Posts Tagged ‘What We Put into Our Brains’

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What Makes Evolution a Theory?

2008.November.26

[What follows began as an unsolicited response to another blog; the blogger was discussing education in Texas and her openness to creationism being taught in classrooms on the basis that Evolution was a theory. It’s not so much about politics as it is about science, and it may be a bit dry.]

It’s fine to be skeptical of evolution based on the data you have seen, but “theory” as it is used by the scientific community does not mean quite the same thing as a “theory” on prime time cop dramas. A “theory” in science is often a pattern that, no matter how sound, cannot be directly observed within the human experience. In fact, the word’s connotation in science is no weaker or stronger than terms such as “law” or “principle”.

In today’s scientific community, a theory is regarded as a very serious and credible structure, whose scope is beyond our reach for irrefutable proof. Established theories are never so much disproven as they are re-interpreted. For most of human history, light seemed to be instant and straight, but we now believe it simply moves faster than we can notice and bends for great amounts of force (i.e., the gravity of a planet).

Calling something a theory can simply mean that the phenomena described are either too small in scale (such as gravity, which occurs at the sub-atomic level) or too great in scale (such as might occur over eons, like evolution) to be observed first-hand. These types of theories are “proven”* in the sense that they exist as whole and complete systems that feature consistent behaviors and structures as best we can observe – and, yes, theorize; what makes them seem less sound is that their scope usually gives them limited scientific predictability (but improvements in weather prediction over the last few decades imply that with enough data, even the least predictable phenomena could one day become predictable; maybe that is Google’s true goal).

(*Since language itself is only an approximation of our perception of what we define as reality, “proven” science is constantly being honed and modified in its own terms.)

I don’t want to rock your world or anything, but most every scientific discovery since Einstein began with theorization: thought experiments were developed and their answers were tested using observable apparatus. The ones that were found consistent with theory went on to become microwaves and cell phones and laptop computers, but they can never be called “true” because our human senses cannot directly observe the waves that heat water molecules, the radio waves that transmit our voices, or the microprocessors that translate key-punching flurries into wordy and unsolicited scientific lectures.

Think of the Theory of Evolution as a law that cannot be demonstrated before our eyes. The data supporting it might be re-interpreted, explained in a different light, but the logic that exists there is unlikely to ever be entirely disproven.

What I find alternately amusing and frustrating is that fundamentalists on both side of the issue refuse to see the gaping holes in their own beliefs that allow for a distinct possibility of overlap. My best friend, a fairly fundamentalist Christian for as long as I’ve known him, was a whiz at biology in high school and saw potential everywhere for biological phenomena to be the methods God uses to implement His will. He observed that the creation of the Old Testament fairly accurately described the sequence of Earth’s development and life thereupon (especially if, as my friend supposed, those seven days were seven of God’s days, rather than days of men) and he saw potential for evolution to be God’s method of influence.

Coming from the opposite end of the belief spectrum, I have my own theory (as in hypothesis) about how evolutionary study could one day trace all life on Earth back far enough to actually pinpoint a moment of creation (and perhaps, therefor, a creator?).

But in this country, we aren’t really fond of finding common ground with those who question our view of the world.

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What’s Your Stake?

2008.November.13

All other things equal, would you rather have an insider or an outsider representing you on policy matters?

John Steele Gordon, a commentator on NPR’s Marketplace, today contended that for Treasury Secretary, President-Elect Obama should select “a fox who knows the weak spots in the hen house”… someone like Henry Paulson. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to have someone who knows a security from an exchange. (Gordon’s delivery was so dry it sounded like satire until he cited founding SEC Chairman Joseph P. Kennedy as an example of someone whose success came because he “knew where the bodies were buried” and “what reforms were needed”.)

Meanwhile in Texas, we have a member of the Texas State Board of Education who has taken it upon herself to warn America that the president-elect is not an American and will institute martial law. A little out of her jurisdiction, yes, but not much more than her position on the board – where she helps develop the public school curriculum – considering her side work developing a curriculum for “church study groups, home schools and private school classrooms” that her own children have only attended home school and private school.

Is it too much to ask that officials elected or nominated to serve a specific sector (such as education, FEMA, energy, international relations…) have some direct experience in that sector? Even if you believe in changing a system as it exists, you can’t (well, shouldn’t) just make an immediate and unmitigated 180 turn away from established policy. You probably don’t want to turn your car around on the highway without slowing down and exiting. You probably don’t want to put a communist in charge of trade (despite some of Obama’s frothier detractors’ certainty that very thing will happen). You probably don’t want a vegan as your butcher, a Mormon in your porn, or a misanthrope as your spokesperson.

Look for someone who has at least some vested stake in the work ahead. Even if they aren’t a member of your political wing. The party operatives might do more harm than good. Sometimes intentionally.

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