Defending science from science’s defenders

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It was fascinating, yet extremely distressing, to come across a large spread in the New York Times the other day placed by an organization apparently called “Defend Science” located in Berkeley, California. Please don’t get me wrong: science does need defending. The rules of science, though sometimes offensive to those with certain agendas, have served us well over the centuries. First and foremost is the rule that science is judged by one and only one arbiter: what is there. Dogma, religious worldviews, popular opinion and political agendas must play no role in science. When these basic rules are violated, we no longer have science, we have theology or philosophy or some other branch of nonscientific endeavor. These may be wonderful branches of human enquiry, but they are NOT science and they should not all mix to make a confusing and misleading jumble.

It is therefore frightening, and I would think somewhat embarrassing, when the spokesperson for “Defend Science” starts out by declaring evolution as a fact. Wrong. Evolution is a theory. This has nothing to do with whether evolution is true or not; others more interested and more knowledgeable than I are welcome to debate that issue. It has to do with the way science works. Facts are observations recorded and used to support or repudiate hypotheses. If these hypotheses appear to conform to reality (the facts) then, through the process of peer review and publication, the hypotheses can become accepted theories. This is the process that has brought us the theory of evolution. The Big Bang and plate tectonics are also theories, supported by sufficient facts so that most of us are convinced of their validity. This does not make them subtly morph into facts themselves.

In common vocabulary, the word “theory” invokes a feeling of uncertainty; for example a person may say “Well, it’s only a theory…” In the realm of scientific research the word “theory” has a much stronger meaning and implies a greater degree of certainty. Perhaps this would partially explain the eagerness on behalf of “Defend Science” to tell the public that evolution is not a theory, but a fact. There could be a fear that if evolution is promoted as “only” a theory, it would imply that the scientific community has strong doubts about its validity. However, the defense of science should involve educating the general public as to the nature of science, not redefining and twisting meanings to accommodate and propagate a misconception.

By retaining the word “theory” to tag along after saying Big Bang, general relativity or evolution we are affirming science’s commitment to truth. We are tacitly stating that if data were to arise to the contrary of even the most well-accepted theory that we would be willing to modify or even repudiate this theory. Having the word “theory” following these names should help all of us have a sense of security that science and scientists are doing their jobs.

When science is distorted, as in the New York Times spread, it would almost appear that our learned colleague at “Defend Science” is trying to block scientific inquiry on the matter of evolution. Could it be the writer or this organization has a religious agenda? Using science to disprove a certain religious worldview is as unscientific as using science to promote a religious worldview. Again, once science starts making claims in any way regarding God or the supernatural, then science has ceased being science has become something else.

Or is the writer seeking to intimidate potential naysayers to keep quite or otherwise risk looking foolish and stupid? Intimidation also has no role in science. Furthermore, listing prestigious names at the bottom of the ad to validate his point should raise a flag of alarm. We should never believe something just because someone else believes it. We should believe something because we believe it to be true. The bandwagon approach might be good for politics and TV commercials, but it, too, is not science. Mislabeling and fancy names are not what determine truth in science. Reality determines truth. Let us be vigilant to ensure that science remains science and continues its faithful service to mankind.

Ron Pratt, Ph.D., teaches mathematics at Fresno Pacific University.

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