Thursday, October 02, 2008

Dog with a Bone? Theories that didn't pan out...

I think went too far comparing New Earth Creationists with Holocaust Deniers. [British tabloid journalism strikes again? - Editorial Bear.]

Although the similarities I pointed out were awkwardly accurate, perhaps it was shotgun journalism... I apologise.

But it DID get me thinking...

I'll admit it... Recently I've been like a dog with a bone (a dinosaur bone) when it comes to creationism and intelligent design and all this other religious babble trying to muscle in on rationality, science and history.

Maybe I should take a deep breath, sit down and relax.... Chill out, as they say.

I mean, what does it matter if somebody believes that the world is 6,000 years old? By the same logic, what does it matter if somebody believes the holocaust didn't take place? I find the first suggestion stupid, the second suggestion offensive - but neither of them really affect my life in the slightest way.

This is America. We have the First Amendment, which says (short of shouting 'fire' in a crowded theatre) that you have a constitutionally protected right to claim whatever you want, no matter how stupid or offensive the rest of us find it.

And the First Amendment is an important one. If people didn't have the freedom of speech, what sort of nation would this be? I'm already sick to death of our 'moral superiors' trying to tell us what we can and can't watch on television, or banning sex toys and naughty DVDs in the deep south.

Freedom of speech is a two way street. If we argue that the moral majority have to respect our freedom of speech, we must respect theirs in return. So consider my wrist smacked.

Besides, some open minded discussion is always good.

I mean, look at the theory of the creation of the Earth... Sure, it's a proven scientific fact that creation doctrine isn't correct. The world wasn't created in six days...

On the other hand, despite a mountain of evidence supporting it, the jigsaw puzzle of evolution isn't totally complete. There are still some missing pieces and it's entirely possible that newly discovered evidence might drastically change the way we view the early history of our planet.

That's why it's such a good theory. More important than being provable, the theory of evolution is unprovable. It is possible to imagine evidence that disproves it.

The ability to disprove a theory is what makes it scientific and open to discussion. The problem with doctrine like Intelligent Design is that it's a theory that cannot be proven wrong, because you can't prove it right, either. Therefore it's not a scientific theory at all (and that's why it belongs in a theology or philosophy classroom, not a science lab.)

All that being said, it's always important to keep an open mind. Look at other theories we've seen in the past that have been blown apart by later discoveries:

Spontaneous Generation

Look back at the early days of science, back in the 17th century when people were first seeing the living organisms we'd later describe as bacteria. Scientists observed little squirmy creatures in people's wounds and came up with the theory of 'Spontaneous Generation.'

This theory claimed that living organisms were spontaneously generated by decaying matter - it matched something Aristotle himself had said over a thousand years earlier: "It was a readily observable truth that aphids arise from the dew which falls on plants, fleas from putrid matter, mice from dirty hay, crocodiles from rotting logs at the bottom of bodies of water, and so forth."

So mainstream was the theory that bacteria (and fleas and mice) spontaneously arose from rotting matter that when Sir Thomas Browne published his contradictory theory in 1646, "Enquiries into Very many Received Tenets, and Commonly Presumed Truths," he was universally mocked.

His contemporary, Alexander Ross scoffed: "To question spontaneous generation is to question reason, sense and experience itself."

It wasn't until 1861 that Louis Pasteur finally proved conclusively that the theory of spontaneous generation was complete rubbish, through a series of complex experiments.

The Solar System

When I was a kid, we studied the planets in school - and there were nine of them.
Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto.

Today, kids are being taught that there are eight planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

So what happened? Did one go missing?

Far from it - in fact, scientists discovered another four planets in the last five years, or so. Ceres, Haumea, Makemake, and Eris. But they're small planets - roughly the size of the 'ninth planet' Pluto, so scientists reclassified them all as 'dwarf planets.'

It's another example of how established fact gets superseded by a different established fact. Knowledge isn't black or white (like some Creationists believe) but a constantly moving roller-coaster ride where nothing is to be taken for granted.


Just like Spontaneous Generation and the nine-planet Solar System, the idea of Biblical creation is also a theory that's been discredited by further scientific discoveries - the age of the Earth and fossils tracing the evolution of life on this planet.

Does that mean that our current theory is infallible? No, of course not. But the fact that the modern theory isn't infallible doesn't give the discredited theory any sudden legitimacy.

It's like one of the other widely discredited theories of our time - The Flat Earth.

The Flat Earth

It's a popular myth that people believed the Earth to be flat right up until Columbus crossed the Atlantic and discovered the Americas. In fact, that was just a story popularised by Washington Irving's 1828 book "The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus."

The idea of a spherical Earth is as old as civilization itself. Pythagoras believed that heavenly bodies were spherical as far back as the 6th Century BC. Eratosthenes of Cyrene calculated the Earth's spherical circumference in 240 BC.

In fact, even Biblical scholars from the early Middle Ages believed that the Earth was a sphere, contrary to popular belief.

When Bishop Vergilius of Salzburg was persecuted by Pope Zachary for his theory of a spherical Earth, the shape of the planet wasn't the origin of the heresy - it was actually his suggestion that other men existed beneath the Earth who weren't descended from Adam (and therefore were free of Original Sin.)

Observational evidence had always discredited 'Flat Earth Theory' - but that didn't stop people believing in it. In fact, an organisation called the Flat Earth Society still promotes their belief in a 'flat earth' today.

They have, astonishingly, thousands of members (and, unsurprisingly, strong historical links with a fundamentalist "Christian Catholic Apostolic Church," which later gave birth to the pentecostal movement. )

The BBC recently ran an article about how many 'flat-Earthers' still stick by their beliefs today.

New Earth Creationists and Flat Earthers

Perhaps a more politically correct version of my New Earth Creationists/Holocaust Deniers article would have been to compare them to modern Flat Earthers.

They're both preposterous, discredited beliefs - but unlike Holocaust Denial, they don't really do anybody harm if dumb people want to stick with them.


Sarah said...

Interesting post. There's a lot of junk science out there, including things "proving" evolution. There are plenty of theories to go around, and I don't think one will ever be proven 100% accurate. I've certainly not seen it yet (I do love my science, specifically astrophysics, chemistry and nuclear science--definitely a lot still not proven in each of those fields).

However, I agree with you. It really doesn't affect how other people live their lives, it really doesn't affect my politics if I choose to have faith in Creationism or not. Quite frankly, I don't care how the world was created. I believe that God did it, and that's good enough for me. And I don't care what other people believe about it either.

What bothers me, though, is the fact that a theory (which, if you look anywhere credible, you will see evolution listed as a theory still) is arbitrarily decided as more important than any other theory. Until something is empirically proven, all theories are equal (although, like affirmative action, I understand some are more equal than others). More importantly, why can't any other theory be taught? If, as you say, creationism is not correct, why is there such fear about it being taught? It's just another failed theory, and to properly teach science, you have to be able to see good and bad theories, right?

Coffee Bean said...

Watch out Roland! Miss Smartie Pants can be a formidable foe and she seems to have set her eyes on you! He He!!!

Go ahead and keep slobbering on your bone. I'll still be here when you are done.

Sarah said...

Miss K gives me much more credit than I am due. I just call it as I see it, and like to question what's considered normal in society. How else can we change and grow as a nation and people unless we question what is "normal" and "accepted"? Even if that doesn't change, it can't hurt.

chris said...

Dear Ginger,
Your Dad sent me on your blog URL, or whatever its called.
Great fun, and wonder if you've read the two Obama biogrphies. Pennyfound the first in New York about four years ago, most interesting, and the Audacity of hope also.

I think the biggest weakness in the intelligent design theory of the creationists is that the Good Lord must have had a hangover, or it was Friday afternoon, when he got to man, especially man,- as is obvious when you see what greedy, aggressive, or guilt ridden creatures we are!!!!!!!
Something went missing in the design, even intelligence in many of the products, especially when taking to drink.
Happy days, and good to hear the enrgy and fun in your life.
Chris and penny holland, edinburgh.

Anonymous said...

I find your post very interesting! keep on the good work.
I think when one’s belief starts to go to the extreme that is far away from the norm or the facts which were proven from the evidences by actual experiences or observations, then that person should reevaluate his/her thinking!!! Because, directly or indirectly it will affect people around him/her, whether she/he likes it or not.
Have a great day.