This site is not maintained. Click here for the new website of Richard Dawkins.

← Why Science Will Triumph Only When Theory Becomes Law

Why Science Will Triumph Only When Theory Becomes Law - Comments

artemisa's Avatar Comment 1 by artemisa

I like it, but the backward people are going to counter with " Now they're calling a theory a law"
Nevertheless I still like it.

Wed, 14 Nov 2007 12:23:00 UTC | #84039

Vinelectric's Avatar Comment 2 by Vinelectric

Alternatively, educate the public about the difference between 'theory' and 'hypothesis'.

Evolutionary change lacks the overall uniformity and predictability that the effect of gravity has on accelerating masses. The word 'Law' thus sounds inappropriate.

Wed, 14 Nov 2007 12:29:00 UTC | #84040

Friend Giskard's Avatar Comment 3 by Friend Giskard

Ugh. "Law of evolution" sounds daft, and a bit dogmatic.

I suppose "model" is a rough equivalent to "theory" that has none of the connotations of half-assed guesswork. "The evolutionary model of life on earth." But if we replace one word with another, after a time it will inevitably become tarnished the in same way .

Richard has often compared the theory of evolution (the common descent part, at least) with the idea that the earth is round, in terms of the certainty with which it is held to be correct.

What word to we usually use for that?

Wed, 14 Nov 2007 12:39:00 UTC | #84041

jimbob's Avatar Comment 4 by jimbob

It's time to realize that we're simply never going to school enough of the public in the precise scientific meaning of particular words. We're never going to fully communicate what's beautiful and noble about scientific caution and rigor. Public discourse is inevitably political, so we need to talk about science in a way that wins the political battle — in no uncertain terms.

I'm afraid I disagree. I'm very reluctant to play their game (politics).

In contrast, I'd humbly suggest that we all need to do much better with our terminology. We have to consistently point out the differences between:

Scientific theory: Propositions based in evidence which have stood up to rigorous testing. The more these theories stand up to scientific examination, the greater the degree of confidence we have --- it's confidence in the weight of evidence.

Dogmas/doctrines: Notions based on belief which are untestable, or are defended against any tests.

The attitude of scientists to their theories is to cherish them, but attack them. The better they stand up to attack, the better we can use the theory as a guide to practice. Scientists are grateful when theoretical weaknesses are exposed for obvious reasons.

The attitude of proselytizers to their dogmas is to cherish them and defend them. Defenders of the faith resist attack, and they often find ways to threaten or discredit heretics and apostates. (They also seem to lie and distort, and we should expose this immorality every chance we get).

So what? Well, don't say "theory" when a dogma is involved, and don't say you "believe" in a scientific theory. Rather, say the "evidence is overwhelming!"

Better, say "No, that's a dogma, not a theory!" when some ID advocate tries to hijack the term.

Bottom line: Let's get better at playing our game instead of playing on their terms!

Wed, 14 Nov 2007 12:58:00 UTC | #84043

Goldy's Avatar Comment 5 by Goldy

But aren't they ALL theories? So if someone says that evolution is a theory, one can counter with the argument that creationism is also a theory. One can then compare research between the two and see which has the stronger argument.
If they still don't get it, what can one do? They never will.

Wed, 14 Nov 2007 13:08:00 UTC | #84045

dazzjazz's Avatar Comment 6 by dazzjazz

"The Law of Evolution" - I like it!

Wed, 14 Nov 2007 13:14:00 UTC | #84047

savroD's Avatar Comment 7 by savroD

I tried to ask the question to RD a few months back, and I'm sure I mentioned it in some other postings. Where is the Law of Evolution? Certainly, the fields of genetics and molecular biology has enabled the fashioning of some law; however, it's somewhat of a mathmatical proposition, similar to the law of gravitation. Although I lack the scientific credentials, I would really like to see this in my lifetime!

Wed, 14 Nov 2007 13:23:00 UTC | #84048

jimbob's Avatar Comment 8 by jimbob

But aren't they ALL theories? So if someone says that evolution is a theory, one can counter with the argument that creationism is also a theory.

No Goldy! That's playing THEIR game! Explain the difference between theory and dogma darn it!


Wed, 14 Nov 2007 13:24:00 UTC | #84049

shemp333's Avatar Comment 9 by shemp333

Sounds like a concept way past its due. My question is, what process is there in science to upgrade a "theory" to a "law"? My ignorance of how this happens is very real. Anyone with a history lesson to give some background? It looks as if we should already be calling it the Law of Evolution. If that's the case, is it just a poor choice of words in regards to the "Theory of Evolution", or is there a way to gather a consensus to change the title? I do believe this change of title would be significant if gone through the proper procedure (and media).

Wed, 14 Nov 2007 13:26:00 UTC | #84050

Harko's Avatar Comment 10 by Harko

Evolution is a THEORY. Yeah, just like gravity!

That would be catchy enough for a supplementary sticker?

Wed, 14 Nov 2007 13:29:00 UTC | #84051

bradpitcher's Avatar Comment 11 by bradpitcher

But aren't they ALL theories? So if someone says that evolution is a theory, one can counter with the argument that creationism is also a theory.

Definitely not. Creationism is a hypothesis, an untested idea.

Wed, 14 Nov 2007 13:34:00 UTC | #84052

room101's Avatar Comment 12 by room101

I agree with the majority of the posts...people need to understand that there is a difference in the scientific community as to what 'theory' means.

However, I'm drawn to what the author is saying. Last night I watched the documentary 'judgment day' that chronicled the Dover, PA ID vs Evolution trial in 2004 on NOVA. Hopefully many of you did, as well. Although it was well done, I found some things quite disturbing.

Mainly, the 2 idiots who started the whole mess (Cunningham and Bonsall - as well as others) kept saying throughout the entire documentary that evolution is 'only a theory, so what's wrong with introducing a different theory?' Hell, even counsel for the defense (representing the ID'ers) used this in defense of their case. I've also noticed that the conservative media picked up on this. They say 'scientists have their views, so why can't alternative views be introduced? Why won't the scientific community and the courts allow this? Not allowing differing ideas in the classroom - isn't that fascism???' What nonsense...

And this to me is a disturbing trend. It's almost like science and truth aren't the important issues - it's language and spin that are important.

Wed, 14 Nov 2007 13:43:00 UTC | #84053

Klaatu barada nikto's Avatar Comment 13 by Klaatu barada nikto

Since it is untestable, is Creationism even worthy of the status of hypothesis?

Wed, 14 Nov 2007 13:46:00 UTC | #84054

Robert Maynard's Avatar Comment 14 by Robert Maynard

1) Isn't the enshrining of physical laws (as opposed to prescriptive social laws) contingent on a fair amount of mathematical certainty regarding the process, a degree of axiomatic assuredness that allows us to set out principles like "IF THIS THEN THIS, ALWAYS (bitches!)"..?
Even laws in science are contingent on empirical evidence, and open to revision, so it's not as if we have to be 100% sure. But despite how profoundly well-established the basic idea is, the ongoing controversies regarding the details of rates, conditions, methods, etc. suggest that most scientists wouldn't be happy calling it a "law" until it was sufficiently diluted by committee, likely resulting in an overly vague, tautological mess.

2) While people say, "It's only a theory," to dismiss evolution, it hasn't been shown that they'll change their minds when it is "law" - at least, it doesn't become a matter of civil obedience, nothing bad will happen to them if they still refuse to accept it.
What'll more likely happen is that those rebellious, 'counter-establishment' creationists would parade this as an example of encroaching scientific doctrine, particularly when they exploit people who don't understand the caveat in my last point - that scientific laws are still contingent on evidence, and not immutable doctrine. There is already enough confusion about physical/civil law.. recall Al Sharpton dumbly (though jokingly) asking Hitchens if he "chooses to obey the law of gravity" every morning.
In a way though, they'll kind of be right about it seeming dogmatic, because

3) The use of terminology like 'laws' does seem somewhat antiquated in a paradigm of what you might call 'post-modern' science, where the limitations of induction mean we have to be humble about what we don't (can't) know. We really can't confidently declare something to simply be true - when the sun sets we can call it true for another day, but who knows what tomorrow will bring?

Of course, it's understood (among the science-literate) that what scientists mean by law isn't quite what the Vatican means, but the term is loaded with so much historical baggage.. the semantics of physical laws can seem (to me) like it's about reality conforming to our models, rather than our models to nature.

My last thoughts on this were a bit meandering.. basically, I don't think this is a great idea.

Wed, 14 Nov 2007 13:48:00 UTC | #84055

shaunfletcher's Avatar Comment 15 by shaunfletcher

I would LOVE to see a definitive on this from someone truly equipped to answer it (hint hint!), but its my impression that you cannot just start referring to something as a law because of the body of evidence for it.

I mean that the 'law of gravity' is a theory, but in the sense that there is a theory that there is a law of gravity.

Evolution however is not a theory of the existence of a law, it is a theory of the existence of a process. There is nothing about evolution that is restrictive or limiting, it describes not inhibits.

Therefore it would be a nonsense to refer to it as the 'law of evolution'


Wed, 14 Nov 2007 13:54:00 UTC | #84056

Monosilabbiq's Avatar Comment 16 by Monosilabbiq

The pillars of creationism and ID are testable by science. The problem comes that if you prove scientifically that any of those pilars is false the prople who hold those "beliefs" change their mind and erect yet another set of pillars in slightly different words. Let us say one of the pillars of creationism was that the world came into existence less than 10,000 years ago - that can be examined by scientists. Those scientists findings can be peer reviewed. If they find that the "theory" has been disproved by the facts then the "theory" is discarded.

To my mind this has already happened. The idea of creationism is a failed and rejected theory, and should on no account ever be accorded the respect of being referred to as a "theory".

Wed, 14 Nov 2007 14:08:00 UTC | #84060

Goldy's Avatar Comment 17 by Goldy

Creationism is a hypothesis, an untested idea

Methinks hypothesis is too long a word for some - they at least kind of understand theory...sort of, in a non-scientific way... :-)

Wed, 14 Nov 2007 14:10:00 UTC | #84062

Robert Maynard's Avatar Comment 18 by Robert Maynard

Monosilabbiq (that's a cool name, by the way :)

The idea of creationism is a failed and rejected theory, and should on no account ever be accorded the respect of being referred to as a "theory".
But you just did.

I don't really have a problem with calling creationism a theory, though Creationism as a whole is more of a family of theories. It only becomes a problem when we distinguish theory as a term just describing a system of ideas, from theory as a particularly well established system of ideas in the scientific community. We haven't stopped calling Lamarckism a theory, even though it's been thoroughly overturned by Darwinism, and rejected as a failed idea. Every incorrect theory is still a theory - just a crummy one.

The problem with non-scientific theories, like conspiracy theories and creationism (which should not be counted as separate from conspiracies), is that they're practically cancerous - that is to say, while bad theories are generally stopped in their tracks by peer review, a null hypothesis result in an environment without peer review (and intellectual honesty) can instead result in NEW theories growing to support the original theory, necessarily formulated on the belief that the original theory can't be wrong.
So from the falsified hypothesis of "Earth is less than 10,000 years old", you get "Radiometric dating methods are unreliable (they must be because they falsify the previous hypothesis)", and "Scientific orthodoxy is atheistic and dogmatic (it must be, because they're quite happy to explain why radiometric dating is, in fact, reliable, falsifying the previous hypothesis)"
Inquiry rapidly degenerates into paranoia and delusion when you aren't ready or willing to derail certain trains of thought. :P

Wed, 14 Nov 2007 14:37:00 UTC | #84064

shemp333's Avatar Comment 19 by shemp333

We need to see how the words of science are being used against it, and evolve literally and accordingly. I think Clive Thompson makes an EXCELLENT point here! What can the scientific community do to counteract these obviously misunderstood (intentionally or not) phrases we are using.

Wed, 14 Nov 2007 15:08:00 UTC | #84069

shemp333's Avatar Comment 20 by shemp333

This is a battle of words, and most of them of ours!

Wed, 14 Nov 2007 15:09:00 UTC | #84070

Arcturus's Avatar Comment 21 by Arcturus

I told you so :) ... don't use words like materialism, evangelical atheism well ... theory now. When speaking to the average Joe, one has to start from scratch, and not assume that Joe has some understanding about what you speak. You need to define all the terms in the conversation before going on to more evolved stuff.

Speaking of Creatonism ... they are fools, and that's a FACT! If the bible says something, who is Radiometric dating to contradict what God is saying. I can totally understand the deist way of thinking, but the Young Earth Creationist ... man, they are total wackos.

Wed, 14 Nov 2007 15:15:00 UTC | #84071

robert s's Avatar Comment 22 by robert s

I don't think this guy's grasp of scientific concepts is that much better than that of the people he's criticising.

What exactly is he proposing should be enshrined as a law, anyway? "Evolution" covers a huge range of ideas - common descent, genetics, developmental processes, pathology, etc, etc. You can't just say all that's suitable for assertion as a law.

It has to be something short enough to print on a T-Shirt.

Wed, 14 Nov 2007 15:28:00 UTC | #84074

shemp333's Avatar Comment 23 by shemp333

What we have here is an absolute failure of communication. Let's fix it.

Wed, 14 Nov 2007 15:44:00 UTC | #84076

shemp333's Avatar Comment 24 by shemp333

Excellent point made by robert s. Except, isn't evidence relating to each and every one of those fields enough to claim this as "law"?

Wed, 14 Nov 2007 15:54:00 UTC | #84078

robert s's Avatar Comment 25 by robert s

I'm not arguing the strength of the evidence, I'm arguing my idea of what a scientific law is. It seems to me it should be at least:

1) Universally true
2) A single idea that can be expressed in one sentence or formula.

ie. Conservation of energy is a law, thermodynamics is a theory. Saying they're the same thing isn't helping matters.

I'd be keen to see suggestions for 'laws' of biology that meet those criteria, because this comes up a lot.

Wed, 14 Nov 2007 16:02:00 UTC | #84079

Mango's Avatar Comment 26 by Mango

It seems to me that a large percentage of theists who retort that "Evolution is only a theory" know that they are playing a rhetorical trick.

Wed, 14 Nov 2007 17:13:00 UTC | #84083

HereticChick's Avatar Comment 27 by HereticChick

What I don't understand, is how can we allow SCHOOL BOARD members to decide what is right or wrong to teach our children? How can our gov't legislate science? 99.9% of these congressmen and reps know nothing about science or biology! I think we should allow our top scientists to decide what goes into a science text book. At least it'll be the "right stuff" :)

Wed, 14 Nov 2007 17:27:00 UTC | #84086

35bluejacket's Avatar Comment 28 by 35bluejacket

Bravo!! Mr. Thompson. "Law of Evolution", has a nice ring.

I saw this on a sign at Hooters: Gravity is not just a good idea, it's a law.

Wed, 14 Nov 2007 17:34:00 UTC | #84089

Kakashi_monkey's Avatar Comment 29 by Kakashi_monkey

I definitely think scientists need to be more bold with their work. Common people will be more imressed by scientists' claims when "law" is used rather than "theory". Plus, christians certainly bang on about their stuff, so scientists should get their turn.

Wed, 14 Nov 2007 17:35:00 UTC | #84090

Bonzai's Avatar Comment 30 by Bonzai

I don't think science should sacrifice intellectual integrity and precision for the sake of PR.

"Theory" and "law" are two different things. The former is a coherent explanatory narrative which is a web of interlocking observed facts, interpretations of such facts, their explanations, laws, predictions of the theory and their verifications, etc; the latter consists of a single statement, usually rather precise and specific (e.g electromagnetic theory v.s Faraday's Law of induction; relativity theory v.s E=mc^2)

It's better to educate the public how to understand these terms properly.

Wed, 14 Nov 2007 17:48:00 UTC | #84094