Tuesday, January 01, 2008


Playing For Keeps

George Mason University's History News Network has an interesting article about the semantic games surrounding the use of words like "theory" and "belief." Entitled "Is the Theory of Evolution Really a Matter of Faith," the authors of the article, Leonard and Charles Steinhorn, lay out their premise thusly:

Consider the Republican presidential candidates who said they didn't "believe in evolution" at a debate earlier this year. They may have been onto something – but for all the wrong reasons.

The truth is, we don't believe in evolution either. But we don't have to, because we know it to be factually true. And that's the nugget of insight that's too often been missing from the public debate ...
I should say that I've never been particularly upset by the word "belief" when deployed in this fashion, since it is one of the more slippery words in common usage, raging in meaning from "blind faith" to "I believe I'll have another beer." If I'm feeling picky, I'll explain that, no, I don't believe in the theory of evolution ... I believe in the philosophy of empiricism and, holding that belief, I accept that the evidence for common descent is overwhelming.

That points up another problem in this area, as I discussed in the comments to a post by Ed Brayton at Dispatches From the Culture Wars about the fact/theory confusion. There is a difficulty about the meaning to be given to the phrase "the theory of evolution." As John Wilkins has pointed out at The Talk Origins Archive, Darwin actually proposed a "bundle" of hypotheses, some original to him and some not and, of course, scientists have been busily adding to the list ever since.

In short, it would be almost impossible to identify a theory of evolution. But I think it is safe to say that most people are thinking about "common descent" when they speak of "evolution," possibly with a glaze of "natural selection" on top. "Common descent" is as close a thing to a "fact" as we ever get ... an inference about the world overwhelmingly confirmed by careful observation and experience. "Natural selection" and the other proposals as to how common descent came about are "theories." But, then again, "theory" in scientific usage is different than it is in common parlance. In America, as Stephen Jay Gould pointed out (and as quoted by Ed Brayton), "theory" frequently "means 'imperfect fact' -- part of a hierarchy of confidence running downhill from fact to theory to hypothesis to guess." That's when people are trying to be serious and use the term as they think scientists use it. In the vernacular, "theory" usually means "wild-assed guess." The Steinhorns' definition of "theory" is pretty good:

[A] scientific theory offers a coherent and conceptual explanation for facts and evidence that have been observed and accumulated; it must be predictive and capable of testing by further scientific observation.
Creationists, of course, play off this linguistic confusion (see, for example, Carol Hilson). That's why this part of the article is disturbing (but hardly surprising):

[R]ead the popular press and you'd think that the truth of evolution is based not on science or knowledge but on one's personal worldview irrespective of evidence or proof, as if one's approach to evolution should be no different from the act of believing in, say, immaculate conception or the existence of God.

Recently we conducted a newspaper database search of the phrase "believe in evolution" and found nearly a thousand citations from the last five years. Typical is a New York Times article that describes a married couple as "Christians who believe in evolution," which suggests that scientific evidence and facts, like religion, can be true or false based on whether we believe in them or not. ...

Compounding the problem is the he-said, she-said style of journalism so prevalent today, which leaves media vulnerable to a trap set by proponents of the latest attack on evolution, "intelligent design," which is little more than an artifice devised to inject religion into the biology classroom.
The Steinhorns correctly identify the nature of that trap, which we are seeing played out more and more by the IDeologists:

Rather than portray "intelligent design" for what it is, a clever recycling of a centuries-old philosophical argument to "prove" the existence of God that has been dressed up as a scientific theory, the press reports it as an alternative to evolution and quotes advocates who complain about "viewpoint discrimination" against their cause.
Noting that "[t]his manufactured controversy" will be given yet more attention with the release of Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, Ben Stein's fantasy adventure in darkest academia, the Steinhorns hit the motivation nail on the head:

Thus evolution simply becomes merely another "viewpoint" in the public debate, lending plausibility to the idea that it is a notion to be believed rather than a scientific fact to be known.
It's an ancient story: if you can't win, kick over the board and demand to play something else. It's a tactic born out of desperation but that doesn't mean it can't work.

I know it's tedious to have to keep playing word games over terms like, "theory," but it has to be done. One of the greatest weaknesses of the American political left is that they repeatedly let the right define the terms of debate and discussion. Thus, "liberal" has come to mean something really bad and leftists have been compelled to adopt the term, "progressive." Atheist is another term that conservatives want to define for us, and we simply cannot let them get away with it.
I'm ambivalent about this. These sort of word games are inherently dishonest. If the Left gets as good at is as the DeLays and Cheneys and Roves of the world, I don't know if I'd want them in power any more than their opponents. I think that the Left has to regain some confidence in the electorate and talk to them without the focus groups and "conventional wisdom." If there is any hope for the country, telling the simple truth as we see it, without all the political gee-gaws, and proposing reasonable solutions that can gain moderate bipartisan support is the best hope for this country. Otherwise, the steel cage of death wrestling match we've turned the commonweal into over the last 25 years will be our national swan song.
I have a theory, that Americans have derived this phrase from watching Gilligan's Island. Didn't The Professor (who, after all, was a scientist) say this every now and then, as in "I have a theory: there must be a monkey on this island, and that's why the Skipper's coconuts are missing."
I have a theory, that Americans have derived this phrase from watching Gilligan's Island.

Either that or Monty Python.

Naw! That would imply too much taste.
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