Buy

Books
Click images for more details

Support

 

Twitter
Recent comments
Recent posts
Currently discussing
Links

A few sites I've stumbled across recently....

Powered by Squarespace

Discussion > Theory, law or fact

Ignoring Guardian using this woman as the Guardianista equivalent of "shooting fish in a barrel", or a cat "playing with a mouse", the comments really are the most interesting.

Guardian: Headteacher mocked on Twitter for claiming evolution is not a fact

And those shouting loudest for this woman to be on the ducking stool, are those who really have no understanding of the words they use, yet want to hang the woman for the simplest of most of correct of statements: Evolution is a theory.

Reading, I didn't realise that suddenly "theory" has two meanings, the "plebs" usage, and the "scientific" usage. And it seems, if you are a designated a "pleb" then you have no right to use the word.

Theory, fact and law are such clear concepts that their use in the twitter equivalent of "shaved head and parade though the square" is interesting.

There are possible parallels with the public debate of climate science here. I am tempted to think that in 50 years time, it will be the Creationists who did less damage to science than Dawkins himself. "Evolution is a theory, not a fact" gets you 9000 comments, and public humiliation.

Who is gong to venture into that territory? Maybe evolution is no longer a theory but a dogma?

Feb 4, 2016 at 6:39 AM | Unregistered CommenterMedia Hoar

Just to be clear, this is not a debate about creationism "versus" evolution.

Feb 4, 2016 at 6:44 AM | Unregistered CommenterMedia hoar

Dawkins is reported to have said

“This is so often misunderstood that I now recommend abandoning the confusing word ‘theory’ altogether for the case of evolution. Evoluton is a fact, as securely attested as any fact in science. ‘We are cousins of monkeys and kangaroos’ can be asserted with as much confidence as ‘Our planet orbits the sun’.”
Sounds easonable to me, although it might have been better if he had said evolution should now be described as a scientific law (rather than a fact).

There are two sets of terms: the scientific terms and the everyday terms. Ms Wilkinson was confusing the two sets when she said (if it's true she said it) "evolution is just a theory".

In scientific usage a theory is something well established, tested by its successful predictions subsequently tested by experiment and it consistently explains observed phenomena.

It also has another scientific use: a body of analytic methods: linear system theory, probability theory, as a couple of examples.

But in everyday English a theory is something that has not been confirmed: "I have a theory that the neighbour's cat has been catching the goldfish in my pond". What, in scientific usage, would be termed a hypothesis. AGW falls in that category as, although plausible, it has not been verified by observation or experiment.

Feb 4, 2016 at 7:53 AM | Registered CommenterMartin A

Creationists, either dishonestly or through ignorance, are given to saying "evolution is just a theory" intending that the listener should get their message as "evolution is just an unverified hypothesis".

Feb 4, 2016 at 8:13 AM | Registered CommenterMartin A

Martin

I'm guilty of confusing theory and hypothesis mostly because of the task rather than the meaning. So a person engaged in theoretical study does not need to get evidence but can extend or reanalyse current understanding in an abstract way.

But yes AGW is a hypothesis not a theory.

As for evolution it's the how it happens that is open to debate. Survival of the fittest is quite a vague term. You need to search for the precise efficiency. But once you do the general principle applies. A bit like the Least Energy Principle I suppose.

Feb 4, 2016 at 8:56 AM | Registered CommenterMicky H Corbett

Martin A
Can you actually predict anything using evolution? Other than life is constantly changing and as the environment changes and there will be winners losers and new species and sub-species we can't actually say something like "After the next ice-age a species of dog with an prehensile tail will have evolved". Or cats will evolve as portrayed on Red Dwarf.

Feb 4, 2016 at 9:06 AM | Unregistered CommenterSandyS

A fact is a fact. it is not a theory. A fact is that I am born from my mother (discounting alien abduction) and based on our resemblance the sperm of my dad. I take those as facts. How did I get to this state?

A theory is a way of describing how I reached that evident state. So a theory cannot be a fact, it describes how a fact comes about. Fact is evidence in the formation of theory.

Law? Theory is not a law. Of course you can say there are immutable laws, and others. So let us not talk about immutable laws.

Are people saying that the current definition of Evolution will be identical in 1000 years time? Such a definition seems to be "survival of the fittest". Because if you cannot, it is not even close to being a law.

Feb 4, 2016 at 9:11 AM | Unregistered CommenterMedia Hoar

Sandy, you can't predict specific evolutionary traits for similar reasons you can't predict the weather. What is an advantage to natural selection is a combination of factors that are too difficult to know in advance. In one instance a trait which seems a disadvantage turns out to be an advantage, and vice versa.

You can make general class level statements, such as in a hot environment, those animals better adapted to staying cool will allow their genetic lines to prosper, but you would find it almost impossible to be more specific, and even these could be wrong, if there's some rapid environmental change.

What is clear is that life makes sure there is a good mix of evolutionary niches in existence at any one time, so that when environments change, at least one strain will survive, and then fill out the niches again, ready for the next change.

Feb 4, 2016 at 9:16 AM | Unregistered CommenterTheBigYinJames

Media Hoar

A fact is that I am born from my mother (discounting alien abduction) and based on our resemblance the sperm of my dad. I take those as facts.

But you're wrong, that is a theory as well. There are no facts. Every 'fact' we have is a theory which we've tested to the point of being convinced they don't need tested any more.

Feb 4, 2016 at 9:21 AM | Unregistered CommenterTheBigYinJames

The argument is a bit semantical but as usual this fine gentleman has wise words to say on the matter.

Of course this clip can be used in any debate with those of a "warmist" persuasion. I particularly like the observation that it's not possible to prove a vague theory wrong (hmm, ring any bells).

The pack mentality of the Twitter mob is deeply disturbing though and is an indication that even in these enlightened times we haven't yet evolved much from our ancestors.

Feb 4, 2016 at 9:31 AM | Registered CommenterSimonW

"I take those as facts." where did I say "Those are facts"?

A theory is a way of explaining a state. Drawing the boundary on what is accepted as fact is always open (hence my lighthearted use of aliens, and the possibility of me being the result of an affair.) You make the size of the system, the length of the boundary as big as you want, with the ultimate being "God" and "What the f*** are we doing here anyway?". Everything is relative is something else.

We describe a state with "facts" or "evidence". BigYin, your argument didn't convince me, but happy you challenged.

Feb 4, 2016 at 9:37 AM | Unregistered CommenterMedia Hoar

Media Hoar, I've a long history of failing to convince people here :)

Feb 4, 2016 at 9:40 AM | Unregistered CommenterTheBigYinJames

Thanks SimonW, I would have loved his lectures. Obviously myself and Richard come from a shared reincarnated past instance.

Brain the size of a planet, but no ego. Richard, not me.

(Note: said for comic effect due to the topic, not comparing my intellect to the gentlemen's.)

Feb 4, 2016 at 10:01 AM | Unregistered CommenterMedia Hoar

As noted, I think many of us can see the parallels to climate science.

One of the things I find unacceptable with this, are scientists playing the game both ways. I will use "Evolution" specific to Dawkins interpretation (rather than evolution, the general concept).

Evolution is really a Law even though we call it a theory.

Then look hypothetically many years into the future. By accident some genetic scientist stumbles across gene number 4242424242, named as the "Gratias omnibus et pisces" gene.

Scientists will suddenly say, "ahhh yes but Evolution is only a theory"... "Oh so its now not a law?"..."No, of course not, that was just for the plebs".

No sitting on the fence in Science, and take the consequences when the Rottweiler gets released into the garden on your side.

The question to ask is do I think evolution=Evolution? The likelyhood of nothing changing in the next 1000 years? No I do not.

Feb 4, 2016 at 10:19 AM | Unregistered CommenterMedia Hoar

TheBigYinJames
I think that we're in agreement about the predictability of evolution, no convincing required. In as such that a scientific law requires predictions and falsification does Evolution meet those requirements? Personally I don't think so, but as a general theory it fits the known facts and until someone proves that a divine force steps in on an almost daily basis to move things along it works for me.

It cannot be described as a scientific law which has falsifiable predictions.

Feb 4, 2016 at 11:56 AM | Unregistered CommenterSandyS

It cannot be described as a scientific law which has falsifiable predictions.

Evolution as a theory is falsifiable and can make falsifiable predictions.

Just because running such an experiment is impractical, due to the time required to run it, doesn't mean it's not possible. We hear the same argument made about the greenhouse effect, that because you can't do it "in a lab" then that makes it an inferior sort of theory to others. It's not true.

Feb 4, 2016 at 12:12 PM | Unregistered CommenterTheBigYinJames

Sandy, of course it can be tested. We have already tested it both deliberately (dogs and cats) and inadvertently (MSRA and other antibiotic resistant drugs, artemisinin resistant malaria, DDT resistant mosquitos).

Feb 4, 2016 at 1:04 PM | Unregistered CommenterRaff

Martin A
Can you actually predict anything using evolution? Other than life is constantly changing and as the environment changes and there will be winners losers and new species and sub-species we can't actually say something like "After the next ice-age a species of dog with an prehensile tail will have evolved". Or cats will evolve as portrayed on Red Dwarf.
Feb 4, 2016 at 9:06 AM | Unregistered CommenterSandyS

Yes, you can predict things that will already have happened and then look for examples. But I don't think anybody imagines that we can predict what entirely new creatures will have evolved at some point in the future, since that will depend on a whole sequence of innumerable random events.

And you can predict what will happen in experiments with evolution - eg if you breed bacteria in a raised temperature environment where most will die off, then you'll eventually produce a genetically different strain that survives well at increased temperature.


Just because running such an experiment is impractical, due to the time required to run it, doesn't mean it's not possible. We hear the same argument made about the greenhouse effect, that because you can't do it "in a lab" then that makes it an inferior sort of theory to others. It's not true.
Feb 4, 2016 at 12:12 PM | Unregistered CommenterTheBigYinJames

Running experiments is possible if you use entities that reproduce rapidly (bacteria, fruit flies).

You could say that the domestication of the cat and the dog were an experiments in evolution conducted by human beings (that worked out). Experiments that did not work out were the domestication of the zebra and the rhinocerous.

_______________________________________________________________
Years and years ago, I read a book called "Artifical intelligence via simulated evolution". I wish I could find another copy.

Feb 4, 2016 at 1:10 PM | Registered CommenterMartin A

I think trying to rescue the world "theory" from mis-use by the Creationist arguments is a bit bolting the door after the horse has bolted. They have and will continue to exploit the "lay" definition of a theory as just a speculative possibility. When someone is trying to justify the unreasonable, there is no unreasonable thing they won't use to achieve that end.
It's too late to save it.

This is why Dawkins thinks it's become an unhelpful word and should be abandoned when talking about scientific hypotheses.

Feb 4, 2016 at 1:42 PM | Unregistered CommenterTheBigYinJames

When someone is trying to justify the unreasonable, there is no unreasonable thing they won't use to achieve that end.
You just summarized much climate science "skepticism" in one line.

Feb 4, 2016 at 1:53 PM | Unregistered CommenterRaff

Unfortunately Raff, I agree.

But just because much of it is rubbish, doesn't make climate science immune from being rubbish either, which seems to be the argument of some.

Feb 4, 2016 at 2:10 PM | Unregistered CommenterTheBigYinJames

Well actually those examples prove more the creationist side of the argument because they have "intelligent design" as an input.

Do not confuse one element of the theory, sexual reproduction, with the evolution as a whole.

Other than genetics, or the aliens landing and showing us a "life time lapse" for the earth, the timescales and influences involved only makes it a theory that fits what what we have found at this moment.

So then you have to ask the question: is Evolution a universal theory? As we are the products of Evolution, and it has given the ability to game the system. On any planet with life, isn't that a natural consequence, life develops to state where it can override? And that is not being clever, it is a serious question.

We could be a product of Evolution with the ability to change the theory. We are mutations with the ability to override the previous laws. Therefore the theory is not universal,

Feb 4, 2016 at 3:10 PM | Unregistered CommenterMedia Hoar

Media, no my examples of inadvertent evolution are direct proof of survival of the fittest.

Yin,

But just because much of it is rubbish, doesn't make climate science immune from being rubbish either, which seems to be the argument of some.
Of course not. There is so much research into climate going on that there is certain to be rubbish research out there. That will be common knowledge in university departments. Scientists they will know who is doing good research, which papers are essential reading and which can be binned. You and I and everyone else here are not privy to that information and never will be, especially as the "skeptic" community's attacks on everything and everyone in climate science and its inability to judge good from bad means researchers are likely to stick together and defend their own against your unreasonable few, whatever the quality of the work.

Feb 4, 2016 at 4:07 PM | Unregistered CommenterRaff

So then you have to ask the question: is Evolution a universal theory? As we are the products of Evolution, and it has given the ability to game the system. On any planet with life, isn't that a natural consequence, life develops to state where it can override? And that is not being clever, it is a serious question.

MH - it's a universal theory, essentially applying to anything that can make copies of itself with random errors now and then. I don't think it excludes the possibility of a life form itself (or even a subset of that life form) tinkering with the probabilities. In a way, that's what we did when we first started using hunting weapons.

I'm sure you'd find it interesting to read Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life by Daniel Dennett.

Feb 4, 2016 at 4:08 PM | Registered CommenterMartin A

Raff, breeding dogs has never been inadvertent.

Mankind has an impact on evolution. We are not tinkering with probabilities. We are not governed by "random" mutations. We are the first species who have a concept of history and future. We are a result of evolution, but we have added intellect into the soup in the cauldron. Intellect changes the game completely. We are (likely) the only species to have possessed self determination. We can choose to destroy ourselves. We have the concept of choice. Of thinking who we are. We have a concept of society.

I will state it clearly, I do not believe Evolution is a universal theory.

We are not just looking down through the microscope, we are on the petri dish ourselves.

Feb 4, 2016 at 4:28 PM | Unregistered CommenterMedia Hoar