Background and Significance:
Recently, a pretty old YouTube clip of Ron Paul explaining that he does not accept the “theory of evolution” showed up in my Facebook feed. It was posted by the Secular Student Alliance and provoked quite a bit of debate in the comments. The video is from late 2007 and the relevant question posed to Paul was regarding whether or not he had raised his hand on May 3rd, 2007 when the Republican candidates at a televised debate were asked to do so if they did NOT believe in evolution. Only three candidates raised their hands; Ron Paul was NOT one of them, by the way.
However, in this video clip, set in a more conservative, Christian setting, he affirms that:
“Well, first I thought it was a very inappropriate question, you know, for the presidency to be decided on a scientific matter… and uh, I think it’s a theory…the theory of evolution and I don’t accept it as a theory. But it really doesn’t bother me… Its not the most important issue for me… to make the difference in my life to understand the exact origin. I think the creator that I know, you know… created us, every one of us and created the universe and the precise time and manner… and all. I just don’t think we’re at the point where anybody has absolute proof on either side.” … “I think its a theological discussion and we can have our… but if that were the issue of the day, I wouldn’t be running for public office! [laughter]”
Now there are a LOT of things we could talk about in this one clip — like whether or not the leader of the most scientifically and technologically advanced nation in the world (which btw depends on “scientific matters” to produce the vast majority of its GDP) should reasonably be expected to demonstrate a basic understanding of rudimentary scientific topics; or the old, tried-and-true trick of claiming that this is a theological question that allows for multiple opinions and points-of-view — but I want to focus this post specifically on the miss-use of the word “theory” that Paul and almost every politician today commits on a regular basis.
Science is an action, not a thing.
And we have to stop teaching it as if it is.
Forgive me the following tangential indulgence; I promise this will all come back to the terminology of “theory”, “fact”, “law”, etc. This miss-use of the term theory to fallaciously rationalize denying evolution is just one of many symptoms of a growing legacy of poor/out-dated methods of teaching the process of science to our youth. For too long our culture has conceptualized science as a litany of arcane facts handed down from on-high by the equivalent of priests in hooded, glowing lab-coats. These facts are carved in stone, are to be committed verbatim to memory, and will somehow unlock untold treasures for those precious few of us that can fit them all into our little, egg-shaped heads: usually assumed to be because our social lives are so devoid of “alternative” activities.
‘Genes are encoded in a molecular format known as DNA…’
Right. Got it.
‘Dinosaurs became extinct around 65 million years ago…’
‘Why don’t girls think I’m cool?’
Wait… what? Damn ADHD.
It is true that without facts, a society is ignorant. But without a systematic process of evaluating and incorporating new observations into the pantheon of established “facts” or making meaningful connections between these facts (perhaps even more important), a society loses its capacity for learning, a much more frightening situation. That systematic process is science. Science is NOT the facts that it allows us to uncover.
It was not until I got to college that anyone ever even thought to describe the experiments that were performed to generate the data that lead to these memorized conclusions; let alone exposed me to the basics of critical thinking that would allow me imagine how I might answer my own new questions!
We teach this stuff all screwy: back-to-front! What observation about our world was it that finally convinced us that the material of heredity was DNA and not proteins? And why should those data convince us? THAT is the magic right there! That’s the real lesson!
Along the way you can’t help but pick up all the little “facts” involved as the story of questions, competing answers, data, and conclusions that has played out throughout our modern history unwinds!
It is no wonder that folks cling to out-dated and sometimes flatly miss-guided notions that were handed down to them in primary school about the relationship between terms like “hypothesis”, “theory”, “fact”, “law of nature” as if they are tenets of some divinely revealed religion. In fact: the first thing poor, bleary-eyed, would-be scientists have to do once they get to college is spend time and energy UN-learning things they were taught to hold as gospel.
Nothing in science should be immune to skepticism!
So I do actually have a lot of sympathy for everyday people that get this stuff wrong. But to casually blow off a question designed to demonstrate the basic foundations of understanding science as a pointless frivolity when vetting a candidate for the leader of the nation with the greatest ability to annihilate our species over night or decades and the most to lose if we fall behind other nations in our ability to produce high-level scientific thinkers? That’s either simple cowardice or supreme hubris; neither of which I find particularly becoming in a leader.
OK then! Lets get to fixing the problem already, right?!
Hypotheses and theories and laws oh my!
Seriously? Did I really just use that tired old line…? Anyway, the first thing you have to remember and commit to memory, verbatim is…
But seriously, let me get this out of the way right here: that whole hierarchy you learned in grade school about “hypotheses”, “theories”, and “natural laws”? You remember, right? The one that states that you first begin with a “hypothesis” (which basically amounts to some guess or idea about how the world works)? Then, once you have the slightest bit of evidence to support your hypothesis, it graduates to a “theory”? And finally, if the data continually come in supporting your original hypothesis (now wearing the vestments of a battle-tested theory) is allowed to transcend that mystical abyss between opinion and “Truth” (with a capital ‘T’) and will sit on the “throne of eternal infallibility”?
Yeah, that’s pretty much a giant load of bullshit.
Laws describe what happens, theories describe why/how they happen.
Gravity is actually a very good example of why it is preposterous that the same people who believe that they can simply sweep away the observed facts that evolutionary theory hopes to explain by claiming that “evolution is just a theory” do not understand or at least refuse to admit that such an action is as ludicrous (and anyway kind of a non sequitur) as someone denying the FACT of gravity because its explanatory model is “just a theory”.
Newton described a “law of universal gravitation” (the fact of gravity) which he outlined in mathematical language as best he could given the limits of his time and age. This basic law describes the factual observations that two bodies of mass will exert an influence on each other whose magnitude is predicted by multiplying the masses of each body and by dividing this product by the square of the distance between them. However, it claims very little about the underlying causality of the influence OR the reason that the influence lessens quadratically as the distance between the bodies increases. It merely states the facts of the observations in a rigorous form.
The efforts to describe how gravity works, to incorporate all the math and observations into a coherent causal model is what is meant by the THEORY of gravity. In fact, the math produced by Einstein’s theory of gravity (relativity) encompasses and simply extends and improves Newton’s descriptions of how gravity behaves. The fact that theories attempting to provide a model for why observations behave the way they do are destined to occur, to rise in favor, to falter, and to eventually be replaced by better, more inclusive theories as more complete sets of observations arrive does nothing to refute the FACT that the observations occur as described. The reason that the math produced by Einstein’s theory has become favored over Newton’s math is because it performs just as well as Newton’s in the standard cases that Newton presented but also allows for much more precise calculations/predictions for gravitationally interacting bodies in extreme cases; cases where Newton’s math simply fails. For example Newton’s math does not adequately account for the orbital positions of the planet Mercury at a time () given its position at a previous time (); Einstein’s does.
Both gravity and evolution are SIMULTANEOUSLY theories AND facts. People can quibble over causal models but they would be wise not to deny the facts of the observations. That said, I would still caution politicos from entering into the purely causal debates as well. They will certainly be out-classed by those who actually know what they are talking about.