email - May 2019

Scientific Fact

A science teacher questions whether or not scientific theories are factual.

We received this thought-provoking email from a science teacher:

Dear Mr. Pogge,

I came across your site when looking for pictures contrasting different models for human evolution.

I was a little concerned about your claim that high school teachers present scientific theories as factual, and am hoping to reassure you.

I would like to say that in my case at least, not only do I not present the theory of evolution as truth, I also don’t present theories relating to the electron as truth either (something you seem to hold as self-evident in your writings). If you care to read more, I elaborate below, but for clarity and conciseness I want to break cleanly here and suggest that to claim a scientific model in physics represents truth and another in biology does not, is to paint an inaccurate picture of how science is done in either field. More accurate is to state that neither model represents truth, and neither is meant to.

In my opinion, there is no such thing as truth in any realm of science; in fact, I like to say to my students that what we strive for are merely models that are less wrong than the ones that came before. In such a way, we progress e.g. from the ancient Greek model of 4 elements, to Thomson’s less wrong model of atoms as plum pudding, to Bohr’s less wrong model of nucleus and circular-orbit electrons, to modern quantum field theories, etc etc. You write that you are a former electrical engineer (I was a physics major and teach both physics and biology): as you know, modern electronic devices such as the transistor cannot be satisfactorily explained without quantum-based models, and in fact were invented by Bardeen et al. in the mid-20th century as an outgrowth of applying quantum models to solid-state physics. So to claim old textbooks aren’t contradicted by new ones, as you did in one of your essays, is to be too narrow in the timeline of your example – textbooks written before the transistor would be outdated and woefully incomplete at best, and textbooks written in the mid 1800s would have nothing whatsoever to say about electrons and also have a lot of inaccurate information about the realms of physics that were later re-addressed using quantum mechanics and relativity.

To give a parallel example: Lord Kelvin was very wrong when he estimated the age of the Earth as being on the order of millions of years, and this is because nobody had yet discovered nuclear fission, and he was working from a wrong set of assumptions about how fast the Earth was cooling – it turns out to be cooling much slower than he knew, so the Earth is much older than his estimate!

To return to my main point: claiming that “evolutionists” (a term that only exists in certain circles outside science) are engaging in philosophy rather than science is doing multiple disservices: one, it does a disservice to the countless millions of man-hours spent on gathering evidence underlying the model of evolution, and on using – yes! – the scientific method to analyze this evidence. Second, it does a disservice to those working in the field of biology by making claims as to their relative legitimacy: you may divisively and derisively choose to call them “evolutionists” if they use the theory of evolution as a paradigm for their work, but I assure you that no such division exists between these and other researchers in the field. Third, it trivializes the strenuous lengths these people go to in pointing out how wrong they or others might be, in the hopes of getting it right overall. To attack each other’s hypotheses and try to find fault with them is one of the most important aspects of scientific inquiry.

Using an example from the page I landed on (http://scienceagainstevolution.org/v4i4f.htm): you seem to imply that Ian Tattersall seems to be betraying his fellow “evolutionists” by criticizing the hypothesis that hominids never coexisted, or that his criticism somehow renders the entire debate null and void. To me this is how science really is supposed to work: you develop a model based on a certain interpretation of the evidence at hand, but once new evidence is discovered, or once a person makes a more compelling case for a different model based on existing evidence, the theory changes. This is not, as you seem to believe, a proof that the whole theory is built on sand; rather, it is a demonstration that scientists are continually testing the foundation these theories rest upon and trying to replace bad rock with better. I find it encouraging and fascinating that the story of human evolution I was taught as a teenager has been pretty significantly changed in recent decades, and I find it equally fascinating that as a whole, we are still mystified and unsatisfied by the models that are used now – hence all the question marks in those pictures I was looking for!

Well, that’s my two cents. May it find you in good health.

Regards,

Jeremy

Since we are out of space in this newsletter, we would like to invite you readers to respond with your thoughts, which we might include when we address this in detail next month.

Just to clarify our positions, when we say something is taught in American public schools, we believe that to be an accurate generalization in the majority of cases, realizing that there are exceptions. Our claim about old electronics textbooks not being contradicted by new ones was addressed in a previous newsletter. 1

We await your thoughts!

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Footnotes:

1 Disclosure, August, 2007, “Forget Everything!” (Damage Control section), http://scienceagainstevolution.info/v11i11f.htm