Thursday, October 01, 2009

"Balance" and "theory"

I often watch The View when I feed Penelope her lunch, and turned it on this morning just as their panel was discussing the new Cameron/Comfort edition of On the Origin of Species. (The equally absurd and awful contents of which I blogged about a few days ago.) During the discussion, Heidi Montag and Sherri Shepherd (mis)used two words that, when deployed in these arguments, drive me absolutely nuts: "balance" (as in, the introduction provides "balance" to the evolution vs. creation debate) and "theory" (as in, both evolution and creationism are "theories").

1) To call the Cameron/Comfort edition "balanced" is outrageous - even if I agreed with Heidi's definition of "balance". Comfort is writing in the 21st century, Darwin in the 19th - genetics wasn't even a word when Darwin wrote, which makes Comfort's discussion of DNA both anachronistic and irrelevant. (Irrelevant to a debate about Darwin and/or evolution, but it's obvious that Comfort's actual target is science as a field, not Darwin as such.) Comfort can - and does - misrepresent Darwin's argument while Darwin, for obvious reasons, cannot refute his erroneous claims. Heidi also commits a sin that I'm all too familiar with as a teacher - she conflates complaint and critique, mistakes a wholly fallacious straw-man argument for rigorous analysis. Bringing balance to a debate requires, at the very least, some responsibility on the part of the commentator to accurately represent the position that is being critiqued. What Heidi calls "balance" would probably be libel if Darwin weren't long dead.

2) a. The "theory" bit is equally annoying. At some point, it became conventional outside academic circles to use "theory" as a derisive or pejorative term - the implication being that a "theory" is not simply unproven but is purely speculative, a mere hypothesis. Of course, if you can use Wikipedia, much less know anything about science, you know that a theory is far more complicated than this, that it's an analytic concept and that it proceeds from controlled observation - it's deductive - rather than preceding it, as would a hypothesis. It's on this basis that the Darwinian theory of evolution is astoundingly incomparable to the "theory" of creationism.

b. What's even more annoying, of course, is that creationists - and Sherri was doing this, implicitly - collapse i) the Darwinian theory of natural selection as the reason for evolution with ii) the fact of evolution. Evolution has occurred and we have a fossil record that proves it - hell, the non-fossilized remains of much smaller human beings from several centuries and millennia in the past are evidence of evolution, too. What remains is not for us to determine whether evolution occurs, but to determine how it occurs. And while the fossil record for the entire world is small, yes - the conditions under which organic material is fossilized are quite specific and rare - this shouldn't give us reason to doubt that evolution has occurred. It's a problem, yes, but insofar as it presents us only with the transitional forms - because all life is a transitional form that evolved from something else, which is transitioning to something else - and not with a roadmap of how it got there and where it was headed. And that's where the theory bit comes in.

The funny thing is, of course, that I'm actually quite critical of the way that scientific "truth" is produced and sold. Too often, scientists have encouraged us to conflate fact and theory just as eagerly the creationists do. But they get a well-deserved free-pass on this one.


James said...

Enjoying the flurry of posts, Neil. I'd comment more if I was SMRT

neilshyminsky said...

Yeah, this happens when I'm stuck at my computer doing research. Hopefully I can eventually find a happy medium between 4 posts in 1 week and 1 post in 4 weeks.