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Do scientists hurt their case against the old "evolution is just a theory" argument by including String Theory in their definition of a theory?

Does String Theory meet the requirements to be considered a theory or should we refer to it as a hypothesis? Compared to the theories of evolution, gravity and heliocentrism, string theory doesn’t seem empirically viable (yet) to be called a theory, thus potentially giving theists more fodder for the “evolution is just a theory” rhetoric. Do you agree that we are not being consistent ourselves?

Posted: August 13th 2009

George Locke

The idea that what we should decide how to use the word 'theory’ based on creationist rhetoric is an example of the tail wagging the dog. The threat of creationism isn’t so great that scientists should bend over backwards to avert potential sophistry.

The question of whether a given object is art or not is always less interesting than just looking at it as if it were and asking if it’s any good. Likewise, the question of whether a given proposition is a 'theory’ is less important than asking whether the proposition is well supported by the evidence.

I personally find that the attempts to attack the “just a theory” hogwash with “in science, a 'theory’ is such and such” are ineffective. The “just a theory” argument already misses the point that the “theory” in question is the only reasonable conclusion based on what facts we have, and whether we call it a theory or a fact or a ham sandwich is mere window dressing. Address the misconception directly, not the rhetoric.

Posted: August 19th 2009

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Eric_PK

That’s really a question about science/evolution rather than atheism…

Whether string theory deserves the label “theory” or not is an interesting academic discussion, but I don’t think it affects the evolution discussion one way or the other.

It would if:

a) The people arguing against evolution were doing it from a rational basis.

b) The people arguing against evolution were honest and forthright in their arguments and discussions.

Since neither of those are true, it doesn’t matter.

Or, to put it another way, if the anti-evolutists were rational in their approach, it might matter, but if they were rational in their approach, they wouldn’t be anti-evolutionists.

Or, to put it a third one, one cannot use reason to argue somebody out of a position they did not use reason to get into.

Posted: August 14th 2009

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flagellant www

String Theory and Evolution aren’t strictly comparable. The first is a theory which has some theoretical justification but for which there is little or no practical evidence. Evolution, on the other hand, has so much empirical evidence to support it, and none to contradict it, that it seems absurd to go on calling it a theory.

IDiots, and other evolution-deniers, have virtually only one argument. They say 'Evolution is only a theory.’ We are then faced with having to point to the overwhelming evidence in Evolution’s favour, a rather lengthy procedure, likely to lose opponents’ attention.

Like you, presumably, I’d like to be able to respond appropriately and succinctly to IDiotic comments about evolution. While creationism is readily criticised, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to stop baseless, ill-informed attacks on Evolution? It’s probably too early to refer to the Law of Evolution, but it would be nice to have a term that would eliminate the 'only a theory’ jibe.

From time to time, I’ve referred to 'The Principle of Evolution’, where appropriate. It’s not quite the right term; the principle of superposition (Geology) or Le Chatelelier’s principle (Chemistry) spring to mind and one can immediately see the differences.

It’s about time that the scientific community came up with a better descriptor. Evolution is demonstrable in so many ways, and it has yet to be falsified. In addition, we should try to persuade any creationist-geologist (if there is such a thing ;-) to look for falsification evidence, e.g. Haldane’s criterion .

Posted: August 14th 2009

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SmartLX www

String theory is a theory. It doesn’t hurt evolution much at all, because creationism/creation science/intelligent design isn’t even a theory. It’s merely a hypothesis with no nailed-down mechanisms. Phillip E. Johnson and other prominent creationists have admitted as much. That’s the defense to the “only a theory” derision.

String theory hasn’t been established empirically (in a big way, at least) but it does fit the definition of a scientific theory because it explains things. By applying string theory to real-world situations, we can reconcile it with what’s happened and predict what’s going to happen. It works, to a certain extent.

The problem with it is that it currently doesn’t explain or predict anything substantial which is not also explained or predicted by other theories, like relativity or quantum mechanics. Therefore since we already have those, we’re fresh out of phenomena that can only be explained by string theory, and there’s no good reason to adopt it at the expense of the other attempted unifying theories.

The really important thing is that no empirical finding has challenged the assumptions of string theory so far. That’s why it remains viable as a theory. Only its competition currently stops it from being widely adopted. Evolution, on the other hand, has no scientific competition as well as no genuine empirical challenges to its accuracy. It is no more or less a theory than string theory, it is simply a more successful theory.

Posted: August 13th 2009

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