The truth is out there

Posted by on May 16, 2010 in Thoughts | 6 comments

My recent blog piece “At the edge of knowledge” spawned an awesome amount of feedback and brought up a really good point from some of the commentators. The main thing I walk away from in the debate which ensued was that denial of accepted facts is not a valid argument.

Thunderstorms as viewed from space

Thunderstorms as viewed from space

The point that so many make, science denialists in particular, is that science is just as much a leap of faith as religion is. As I say in “At the edge of knowledge” sure there is a certain amount of faith involved on the part of a science advocate, because not only is it very difficult to know all the facts and figures that go a long with the immense breadth of scientific knowledge, there simply isn’t enough time to read all the papers, all the magazines, all the articles etc. But it is possible to pick up on the general gist of an idea, and relate it in a universal view back to what we already know.

Scientists themselves use scientific method when investigating and proposing new ideas, which Wikipedia summarises nicely.

“To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning.”

So it’s not as if someone just comes up with these theories and principles, they are developed over a long time, added to, removed from, rethought, sometimes completely scrapped, when new and more valid information comes to hand. Scientific findings are always changing, and with every change comes a better understanding of the nature of the universe.

But then the old chestnut arises, “But it’s only a theory!”

I think some further explanation is needed. The word “theory” as it pertains to science is so often misused and misunderstood. So let me start here. The word theory os commonly defined as “An assumption based on limited information or knowledge; a conjecture.” If you go to that link you’ll notice that the definition I just gave you is the sixth definition offered. This should say something right away, but it is precisely this definition that the naysayers of science use to discredit scientific theory. Again, using Wikipedia, I find this definition of scientific theory

“…a scientific theory (also called an empirical theory) comprises a collection of concepts, including abstractions of observable phenomena expressed as quantifiable properties, together with rules (called scientific laws) that express relationships between observations of such concepts. A scientific theory is constructed to conform to available empirical data about such observations, and is put forth as a principle or body of principles for explaining a class of phenomena.”

Now what does this say? In layman’s terms, it says that scientific theory is co-dependent on upon other pieces of scientific theory in order to to formulate a principle or set of principles upon which further theories can be based upon or derived from. So it’s not just an idea that is easily refuted, for if you start refuting one theory, you have to start refuting the basis upon which that theory is built too. And if you keep digging, eventually you’ll find a theory you can’t refute, because as I said scientific theory is built upon the knowledge and theories that have come before it.

The other thing I need to mention to people who refute science as “just a theory” is that every day people use the products of science, the tools of science and the inventions of science to perform everyday activities. A science denier who uses a computer is a fool, for without decades of science in the development of computer hardware and software there would be no computer at all. In fact just about everything a person uses in their everyday life has its basis in the scientific method of investigation. Your computer, your shoes, your watch, your car, your fridge, TV, the electricity in your home, lightbulbs, your food, home and hair-product. And in fact, unless you are a very strict Amish person and use no electricity, you are using the products of science all the time!

It’s from these theories that we are able to make planes fly, and make food safe, and all of science adheres to these principles. And science consults natural phenomenon to make its assertions.

I often read posts and comments from people who discredit a scientific theory because it doesn’t make sense, or seems like nonsense. And this I can understand, because it is very easy to become confused especially if the person isn’t equipped with the right knowledge, or the right amount of knowledge on the chosen topic. To these people I say, “The truth is out there!” And it is not difficult to find reputable information on scientific theories online or at a library.

So next time you decide that something like evolution is “just a theory”, you know what? You’re completely right! It is a very sound scientific theory!

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6 Comments

  1. The truth is out there because the bible is out there. Go down to your local paedophile mill and grab your copy now.

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  2. One of the biggest frustrations of me is the Pick’N’Mix approach to science.

    People recognise that science has the answers they love their tv, internet, xbox, car, electricity and everything that comes from science until it exposes their religion to be a bunch of crap. Then all of a sudden they reject it “what does science know? blah blah blah *insert more verbal diarrhoea*”

    Then to add insult to injury they try to use science to explain God. Science does no such thing but these medevil primitives who know nothing insist they they alone can change to laws of the universe to explain god scientifically. If science is wrong, why do they want it to explain God? Didn’t they just defeat their own argument?

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    • Here in Ohio we have a word for that: hypocrisy.

      But just as they don’t care about being hypocritical, they don’t care about reality or objectivity. They care about imposing their subjective views on others (which granted everyone does at least a little of) in a heavy-handed, disrespectful, often damaging attempt to shore up their own beliefs.

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  3. In order for science to even start looking into the god thing, we’d need to have some kind of god-artifacts to chew on. Or verifiable miraculous phenomena.

    Of course, human tales don’t count as miraculous artifacts.

    If I had an ancient book that mentioned time-travel, and I’d postulate that time travel existed and tried to find “evidence” for time travel’s reality, I’d be all wrong.

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  4. An excellent post. Just felt the need to point out that, using the denialists definition of “theory”, the existence of gods is also a theory, and one with far less supportive evidence than evolution.

    In fact, if they want to be strict about calling it the Theory of Evolution in trying to make a (feeble) point, they should also have to label god(s) as a theory.

    Given two theories, I will pick the one with the most unbiased, objective evidence every time.

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  5. It is a wonder to me that “denialists” don’t see the immediate parallel between biological evolution and the evolution of human understanding and science.

    Though I think all would agree that at one point humans had essentially zero scientific knowledge, we now have the ability to do and build some pretty complex and unbelievable things. How did we make that journey?

    The Bible certainly didn’t teach us anything about science or technology, so we had to get there though trial and error. Lets say for the sake of argument that just after fire was discovered, there were two schools of thought. One was that a spirit materialized in earthly form and made fire, and another was that heat applied to a suitable material would cause it.

    Since nobody yet knew anything about fire, both explanations were considered equally plausible. Over time, though evidence began to gather that the proponents of the Heat School were right, and the Spirit School were wrong — perhaps because the former always had a campfire where the latter did not. Eventually, the pressures of living in prehistoric society led the believers of the Spirit School to die out or be converted to the Heat School’s ways.

    I digressed there a bit, but I get to the point: the two belief systems there competed. A selective pressure ensured the survival of the correct belief. That discovery of a way to reliably create fire was a very simple step and didn’t require an all-knowing genius to teach someone. It was discovered, essentially due to a “though mutation” which survived.

    Some generations later, this discovery of fire led to the discovery of basic chemical reactions and metallurgy. Years later this led to the understanding of electricity and conduction. Another handful of generations go by, and someone conceives of a semiconductor. Just a couple of generations later, we have an iPad.

    So, we agree that we started from zero scientific knowledge and we didn’t get it from a god or the Bible. By seemingly “random” thought mutations and selective pressure toward the best ideas over eons, we have EVOLVED the knowledge necessary to create something incredibly complex.

    If that process can work to create something so complex in just the span of human time — and it is obvious that it can since I can now buy an iPad on Amazon.com — why is it such a stretch to believe that the biological equivalent of the same process has generated humans over millions and millions of years?

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