Friday, January 04, 2008


Putting One's Foot In It

The National Academy of Sciences has revised its booklet, Science, Evolution, and Creationism, which is available for free download at the NAS site (at the bottom of the box on the left of the page, under "PDF," though it requires free registration) or here.

Relevant to my recent post, the booklet describes the meaning of "theory" as follows (p. 11):

In everyday usage, "theory" often refers to a hunch or a speculation. When people say, "I have a theory about why that happened," they are often drawing a conclusion based on fragmentary or inconclusive evidence.

The formal scientific definition of theory is quite different from the everyday meaning of the word. It refers to a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence.
It goes on to say:

In science, a "fact" typically refers to an observation, measurement, or other form of evidence that can be expected to occur the same way under similar circumstances. However, scientists also use the term "fact" to refer to a scientific explanation that has been tested and confirmed so many times that there is no longer a compelling reason to keep testing it or looking for additional examples. In that respect, the past and continuing occurrence of evolution is a scientific fact. Because the evidence supporting it is so strong, scientists no longer question whether biological evolution has occurred and is continuing to occur. Instead, they investigate the mechanisms of evolution, how rapidly evolution can take place, and related questions.
Predictably, the Discovery Institute has done what it always does: issued a press release [also here] in place of issuing any science:

The NAS exaggerates the success of evolution, hyping it as "the foundation for modern biology." This outrageous claim continues to meet a growing skepticism from scientists around the world. Over 700 doctoral scientists have publicly declared their disagreement by signing a list dissenting from Darwinism, including National Academy of Sciences member Phillip Skell.
To quibble, the booklet doesn't use the phrase "the foundation for modern biology," though, to be fair, the authors doubtless would be happy to, since they state that "evolution has and will continue to serve as a critical foundation of the biomedical and life sciences."

More importantly, the DI is equivocating. As the above quote from the booklet makes clear, the NAS considers the "occurrence of evolution," i.e. the fact of common descent, to be foundational to biology, while the mechanisms of evolution are still a matter of lively debate in the scientific community.

The DI's list is pathetic for many reasons, but the "Dissent from Darwinism" only states that the signers are "skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life." Given that genetic drift is universally recognized as, at the very least, a likely further mechanism of evolution, along with many other possibilities, few, if any, scientists would have any problem agreeing with that statement (apart from the dishonest political uses the DI puts it to), while still maintaining that evolution is the foundation for modern biology.

The DI then goes on to misrepresent what the NAS said, claiming:

[T]he NAS report canonizes evolution as perfect and immutable, "so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter it."
What the booklet said was:

Many scientific theories are so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter them substantially. For example, no new evidence will demonstrate that the Earth does not orbit around the Sun (heliocentric theory), or that living things are not made of cells (cell theory), that matter is not composed of atoms, or that the surface of the Earth is not divided into solid plates that have moved over geological timescales (the theory of plate tectonics). Like these other foundational scientific theories, the theory of evolution is supported by so many observations and confirming experiments that scientists are confident that the basic components of the theory will not be overturned by new evidence. However, like all scientific theories, the theory of evolution is subject to continuing refinement as new areas of science emerge or as new technologies enable observations and experiments that were not possible previously. (Emphasis added)
IDeologists are, of course, perfectly free to compare themselves to geocentrists and other kooks if they like. If the shoe fits, as they say ...

And Logan Gage continues:

"Today I attended the release of the third edition of the NAS’s book Science, Evolution, and Creationism—by which, of course, they mean any way of thought which doubts the materialist mechanism of natural selection to account for the full complexity of life." (bolding added, italics as per original)

Nothing like a lie to start the day, eh?
Well, to be fair, I haven't found any discussion in the booklet about any other mechanism for evolution than natural selection. On the other hand, what non-materialist mechanisms does science ever use to account for anything?
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