Science Is Right, You Are Wrong

I pride myself on being fairly level-headed and rational. I really do. But every once in a while I’ll come across something that is just so very wrong that I can’t help myself. Whenever that happens, another iota of my innocence and faith in humanity shrivels up and dies.

Recently, I was involved in a discussion online about science and religion. Someone was trying to make the point that science requires just as much faith as religion. This is wrong, as the findings of science are true regardless of whether or not one believes in them. In fact, faith, by definition, requires the lack of proof.

But that’s a post in and of itself. What struck me the most about this conversation was the sheer ignorance on display in regards to basic scientific concepts. For instance: scientific theory. For most lay people, a theory is an idea of how things work that may or may not be true. But for a scientist, nothing could be farther from the truth. A scientific theory is “a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence” (according to the National Academy of Sciences). After all, gravity is “only a theory.” Evolution is “only a theory.” But you don’t see people worrying about falling up into the sky when the go outside, do you?

Which brings me to another point: this person had such a poor understanding of science and evolution, I wasn’t sure where to even start. Most of these comments came in response to this article, and I’d like to take a bit of space to attempt to respond to them here. Plus, since this is my blog after all, I feel less of an urge to be properly diplomatic. Passionate arguments ahead!

1. The Universal Genetic Code: Could this not also be evidence of a single designer? I mean, the spark plugs from one type of car often work in an entirely different type of car. This doesn’t mean they both evolved from a skateboard.

This shows a staggering ignorance of how evolution actually works. Modern organisms did not evolve from other modern organisms; they both diverged from a common ancestor many years ago.

2. The Fossil Record: The fossil record proves nothing. Fossils prove nothing. When we find a fossilized skeleton, all we know is that something died there. We cannot conclusively prove that the organism had any offspring or that the offspring eventually turned into an entirely different form of organism. Furthermore, the fossil record and the geologic column are an exercise in circular reasoning: they use the fossils to date the rocks and the rocks to date the fossils. Given that kind of criteria, how can we know that what we’re looking at when we look at the fossil record is in any way chronological?

This is the one that had me figuratively frothing at the mouth. Clearly this person could not be reasoned with or engaged in anything resembling rational debate. But let’s attempt some refutation anyway. Here we see an example of the “you weren’t there, so you can’t know” fallacy. That’s the beauty of science: it lets us make models of less observable phenomena through more observable ones. There are also many ways of estimating the dates of the fossil record that don’t rely on relative observations. Also, individuals don’t evolve; populations do.

Oh, and you know what makes a better example in circular reasoning? The Bible: “The Bible is true because it says it is true.”

3. Genetic Commonalities: Francis Collins, the head of the human genome project wrote, “This evidence alone does not, of course, prove a common ancestor.” So…

The fact that we have eyes, mice have eyes, frogs have eyes, dinosaurs had eyes, and whales have eyes in no way proves that we all came from inanimate slime on a rock somewhere. Again, similarities in function might just as easily suggest a common designer as opposed to a common ancestor.

The beliefs of one individual do not necessarily reflect the overarching scientific consensus. In fact, there was quite a bit of concern in the scientific community regarding Collins’ tenure as Director of the National Institutes of Health. So… what?

Genetic commonalities go much further than lots of organisms having eyes. It is a provable scientific fact that we share large percentages of our genome with other species. This is NOT about similarities in function, this is about identical portions of DNA that are present across related organisms.

Besides, you weren’t there, so how can you KNOW dinosaurs had eyes?!? </sarcasm>

4. Common Traits in Embryos: Haeckl confessed and was found guilty of fraud more than 100 years ago now and still the “biogenetic law” persists. Ontogeny does not repeat phylogeny.

So this may not be the best example, I will admit, as it can be easily refuted. But as quoted from Wikipedia, “embryos do undergo a period where their morphology is strongly shaped by their phylogenetic position, rather than selective pressures.” The next statements are more interesting, anyway.

5. Bacterial Resistance to Antibiotics: Variation within a bacterial kind in no way proves that the bacteria is forming into some kind of new organism. Mutation and natural selection only lead to losses of genetic information and changes in subsequent generations of organisms because of genetic information already present is demonstrably not macro-evolution. For evolution to occur, new information must be introduced and this has never been observed.

First of all, kind? What the heck is a “kind?” If it’s being used in the biblical sense, then hoo boy are you under-informed. First of all, mutation and natural selection do not “always lead to losses of genetic information.” There are many ways mutation can occur, from transcription errors resulting in the modification or duplication of a gene, to random fluctuation caused by exposure to radiation. Secondly, the only difference between “macro-evolution” and what I’m guessing you’d call “micro-evolution” is the time scale. Macroevolution is merely microevolution on a geologically compounded scale.

Also, your assertion that the introduction of new information has never been observed is false. I would point you in the direction of this experiment, where an isolated population of E. coli bacteria evolved the ability to digest citric acid.

Despite all the times you said, “We don’t know” you still arrive at the conclusion that evolution “is a fact”. This, if I may be so bold, constitutes faith. You are believing in the reliability of something you yourself admit you cannot empirically know. Hence, why religious people who may not subscribe to the so-called absolute authority of science are quick to point out that the naturalists among us are just as faith-based as the rest of us (to answer ____’s point earlier.) This is not a bad thing, but it levels the playing field a bit in regards to all the claims we throw at each other.

Faith: strong or unshakeable belief in something, esp. without proof or evidence; belief that is not based on proof (; firm belief in something for which there is no proof (Merriam-Webster).

By its definition faith precludes proof. When we say “we don’t know,” we mean that it is impossible to know anything with 100% certainty. That being said, however, we can know something in such detail that we reduce the uncertainty to a functionally negligible amount. That’s the thing about science: it lets us make objective predictions based on things we can observe to help explain the unknown or unobservable. Those of us who have “subscribe[d] to the so-called absolute authority of science” have generally done so after observing the evidence available to us, thinking critically about it, and trying to fit it into existing paradigms. If it fits, great! If not, then the paradigm needs to change. Faith, on the other hand, is required due to the lack of evidence and is preserved through ignorance.

And, to add one more observation: even if the modes of abiogenesis were reproduced in a lab, it still doesn’t prove that abiogenesis is how life came to be (a 1 in more than 10-to-the-80,000th-power of a chance, I’m given to understand). If we were to somehow reproduce evolution in a lab and demonstrate how the event might have occurred in the past, this experiment would in no way prove if, in fact, the event did actually occur in history. Proving that it could happen does not prove that it did. And furthermore, aren’t we also simply proving that if evolution were to occur, it would require an intelligent agent to drive it? When it comes to the science of origins, then, I maintain that all the science in the world will never be sufficient to definitively tell us exactly what took place. It is simply beyond the bounds of science’s abilities to demonstrate. The entire realm of origins is one positioned squarely in the arena of faith: and, contrary to what some of us here seem to believe, faith is not by definition blind or uniformed.

So what you’re saying is you won’t accept proof that doesn’t fit your already-held beliefs if/when it becomes available. This is more of the “You weren’t there, thus can’t know” tripe. Clearly no body of knowledge can shake your faith. At least science is capable of admitting when it’s wrong.

You mention the astronomical chances of abiogenesis; do you realize how likely that still makes it? The scale of the universe, both temporal and spatial, is beyond anything humans are used to fathoming. I’d be curious to see where your 1-in-1080,000 figure came from, by the way. It seems like you’re throwing big numbers out in an attempt to overwhelm.

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So there you have it: my response that I deemed too catty and impolitic to post anywhere but my personal blog. It also marks the introduction of an image that, much like the Drama Llama, may make additional appearances (for better or worse):

The Stupid, It Burns by Plognark

by Plognark

Also, watch Cosmos.

*steps off soapbox*