Rick Perry gets science right when he denies it

Found an interesting post on the Washington Post by Katrina vanden Heuvel lambasting the GOP presidential stumpers for being anti-science.

But, interestingly enough, she’s got it wrong. In the way they deny evolution and climate change, they’re actually correct. Do they mean to be or are they playing a linguistic double game?

Explanation — when Rick Perry says that evolution is a “theory that is out there, there are some gaps in it” guess what?

He’s absolutely correct. Evolution is a theory. There are some gaps in it. That’s WHY it is a theory.

The problem is, in scientific terms, a theory is an explanation for observed data that has not been proved yet — the data is real (all those millions of years of fossils! All those records of species change! All that research that verifies the theory!) but the explanation, since it is not able yet to be proved, is a theory.

Science is full of theories. There is an amazingly large amount of this world we can’t completely understand. Maybe someday we will, but I doubt it. Gravity, for example, is still stumping people. Doesn’t make it less valid.

Perry et al are playing to a crowd who think the word “theory” is synonamous with “wild guess.” That is not the case, but that’s how it is perceived and, perhaps, in their own minds that is how it is or at least they know that is how it is perceived to the crowd they are playing to.

However, if Rick were to sit down with some scientist and debate evolution, that scientist would, also, call evolution a theory, then Perry would, then they’d agree.

Katrina also slams Rick for saying that nobody knows how old the earth is.

If you put it down to hours and minutes, nobody really does know how old the earth is. Time is relative, and in a very real way time is also a social construct, so he’s absolutely correct there as well, as far as he goes. A billion years here or there, nobody knows.

If this leaves some people thinking what Rick REALLY believes is that the planet is only 10,000 years old, well, is that his fault?

ps. People who ask if I “believe in” evolution drive me nuts.

You don’t believe in a theory — a theory is not a matter of faith. It is an explanation. You can accept it or reject it, but if you reject it you need to come up with a better one — and no, you don’t get to say “and then a miracle occurs.” 

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22 Responses to Rick Perry gets science right when he denies it

  1. Dan S. says:

    No, the gaps aren’t what make it a theory. It would still be called a theory even without gaps.

    And it’s wrong to imply that the uncertainty in the earth’s age could be as much as a billion years, or that relativity or social conventions contribute to the uncertainty. Unless you’re trying to say that you’re Humpty Dumpty and you can use words to mean whatever you want, in which case, I choose to interpret this blog as being about elephants and the age of Woolworth, rather than evolution and the age of the earth.

  2. Charles Trentelman says:

    I suppose it is useless to say that the real point of the blog is to let people know that theory is not some sort of wild guess?

    Whether they are a problem or not, Mr. Perry IS correct that there are gaps there, and if the age of the planet has been nailed to within a billion years, well, I suspect that will change, theories on planetary age being what they are. I keep reading stories about how the age of the planet has been moved this way or that in light of new findings, but he will always be correct that we do not know exactly because, well, we won’t.

    My humblest and sincerest apologies for getting the details wrong. I invite someone with more knowledge of physics than I have to write a more thorough explanation.

    • Bill Wade says:

      It seems to me that the biggest gap is between his ears.

    • Dan S. says:

      Right: The word “theory”, when applied to a mature scientific framework, has nothing to do with wild guesses. (I tried posting a link to the Wikipedia article “Scientific Theory” but my post vanished into the ether.)

      Finding “gaps” in a theory like evolution is trivial. Whenever a fossil is discovered to fill a “gap” between two related species, it merely divides one large gap into two small ones!

      The age of the earth is known to far greater precision than a billion years, and this result is highly unlikely to change. There’s some ambiguity over how “age” is defined, but that ambiguity is small compared to a billion years, as are the inherent uncertainties in the radiometric dating methods. (I tried posting a link to the Wikipedia article “Age of the Earth” but again, my post vanished.)

  3. Erick says:

    If this is to be a piece of political commentary then it would be important to note why the debate over evolution as “theory” is important. In catering the to the “theory = wild guess” crowd with regard to evolution, I suppose were really talking about where Perry would stand with regard to ID education in public schools. In which case I would think that Perry would be better served explaining why he believes ID should be given equal treatment in the classroom. If it’s not about that, then what is it about.

    If we are talking about climate change, then we are really not having philosophical discussion about whether it is “real”, rather we are addressing whether society has a responsibility to protect the enviroment. In other words Perry is signaling where he stands on enviromental issues, ie, low eco-regulation. Seeing as how this is an important issue, and the stakes are wide open, perhaps he ought to more specifically address which eco-measures are useless, and which (if he believes any) are not. More importantly, he ought to offer his explanation as to why, and who’s counsel he is recieving to form this opinion.

    As it stands, these current philosophical arguments about the limits of knowledge, what we can really “know”, what we can “verify” – and the industry nomenclature (laws, theory’s, etc) , are nothing more than evasive techniques to avoid accountability. So, to your question, “is it really Rick’s fault?” The answer is “yes”, if he is purposely trying to create this ambiguity through carefully crafted arguments.

  4. CRW says:

    I think the point of your blog post, which is that Perry is confusing a scientific hypothesis with a scientific theory is spot on. Most people who claim we should teach ID or some other form of creationism alongside evolution use this semantic error as part of their justification. Most modern biology books will present hypotheses as hypotheses and differentiate them from theories such as how life began on the earth is typically presented as a hypothesis since no one knows for sure, while the evidence that all current species evolved from prior species on earth is indisputable.

    My worry is that you are assigning far less certainty to evolution than actually exists. People look at the origins of life and say that since evolution can’t explain how life began and where complex biological molecules came from, it can’t be true. However, evolution is only a theory of biological change – the end. A similar argument arises when people try to associate the big bang with evolution, which again is trying to link two different scientific theories together. Other “gaps” include the precise mechanisms or time lines in how individual species evolved. This is like saying that since modern astrophysics can’t explain the path for every star in the sky since the big bang, it has “gaps.” That’s a pretty silly statement.

    Your semantic argument is absolutely correct, but your position on the “gaps” in evolution pretty much falls down.

    I find it ironic that most people feel qualified to comment on modern evolutionary biology when so few people are actually qualified to do so. Would you ask a lawyer to explain the details of relativity and its scientific value? Would you ask a mechanical engineer to explain the ion channels of the human heart? We all know how silly it is to ask non-experts to comment about the details of deep scientific facts on which they know virtually nothing. However, many people make exactly this mistake when they accept the statements of Rick Perry that evolution is actually just a guess. If he were commenting on relativity, we would laugh at him since he couldn’t pass elementary calculus, but his words have weight when he comments on evolution. What the heck? We need to start ignoring non-experts who comment on scientific theories.

    • Bob Becker says:

      “We need to start ignoring non-experts who comment on scientific theories.”

      Would that we, as a people, could. But we can’t afford to. They need to be replied to. Nearly half the people in the country [which boasts, we like to think, one of the most broadly educated populations on the planet] think evolution is nonsense and creationism is a fact.

      Sadly, science reporting in the general media is often almost as consistently bad [meaning either superficial or ill-informed or both] as economic reporting. There was a world conference of science journalists held recently and several of the sessions dealt with precisely that question: should science journalists address such matters, and if so how? I’ll link to the program of the meeting, and there are internal links to some of the sessions. There also have been reports of the meeting in the science press, though I didn’t keep links on file to those.

      Link: http://www.wcsj2011.org/program

      • Erick says:

        It’s unreasonable to expect that everybody must be an expert on any issue they would like to have an opinion on. Still, when it comes to the lay man standing up against the scientific community on certain political issues, ie, global warming, from whence does the lay man derive his objection? True, there are many errors in scientific thought. Still, the implication is that since the scientific community wavers, the lay community’s “experts” are equally valid in their assertions. I find this line of reasoning highly problematic.

        • Bob Becker says:

          You wrote: “Still, the implication is that since the scientific community wavers, the lay community’s “experts” are equally valid in their assertions. I find this line of reasoning highly problematic.”

          Of course it is. This was discussed at the Conference [among professional science journalists -- most newspaper and TV stations do not employ science journalists] as a result of striving for “balance” which far too often is taken to mean if a newspaper does an article on evolution, it must, to be balanced and fair include comment from a creationist or even a young earth creationist, however ill-informed that comment might be. “He said/she said” journalism, which reporters [and with shame be it spoken!] editors all too often think absolves them from any responsibility to come to any conclusion about which side is the more credible one, which side the evidence supports more strongly, and to include that conclusion in stories.

          • Erick says:

            If that is the argument then we need to seperate journalism from commentary. A journalist should not take sides, but rather report the news and information. An industry reporter would also have the responsibility of being a sort of interlocutor who clarifies the issues, without overly injecting their personal bias. A commentator, is this new breed of media reporter who intentionally tries to sway public opinion by taking stances. They attempt to interpret the data, and give a side taking interpretation of what it should mean.

            Balance is, as you say, not about giving equal time to both sides of an argument, but that of representing in good faith, the key relevant facts or data points to an issue. Both things that support a stance/interpretation/conclusion/etc, and the reasonable objections. Of course the amount of latitude in determining what is “reasonable” is hard to establish for demarcation purposes in some issues.

          • Mark Sparkman says:

            Just as an historical correction to Erick regarding commentators as a “new breed” of journalist, a quick survey of early American newspapers (if they can be called such) shows that they were all heavily influenced by ideology, taking rhetorical swings at the other side as a matter of course. What is new is more rational journalism, which attempts to strip personal belief and ideology from the reporting of news. Just sayin’.

          • Bob Becker says:

            [Reply to Eric]

            You wrote: “A journalist should not take sides.”

            We disagree. Judgment free reporting is not good reporting. If after researching a news story a reporter writing it concludes that the great weight of the evidence he uncovered or examined supports one claim but not a rival claim, his reporting that should be part of the story.

            Journalism has been sadly watered down over the past decades by a hopeless pursuit of false “balance” part of which presumes that reporters must not draw conclusions in their stories. You seem to be suggesting that a reporter drawing conclusions and including them in a story equates to his indulging his personal biases. Not at all. Or at least not necessarily.

  5. ctrentelman says:

    I really appreciate the contributions by you guys who know the details much better than I ever will — I took high school and college physics, but it ended there.

    This is the problem. I’ve got enough science education to know when taffy is being distributed, but if you apply that knowledge and actually give the taffy distributors the attention they are due — 5 percent compared to 95 percent in the climate debate — the 5 percenters scream that they’re being discriminated against and if you try to say yes, and discrimination means you get the attention you deserve, well, the editor gets a phone call and a reporter gets his butt chewed.

    I have noticed more stories of late at least tossing in a boilerplace graph with the reality check — someone will quote bachmanm or perry and then toss in something about 95 percent of all climate scientists saying this or that — but that still doesn’t solve the problem. We’re expecting readers to do the math and realize that “the other side” is being silly or worse, although math is not one of the greater skills..like people who think cutting NPR will balance the federal budget.

    and of course the fringe types know this is how jouralism works and use it.

    but as i said in the post at the top — it doesn’t help with journalists who should know better get sucked into the same definitional issues — polls showing how many “believe” in evolution, for example, are not only useless from a demographic standpoint, but alter the language, making it imprecise in a situation were precision is everything.

    Not sure how to solve this, but Becker is right, you gotta keep pointing it out.

  6. Florence Specutives says:

    Charles,
    Having been an intuitive for Land Mass configurations and an
    avid “Inquirer” of Rock Formations along the Pony Express Trail,
    through Summit County Corrridors along the [ECHO] Mormon Trail;
    I took heed in an Archive submission in the SL Tribune, in the
    Boise Idaho Ancestrial Library.
    It appears, seeing through the “Literal Liscence” of the Arthur,
    that Church President, General Brigham Young, in fortifications
    of “Pulpit-Rock”, at latter day Hennifer Junction made a pro-
    nouncement to those “in tow”.
    His express impressions, were to turn North vereing [Weber Canyon],
    Croyden, and “Devils-Slide”. Porter Rockwell was leading the
    the “Army of One Hundred”. All was transpiring safe for the
    Pioneer-Passage, while Rockwell “Clear-Cut” the timberage.
    All lines of operation came to a sudden halt, when the traverse
    corodinates became an “S” shape Canyon, [Hells Canyon].
    This indention, carrying the then roaring Weber River.
    The latter-day Interstate now is spanned across the Gorge, just
    before the Vehiculair Rest-Stop, as it is situated today. The
    Party made a U turn, and reversed there cordinates to trek-down
    Latter-Day Immagration Canyon, one fallen “Spiked-Chained”
    Pine at a time. Brother Brigham was so exasperated at the
    amount of labor endured, that he was bed-ridden in the pull-
    cart with “Colorado-Tick Fever”, the Tribune reports.
    It has been said, through “tounge and cheek”, that his triumphant
    recovery of words, was instead of Ogden…Now the Uintah Basin…
    “Drive on, this is the Other Place”.
    NAMASTE

  7. Erick says:

    “If after researching a news story a reporter writing it concludes that the great weight of the evidence he uncovered or examined supports one claim but not a rival claim, his reporting that should be part of the story”

    In such a case a mere presentation of relevant facts should suffice to laying bare the obvious conclusion. The tendency of news commentators is to present arguments where the presentation of relevant facts does not wholly satisfy the position of one side. The consuming public is then done a disservice by the parochial media outlets that would prefer to “simplify” the issue to their partisan slant by not only preparing the news, but by “helping” the public digest it as well.

  8. Bob Becker says:

    A recent “Daily Show” dealt directly with this issue. [Link below.] First segment particularly on point. It notes the completion of a massive global warming study financed by the Koch brothers, oil and gas industry global warming skeptics, with the intent of ending for once and all the question of whether previous studies had faked data. The new study, released last week, concluded that global warming is indeed real, and that the studies people doubted after Climategate were in fact accurate. And yet the release of the new study has gone largely unreported by the same cable channels that made Climategate a lead story.

    Physicist Lisa Randall, interviewed on the program, also deals with the question of science reporting and public perception.

    Link: http://www.thedailyshow.com/full-episodes/wed-october-26-2011-lisa-randall

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  12. ray says:

    C’mon, serious reporting based on facts and fact-checking is so five minutes ago. Watch FOX for a while and you’ll see what I mean.

    • Owain says:

      Got a specific example?

      There’s a difference between lack of facts, and reporting you don’t care for, just so you know…

  13. Erik Halverson says:

    If they really think we should teach children in school religious myth’s as the alternative to evolution then we should also teach them that there is more chance that earth was seeded by super intelligent aliens who seeded our galaxy with life with the intention of us becoming intelligent beings then there is of intelligent design. My point being the probability is astronomically higher that the ID they imagine is Space Aliens then that it is a magical mythological Deity or God. so teach intelligent design, just point out that scientifically the odds are higher a faster then light space faring alien species caused life in our galaxy then that there is a Deus who caused life in our galaxy.

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