Science: It’s more complicated than creationists think

The Bad Idea Blog recently contained a report about embarrassing arguments creationists in Florida are using against evolution:

“My objection to their proposal is that, at its core, the suggested science standard relative to evolution is a set of beliefs unproven. They believe that millions of years ago there was nothing and then suddenly there was something. They have no proof. It’s not replicable. It’s clearly a belief,” Kemple said. “You can give it a name and call it evolution, but it is nonetheless a set of beliefs.”

That quote comes from Terry Kemple, president of the Tampa Bay Christian public policy group Community Issues Council. ‘Bad’ already did a good concise job of pointing out how ignorant Terry is of evolution, but another part of this statement demonstrates a fundamental ignorance about science and I thought I’d rant about it a bit: “It’s not replicable. It’s clearly a belief.”

Kemple’s argument is based on what you might call a cartoon version of the scientific method in science (from lab notes of Frank Wolfs at the University of Rochester):

  1. Observation and description of a phenomenon or group of phenomena.
  2. Formulation of an hypothesis to explain the phenomena. In physics, the hypothesis often takes the form of a causal mechanism or a mathematical relation.
  3. Use of the hypothesis to predict the existence of other phenomena, or to predict quantitatively the results of new observations.
  4. Performance of experimental tests of the predictions by several independent experimenters and properly performed experiments.

It’s the latter part of step (4) that Kemple is confused about, perhaps intentionally. He seems to think that ‘experiments’ are confined exclusively to controlled measurements taken on a natural phenomena in a small laboratory that can be repeated over and over again. Unfortunately, plenty of natural phenomena can’t be fit or constructed in a laboratory (astronomy, geology, paleontology) or involve uncontrollable variables such as living organisms (evolution, epidemiology). To make up for the lack of laboratory control, scientists in these fields make observations in the field, and such a technique is referred to as observational science. In fact, the very first physicist, Galileo, was primarily an observational scientist, making measurements of the motion of the planets.

Kemple seems to be arguing that since we can’t reproduce the evolution of all species on the planet in a laboratory, evolution is little more than a guess as to what ‘really’ happened. This is a ridiculously high standard of evidence which, if applied to other fields of study, means we would have to dismiss astronomy geology, paleontology, and pretty much all of medicine as unjustified mysticism. In fact, with this sort of standard, we can dismiss science in its entirety. For instance, if I say that all objects fall to the ground under the influence of gravity at 9.8 m/s^2, the response using creationist logic would be, “Yes, but you can’t prove that all those other things that fell in the past fell under the influence of gravity. It’s simply a matter of faith that all those previous things experienced gravity, because you weren’t there to see it.”

A further problem with the Kemple argument is that experiments are being done in evolution all the time. A good example is the evolution of finch beaks done on the Galapagos islands, documented on Scientific American Frontiers some years ago. Researchers were able to document the change in finch beak size and shape over the course of a few generations! Furthermore, evolution makes plenty of testable predictions; a recent spectacular example was the discovery of the fossil fish Tiktaalik, which is a transitional life form whose general characteristics and geographical location were predicted on the basis of evolutionary theory.

It’s probably worth mentioning that evolutionary discoveries are ‘repeatable’, as long as you understand what exactly you’re trying to replicate. Any individual transitional life form can only be discovered once, of course, but plenty of different transitional life forms can be predicted and discovered. The discovery of transitional life is a repeatable experiment, because numerous types can be (and have been) discovered.

Scientists face many challenges in the study of complex phenomena, and they adapt their methodology and standards of proof accordingly. Some sciences cannot be studied in the lab and must therefore be studied through careful observations. To insist that science is purely restricted to things that can be looked at under a microscope or stared at in a test tube is a dishonest and ignorant view of the variety of scientific disciplines and methods.

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9 Responses to Science: It’s more complicated than creationists think

  1. Terry Kemple says:

    The Bad Idea Blog said, “Kemple seems to be arguing that since we can’t reproduce the evolution of all species on the planet in a laboratory, evolution is little more than a guess as to what ‘really’ happened.”

    Actually what I’m saying is since you can’t even reproduce the transitional “evolution” of even one species into another your belief is nothing more than that – a belief.

    Shame on you for the intellectual dishonesty of treating it as if it were something more and attacking anyone who dares to enlighten people about the truth.

    And double shame for wanting to force your unproven belief into the impressionable minds of our young people.

    I challenge you to show me one thing other than you hypothesis or computer models that prove your theory.

  2. MercuryBlue says:

    “[C]reationism is a set of beliefs unproven. They believe that thousands of years ago there was nothing and then suddenly there was something. They have no proof. It’s not replicable. It’s clearly a belief. You can give it a name and call it creationism, but it is nonetheless a set of beliefs.”

    “[S]ince you can’t even reproduce the “creation” of even one species your belief is nothing more than that – a belief.

    Shame on you for the intellectual dishonesty of treating it as if it were something more and attacking anyone who dares to enlighten people about the truth.

    And double shame for wanting to force your unproven belief into the impressionable minds of our young people.

    I challenge you to show me one thing other than your Bible that prove your theory.”

    Fixed those for you.

  3. Jason Failes says:

    “And double shame for wanting to force your unproven belief into the impressionable minds of our young people.”

    Well triple shame on you for busting my irony meter.

    “I challenge you to show me one thing other than you hypothesis or computer models that prove your theory.”

    All Fossil Evidence.
    All DNA Evidence.
    All Radiometric Dating Evidence
    All Modern-day observations of speciation.
    All Modern-day observations of genetic adaptation.

    I challenge you to read the entire Index of Creationist claims then come back here with an honest retraction of your delusional views.

  4. “Actually what I’m saying is since you can’t even reproduce the transitional “evolution” of even one species into another your belief is nothing more than that – a belief.”

    Okay, maybe I was getting ahead of myself in my original post. So you’re saying that your requirement for accepting evolution is a laboratory test that shows one ‘species’ evolving into another? Will you admit that evolution is true if that is demonstrated?

    I doubt you will. If someone actually ‘forces’ a new species into existence in a lab (which may have actually been done; I’m sure not taking your word for it), you’ll simply say, “Yes, but you haven’t shown how this (slightly more sophisticated) species evolved,” and so on. Hell, I was probably being too charitable in my initial assessment: even if biologists could demonstrate, in a laboratory, the evolution of every species on the planet, you still wouldn’t accept evolution.

    Creationists have ‘shifted the goalposts’ before. In Darwin’s era, they complained about the absence of transitional fossils. Once Archaeopteryx was discovered, they complained it was a hoax (it wasn’t). Then they complained about the lack of further transitional fossils. Now that numerous transitional fossils have been discovered, such as Tiktaalik, and appeared exactly where evolutionary theory said they should be, creationists are saying, “Well, you can’t prove it in a lab!”

    Such arguments make a mockery of all rational thought. Good scientific theories center around testable predictions, and evolution has passed the test over and over again. Can you show me one testable prediction of creationism that has been validated?

    And double shame for wanting to force your unproven belief into the impressionable minds of our young people.

    Shame right back at you for wanting young people to wallow in ignorance, stupidity and dogma. It has been shown, whether we’re talking about the witch trials of medieval Europe or Lysenkoism in Communist Russia, that stupidity and dogma kill.

  5. P.S. Thanks to the Pharyngulites for watching my back!

  6. babs67 says:

    Jason Failes wrote: “I challenge you to read the entire Index of Creationist claims then come back here with an honest retraction of your delusional views.”

    What’s that I hear from Terry Kemple?

  7. babs67 wrote: “What’s that I hear from Terry Kemple?”

    I’m guessing this

  8. babs67 says:

    Thanks honey! I tried writing it out, but it wouldn’t show up! Darn HTML and no preview option!!

  9. Bad says:

    Terry Kemple: “The Bad Idea Blog said”

    No it didn’t. You’re confused.

    “Actually what I’m saying is since you can’t even reproduce the transitional “evolution” of even one species into another your belief is nothing more than that – a belief.”

    No it isn’t: you’re deeply confused. Transitional evolution in the past is a historical and natural event. We don’t “reproduce in the lab” such things: what we reproduce in the lab are experiments and tests on evidence that show whether or not these things happened. And the results of these tests show that they did. This is the evidence that you are trying so gallantly to ignore and deny.

    Artificial speciation, on the other hand, can be seen in lab, and has been. Likewise, the observation of ongoing or recent speciation events can be seen and documented directly in the wild.

    So, your challenge has been met, many many many times over. Where is your acknowledgment of this?

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