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):
- Observation and description of a phenomenon or group of phenomena.
- Formulation of an hypothesis to explain the phenomena. In physics, the hypothesis often takes the form of a causal mechanism or a mathematical relation.
- Use of the hypothesis to predict the existence of other phenomena, or to predict quantitatively the results of new observations.
- 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.