Sunday, February 22, 2009

Defining Science


There is this constant argument going on between pro- and anti-evolutionist groups. That argument centers around the definition of science, with both sides charging the other with trading in ideology rather than science. Standing at the center of the debate is the nature of scientific study itself.

I am not a scientist, though I like reading about science. That means that there is much I don't know. So, I hadn't thought about it before reading Karl Giberson's Saving Darwin (HarperOne, 2008), but I think I finally understand why we keep having such unfruitful discussions about evolution. The problem is that our definition of the scientific method essentially derives from physics, but biology, and with it evolution, isn't quite the same thing as physics.

Giberson notes that many creationists and Intelligent Design theorists like to point to a definition set out by Karl Popper, the philosopher of science, and a method modeled by Einstein's theory of relativity. Einstein had set out the principle of relativity, suggesting that light would be warped by space. An astronomer picked up on the challenge, tested it, and proved to be correct.

Giberson notes that Popper took this situation and based his own definition of science upon it. Giberson writes, according to Popper:

All genuinely scientific theories, he argued, must make novel predictions about unknown phenomena. These predictions must be articulated so clearly that they can be conclusively refuted by observation. And if the predictions fail, the theory has been falsified. If a theory cannot make such falsifiable predictions, then it cannot claim to be scientific (p. 186).


Because evolutionary theory is complex and dependent on history, it didn't lend itself well to Popper's definition, leading him to declare Darwinism, along with Marxism and Freudianism, pseudosciences.

Creationists have picked up on this and charged that evolution is not science but ideology. Now as Giberson points out, Popper later recanted, but Creationists and ID folk don't note that change of heart. Unfortunately, many supporters of evolution make use of this same definition in arguing against Creationism and ID -- so both sides are making major mistakes.

The problem here is that the combatants are applying principles that derive from physics and apply them to biology. Physics, unlike biology, lends itself well to such a principle.

Physical theories present their conclusions in tidy mathematical equations -- think E=mc2. The relevant phenomena can be demonstrated in laboratory experiments and in public displays at science museums. Impressive technological spin-offs bathe the underlying science in the warm glow of credibility. Evolution, alas, offers nothing but vague generalities -- "the fittest survive" -- and invokes entities like "common ancestors" or processes like "speciation," for which the evidence is often depressingly small and indirect. . . . (p. 188).


He goes onto note that the disciplines are quite different and so the definitions don't apply equally. Physics is simple and thus words like elegance and beauty fit well. Their theories are neat and testable, but biology is quite different. So, here we have conundrum -- how do we define science? Not as easy to do as we once thought!

4 comments:

Anthony David Jacques said...

Interesting post.

I never really looked at it from the standpoint of biology versus physics.

I've found it easy to believe in at least adaptation, if not small 'e' evolution for a long time now. Maybe it's time to read up on the topic again.

ADJ

Dr. McIntosh said...

I was looking for an image of Einstein and found your post. I am writing a post regarding the problems we face with our existing health care system, and find the logic you presented in your post applies to the history of health care and the ages-old conflict between medical 'science' and natural healing.
In a nutshell, there is an ongoing battle between 'atomism' (Democritus) and 'vitalism' (Hippocrates).
Democritus believed that everything could be explained by atoms, and that the space between atoms was void, empty, and it was not possible for a natural healing power to exist outside the particles.
Hippocrates felt there was a natural healing force of life that existed, even though it could not be located or measured.
These arguments are imilar to the difference you discuss here between physics and biology.
Einstein found some truth in both, and had faith in something beyond science. As we know, faith is believing in something that cannot be seen or proven by science; just because I can't see it doesn't mean it isn't there. It is certainly possible that God fills all the 'empty' spaces between atoms, but I sure can't prove it.
I'm not sure what I think about all this right now, but I appreciate finding your post. Thank you.
Doc

Carlo said...
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