(Mis)understanding science

One of the problems with defending science in modern society is that a lot of people just don’t get it. For example, in referring to a recent article in New Scientist, conservapundit Vox Day complains:

This is just absurdly pathetic. The entire article is nothing but a list of excuses for why the model simply can’t do what New Scientist disingenuously insists that it can. Suggesting that something that already took place might perhaps maybe possibly have happened a certain way is not a prediction.

This kind of objection betrays a fundamental ignorance about how science works, and what it means for a particular theory or hypothesis to make “predictions”. In genuine science, it’s not only possible, but often necessary, to make predictions about things that have already happened.

Science is based on the idea that truth is consistent with itself. The way to test a scientific hypothesis, therefore, is to see if it is consistent with the truth (i.e. with what can be objectively observed in the real world). To do this requires two steps: 1) you must formulate your hypothesis in sufficient detail that it is possible to analytically determine what consequences it ought to produce, and 2) you must do the analysis and work out what those specific consequences would be.

The act of specifying these consequences before looking at the real-world data is called “prediction”—that is, not that the event you are describing is necessarily in the future, but that you were able to declare what consequences should result before you check to see what consequences did result. Notice in particular that only the <i>consequences</i> need to be observable today, so even if the event of interest took place in the past, you can still make predictions about what we should be able to see in the present.

This is one of the things that sets genuine scientific hypotheses apart from merely superstitious attributions like Intelligent Design. Science can make predictions because it understands the actual mechanisms involved; ID can’t, because it merely attributes things to some unknown and unknowable Agency whose mechanisms and processes are indescribable and effectively indistinguishable from magic. So even if Vox’s sour grapes were a valid complaint against evolutionary theory, we’d still be able to point out the fact that creationist/ID alternatives fare much, much worse.

What Alexander predicted was that similar environmental pressures might be expected to produce similar evolutionary patterns. By describing what characteristics a eusocial mammal ought to have, based on an analysis of evolutionary mechanisms alone, he was most definitely making a scientific prediction, regardless of how long ago the naked mole rat actually evolved. Because he was able to work out what specific characteristics should be there, he constructed a hypothesis that was testable and verifiable; the fact that predicted characteristics happen to match observed characteristics only goes to show that the hypothesis is indeed consistent with the truth.

It must really irk Vox that, no matter how much he complains about the alleged “failings” of evolutionary theory, it is still orders of magnitude more scientific than anything creationists or ID’ers have been able to pull off, especially in the area of testable scientific predictions. Perhaps that is why he finds it necessary to indulge in silly snipes like this:

New Scientist does manage to perfectly summarize the “science” of evolution when it states in a most authoritative manner: “Evolution is as firmly established a scientific fact as the roundness of the Earth.”

Of course, the Earth isn’t round. It’s a geoid that is very nearly an oblate spheroid.

Free clue time: spheroids do not have corners. The roundness of a geoid is what makes it a spheroid. Just because it’s not perfectly spherical does not mean its surface is not curved. Sheesh.

Vox’s spurious accusations against the <i>New Scientist</i> notwithstanding, <a href=”http://www.newscientist.com/channel/life/dn13677-evolution-myths-evolution-is-not-predictive.html”>the article</a> is a good read, if someone abbreviated. Contrary to Vox’s claims, it offers no “excuses” for any failure to make legitimate evolutionary predictions, and indeed gives a number of examples to the contrary. It is quite clear in its presentation, and offers links to more in-depth discussions for those who care to pursue the inquiry further.

The fact that Vox would try and label it “absurdly pathetic” says more about the anti-scientific mind than about anything else.

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One Response to “(Mis)understanding science”

  1. honestpoet Says:

    Excellent post! We watched Penn & Teller’s “BS” episode about creationism recently, and it was a lot of fun. I think you’d enjoy it.

    The architect of the ID theory wears a lovely toupee, btw.

    I don’t know if you’ve followed the legal cases involving ID in the schools, but thankfully the courts are not allowing it, despite public opinion (thankfully, science is not a matter of the popular vote, nor is the law) in support of it. And in one recent case it came out that the people who had lost the older cases involving Creationism had knowingly attempted to deceive by relabeling the exact curricula that had been struck down with the new “Intelligent Design” moniker. So much for “Thou Shalt not Lie.”