It’s Just A Theory

In my post on Ann Coulter’s understanding of evolutionary theory one response in comments came up that is quite frequent.

It’s just a theory.

Many people who are ill-disposed towards evolutionary theory and look at least somewhat favorably on the Creationists arguments often use the above statement or some variant on it. One common variant is, “It is just a theory not proven fact.”

Both positions are true in fact the first is a truism. It is about as helpful as saying, “A rock is a rock,” or “A car is a car.” If you are thinking “No sh*t,” you aren’t alone. Heck, even after the word evolutionary comes the word theory so we could reduce the first comment down to, “A theory is just a theory.” While trivially true, it is also a trivial point. If anybody thinks this is an argument against evolutionary theory or any theory in general then I have bad news for these people, their understanding of science and the scientific method is absolutely and truly pathetic.

The second one isn’t quite so bad. However, noting that a theory is not proven fact is akin to making the claim, “Water is wet, grass is green, and fire is hot.” The problem again is a horrendous misunderstanding of science. Science does not view any theory as a fact. None. The theory of gravity is just that, a theory not proven fact. The theory of quantum mechanics is just that, a theory not proven fact. The theory of the plate tectonics is just that, a theory not proven fact. The Valence Bond Theory is just that, a theory. If this criticism of evolutionary theory is valid and evolutionary theory is not to be taught in class rooms then neither should physics, chemistry or geology be taught in public school class rooms either. We shouldn’t teach even the basics of meteorology since that is based on theory too and not proven fact.

Theories are not proven, nor are they facts. Theories are not guesses or hunches as is the usage by most people in everyday contexts. A theory is a set of ideas the explain a set of natural phenomena. For example, the theory of gravity is an explanation for why an apple falls to the ground when somebody lets go of it. The apple falling to the ground is the fact, and we use this fact to help verify the theory in question. Theories also generate hypotheses that are predictions about either the future or the past (more specifically something in the past that was previously unobserved). No theory is ever TrueTm, but is always viewed as conditionally true. That is, if evidence comes along and discredits a theory, and confirms an alternate theory then we may switch to the alternate theory as being the best (conditional) explanation for the observed phenomena.

Both of these kinds of responses are the responses from those who are scientifically ignorant. That is the kindest way I can think to put it. If you don’t like evolutionary theory, fine, but please do not use this kind of argument.

FILED UNDER: Science & Technology,
Steve Verdon
About Steve Verdon
Steve has a B.A. in Economics from the University of California, Los Angeles and attended graduate school at The George Washington University, leaving school shortly before staring work on his dissertation when his first child was born. He works in the energy industry and prior to that worked at the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the Division of Price Index and Number Research. He joined the staff at OTB in November 2004.

Comments

  1. Peioe says:

    If dreaming is a disease and we all now dream(REM) then are we, in fact, devolving from what we were as humans? Where is the beginning of de-evolution and when? Are there any other facts we can begin to note the de-evolution of humans? De-evolution makes perfect sense in either theory.

  2. Leopold Stotch says:

    I would just add that all theories must be falsifiable — i.e., it must be possible to put them under constant testing determine the extent to which they are true or untrue given differing sets of variables.

    The problem with the evolution debate, for me, is that too many Darwinists simply take his theory as fact and do not recognize the many things that it has not (and perhaps cannot) explain.

  3. Anderson says:

    The problem with the evolution debate, for me, is that too many Darwinists simply take his theory as fact and do not recognize the many things that it has not (and perhaps cannot) explain.

    Such as?

    The comment scarcely seems to be based on fact. Working on the previously unexplained is how grad students and Ph.D.’s make names for themselves.

    Similarly, relativity & quantum mechanics leave a great deal unexplained; and yet we do not see a lively movement of know-nothings campaigning against those “mere theories.”

  4. Bithead says:

    And here, not surprisingly, is an area where Leopold and myself tend to agree. The surprising part about the comparison of the two positions as they are both taken seriously as a religion, even though the Darwinist side claims it isn’t.

    It seems clear to me that least part of the problem is the implication that, assuming Darwinism is true, that therefore the existence of God is not.

    Note the use of the word “implication” here. I use that word advisedly, since the degree of implication (or at the extreme end direct connection) seems to vary from Darwinist to Darwinist. At some times that implication is left unspoken. At other times, at the more radical, Jainian end of the spectrum, the implication is made as a direct charge, as an overt part of their argument FOR Darwinian theory…”There is no God, therefore, the only way this could have happened is by the way Darwin describes it.”

    But think about the word, ‘radical’, in context, here… Radical, from the latin, meaning ‘from the root’. It makes sense within that context to understand that the entire spectrum of Darwinian argument, from far out to the mainstream, is all rooted in the concept of “there is no God”.

    Thus does a basically scientific and theoretical discussion continually devolve into the realm of the metaphysical; the perception that the Darwinian argument STARTS there.

  5. DavidV says:

    Thanks for debunking an argument that ends up making the creationist side look ignorant, Steve. However, I think Leopold makes an important point:

    The problem with the evolution debate, for me, is that too many Darwinists simply take his theory as fact and do not recognize the many things that it has not (and perhaps cannot) explain.

    Spontaneous generation, Newtonian physics, and the idea that the planets orbited the earth were also widely accepted scientific theories that appeared to be supported by observable fact. However, further study showed them to be incorrect.

    I have no problem admitting that the fact that evolution is “only a theory” is not an argument against it. However, evolutionists should admit that scientific theories can and have been disproved. And considerable new evidence seems to undermine the theory of evolution itself.

  6. Anderson says:

    If Darwinism “implies” that there is no God, then why is it the anti-Darwinists who keep bringing that alleged implication up?

    The same objection used to be posed against physics. Laplace demonstrated his theory of celestial mechanics to Napoleon, who objected that Laplace had omitted to mention the Author of the Universe. To which the scientist grandly retorted, “Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis.”

    Now, one could take this as yet another damn scientist’s disparaging religion. (Ironically so, since Laplace’s theory failed to fit the facts & was discarded.)

    But let’s take him at face value: his theory had no need of that hypothesis. That is nowhere near saying God doesn’t exist. It just says we don’t need to invoke God to explain a given phenomenon.

    Does Bithead object to Newton’s theory of gravitation because it doesn’t require God to personally guide the leaf to earth?

    –Incidentally, Wiki follows up the famous Laplace quote:

    Napoleon, greatly amused, told this reply to Lagrange, who exclaimed, “Ah! c’est une belle hypothèse; ça explique beaucoup de choses” (Ah! that is a beautiful assumption; it explains many things). Laplace then declared: “Cette hypothèse, Sire, explique en effet tout, mais ne permet de prédire rien. En tant que savant, je me dois de vous fournir des travaux permettant des prédictions” (quoted by Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen — This hypothesis, Sir, does explain everything, but does not permit one to predict anything. As a scholar, I must provide you with works permitting predictions.”). Laplace thus defined science as a predicting tool.

    N.b. that natural selection does indeed allow predictions, such as the prediction of common descent. Where people get confused is the difficulty of predicting future evolution in the field, which is of course subject to a huge # of variables. Even physicists can’t solve the four-body problem.

  7. Bithead says:

    If Darwinism “implies” that there is no God, then why is it the anti-Darwinists who keep bringing that alleged implication up?

    Again, I agree that the science itself doesn’t take that position. What I’m saying however, is that the scientists pushing Darwinism, do take that position, all too often, either implicitly, or explicitly.

  8. Bithead says:

    And I wonder how seriously we’re supposed to take the discussion between Napoleon and Laplace; at least one of them was a demonstrated madman, after all.

  9. Anderson says:

    David V, does the fact that your “considerable new evidence” is to be found only on creationist websites not do anything to raise an eyebrow?

    I mean, scientifically refuting natural selection would make somebody the greatest biologist in history.

    Behe’s lame little argument has been refuted six ways from Sunday (no pun intended). The eye, complex molecules, etc., don’t evolve pointlessly until they suddenly reach their teleological goal. Evolution works by *adaptation* of preexisting structures. Fins into limbs. Limbs into wings. Etc.

  10. Anderson says:

    the scientists pushing Darwinism, do take that position, all too often, either implicitly, or explicitly

    And Philip Johnson is a law prof–does his embrace of creationist nonsense discredit the field of law?

    Plenty of scientists are Darwinists and atheists. Plenty are Darwinists and theists. Both camps have been known to imply some connection b/t their metaphysical views & Darwinism; both are surely incorrect. So what?

  11. DavidV says:

    David V, does the fact that your “considerable new evidence” is to be found only on creationist websites not do anything to raise an eyebrow?

    Well, in general, creationist arguments are made by creationists. And it is easier to permalink a website than some other form of published work.

    I mean, scientifically refuting natural selection would make somebody the greatest biologist in history.

    No reputable scientist would attempt to refute natural selection. However, increasing numbers of reputable scientists doubt that natural selection could have created the complexity of life as we know it.

    And, of course, there’s the question of how matter itself came into being. Natural selection only works once there is something to be naturally selected.

    However, I doubt that a scientific debate in the OTB comments section is going to convince either of us of the merits of the other’s position. And, frankly, it is irrelevant to the primary point I made in the post above.

  12. The reason it must continually be emphasized the Evolution is just a theory is that government schools continue to teach that it is a fact. Even the attempt to note that it is a theory in government funded textbooks is met with banshee wails of “RELIGIOUS INDOCTRINATION!!!” from zealots for the religion of Evolution. While you may calmly admit that it is a theory here, such an admission is rarely heard when students are learning the basic of what is supposed to be science. Instead they are taught the dogma of the religion of Evolution accompanied by the insistence that it must never, ever be doubted.

  13. G A Phillips says:

    Get’em Danny lol!!!!

  14. G A Phillips says:

    Oh and your title should have read(It’s just a dumb ass theory)

  15. george says:

    If the concern with teaching evolution is that a theory is taught as if it were a fact, shouldn’t the same effort go into emphasising that Newtonian Physics (which is afterall what most high school physics consists of) is just a theory … in fact, one which we know is ultimately incorrect. The same is true for chemistry as well, of course.

    For instance, F=ma is wrong on many levels (it’s not even correct Newtonian physics: F=dp/dt being better). It’d be easier to take seriously the argument for things like Intelligent Design be given equal time in biology class if they were also suggesting things like Intelligent Falling were given half the time in physics classes, and I guess Intelligent Bonding in chemistry.

  16. Bithead says:

    Plenty of scientists are Darwinists and atheists. Plenty are Darwinists and theists. Both camps have been known to imply some connection b/t their metaphysical views & Darwinism; both are surely incorrect. So what?

    The ‘so what’ is that neither is pure science, then, as is claimed, (Apparently, this false calim is laid in an attempt to garner more credibility) but science patchworked together with the biases of the scientists in question.

    And by the way, as I told DavidL at my own place…
    I’ve stated here several times that I fail to see a great deal of contradiction in the two ideas. I can get into the deal at need, but it boils down to an apologists stand:

    God making a Universe WOULD make a big bang, wouldn’t it?

    and…

    Creatinists say 6 days. Evolutionists say 6 million years at a minimum. Who’s right? They both are. Think; God is held to be a timeless being, to whom “a day is as a thousand years”. Wat is the working definition of a ‘day’ to such a being?

    My thought was to address why arguments on both sides get derailed, and out of control so quickly.

  17. Alan Kellogg says:

    A theory is simply the best description we have of a phenomenon, using the information we currently have.

    Newtonian physics are not disproved. They are merely limited. Einstein’s theories of relativity are an extension of Newtonian physics into realms Sir Isaac never dreamed of, with the aid of men such as Faraday and Morley.

    All you can expect of a theory is that it is the best, most accurate description of a phenomenon you can have with what we know. That is all. Asking for a theory to do anything more is a waste of time.

    All the theory of evolution does is describe the process of evolution. It does this imperfectly, because our understanding of evolution is imperfect. As our understanding becomes better, so shall our description improve. The theory is not the process, the theory can only be the story of the process.

  18. RJN says:

    You come off as though you are a little lost here, Steve. An ID agnostic, or a supporter of ID, should be free to say “It is just a theory” when told that questioning the omnipotence of neo-Darwinism is never valid. You seem to be claiming that any remark that neo-Darwinism is just a theory is nonsense; therefore, you must think that neo-Darwinism is fact and unassailable.

  19. Anderson says:

    when told that questioning the omnipotence of neo-Darwinism is never valid

    Stop making things up, RJN. No reputable person has ever told anyone any such thing, or attributed “omnipotence” to “neo-Darwinism” (assuming you mean “Darwinism” & not some imaginary construct).

    Questioning is fine, but “questioning” in science isn’t the same as “pulling blog comments out of your butt.” A theory as massively verified and plausible as Darwinism requires serious scientific effort to displace. The Einstein who may one day topple or circumscribe Darwinism hasn’t come along yet.

  20. george says:

    Steve’s point is the obvious one: everything in science is just a theory. There’s no debate about this, you’ll not find a single scientist who’ll argue against it. So if evolution being just a theory is a reason not to teach evolution, it’s also a reason not to teach Newtonian physics (or quantum mechanics or relativity for that matter), modern chemistry, electronics … in fact, teach any science at all.

    Good for kids who want to get through high school without learning science, probably not so good for our society.

  21. LaurenceB says:

    As a scientific theory, no one here has even attempted to argue that ID rises to the level of Darwinian evolution. That being the case, I assume we are in agreement that ID has no place in school science classes. Agreed?

    Similarly, no one has argued that Darwinian evolution should be taught as established fact. So there appears to be a consensus that no one would oppose the teaching of it as the best theory currently available – presenting it’s flaws together with it’s strengths. Agreed?

    OK. Good. Another problem solved. My work is done here. 🙂

    Vote accordingly.

  22. Steve Verdon says:

    Steve’s point is the obvious one: everything in science is just a theory. There’s no debate about this, you’ll not find a single scientist who’ll argue against it. So if evolution being just a theory is a reason not to teach evolution, it’s also a reason not to teach Newtonian physics (or quantum mechanics or relativity for that matter), modern chemistry, electronics … in fact, teach any science at all.

    Good for kids who want to get through high school without learning science, probably not so good for our society.

    So obvious, many have apparently missed it by a freaking mile.