies. These are all technologies that came from the sciences of biology and medicine, where there's very little in the way of equations.

  16. @Nathaniel, consider this prediction:

    "Because Obama is president the sun will rise tomorrow." The sun will undoubtedly rise tomorrow, but this in no way vindicates Obama Theory, although there are perhaps a few who would argue that it does until the sun goes down again. Academics love this kind of theory-prediction game, but generally do it at a much subtler level that can deceive even the best.

    Because the theory of evolution is not scientifically defined, it is a trivial deduction that no one has ever made a prediction based on it. This, however, doesn't preclude people from making predictions based on other reasoning and then attributing it to evolution with the goal of establishing credibility for evolution theory. Once the credibility is established, they can then link evolution to whatever is on their propaganda agenda and try to verbally coerce people to accept the propaganda or be condemned by "science". Again, evolution is simply a trojan.

  17. "Because Obama is president the sun will rise tomorrow." This is a scientific theory. It is a wrong scientific theory, but it is a scientific theory. It offers an explanation, and makes testable predictions. It predicts that if Obama is president, the sun will rise. It also predicts that if Obama is not president, the sun will not rise.

    This theory is unlikely to ever gain support for two reasons: first, it competes against a rival theory, namely that the sun rises because the earth is spinning. This other theory has significant advantages over the Obama theory: it explains a great many other things in addition to the sun rising, and it has a long history of holding up under experiment.

    Second, we have experiments that contradict the theory: remember 4 years ago? Obama wasn't president, and yet the sun rose anyway! This is inexplicable by the Obama theory (although the spinning earth theory doesn't have a problem with it). If there weren't any competing theories that did better, occasional failure might be temporarily overlooked—"it's not a perfect theory, but it's the best we've got at the moment"—but that's not the case here.

  18. My point was that it is impossible to make a deduction about the trajectory of the sun relative to an earth bound observer from the the fact that Obama is president.

  19. Are you sure? How do you know? Seriously, what is it that makes the Obama theory so implausible? I submit it is the two reasons I gave.


Thanks for taking the time to comment.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

»» «« »Home«