Sci­ence de­mands pre­ci­sion in un­der­stand­ing our world

The Expositor (Brantford) - - OPINION - TIM PHILP Tim Philp has en­joyed sci­ence since he was old enough to read. Hav­ing worked in tech­ni­cal fields all his life, he shares his love of sci­ence with read­ers weekly. He can be reached by email at: tphilp@ bfree. on. ca or via snail mail c/ o The Exp

A U. S. judge fa­mously said that, while he could not de­fine pornog­ra­phy, he knew it when he saw it.

While that kind of fuzzy- thinking may be fine for judges in the U. S., it il­lus­trates a prob­lem that we face in any sci­en­tific dis­ci­pline – how to de­fine some­thing we are talk­ing about.

If we can­not de­fine some­thing, we re­ally don’t know what we are talk­ing about. The lan­guage that we use frames the dis­cus­sion about al­most any­thing. Im­pre­ci­sion can be de­struc­tive to rea­son and un­der­stand­ing. Let’s take a look at a cou­ple of ex­am­ples.

Vir­tu­ally ev­ery cred­i­ble sci­en­tist has found the ev­i­dence for evo­lu­tion by nat­u­ral se­lec­tion to be over­whelm­ing and con­vinc­ing. It is one of our most well- tested and un­der­stood the­o­ries. There is vir­tu­ally no doubt among those who have stud­ied evo­lu­tion that is ex­plains ex­actly how life on Earth evolved and, in­deed, con­tin­ues to evolve.

This is es­pe­cially true when it comes to hu­man evo­lu­tion. Sci­en­tists try to place fos­sils into dis­crete clas­si­fi­ca­tions that as­sist in un­der­stand­ing how evo­lu­tion works. Un­for­tu­nately, evo­lu­tion is a con­tin­u­ous process that does not al­low for this kind of or­ga­ni­za­tion. The dif­fer­ence be­tween Ne­an­derthal and mod­ern man is some­what ar­ti­fi­cial when you con­sider that we all carry some Ne­an­derthal DNA in our bod­ies. It seems that early mod­ern man mated with Ne­an­derthals and we are all hy­brids to one de­gree or an­other.

Sci­en­tists ar­gue whether this fos­sil skull be­longs in this or that clas­si­fi­ca­tion when the dif­fer­ences can be sub­tle. The real con­fu­sion is with our clas­si­fi­ca­tion sys­tem, not the way that evo­lu­tion works. It is sim­ply a mat­ter of nam­ing and clas­si­fi­ca­tion.

Those who op­pose the the­ory of evo­lu­tion first latch on the term the­ory. Un­for­tu­nately, the way that sci­en­tists use the word the­ory is dif­fer­ent from the way that most peo­ple use the word. In com­mon par­lance, a the­ory is an idea, a sug­ges­tion of how some­thing works that does not have proof. This is what sci­en­tists call an hy­poth­e­sis, an idea that needs to be in­ves­ti­gated and proved or dis­proved.

A the­ory is a sys­tem of sci­en­tific knowl­edge that has been well- ex­am­ined and tested and found to fit the way that na­ture works. It is not some­thing that is un­proven or pro­vi­sional. Sci­en­tists speak of the the­ory of grav­ity and the layper­son does not sug­gest that grav­ity is “only a the­ory,” yet that is ex­actly what it is. In­deed grav­ity, as for­mu­lated by Isaac New­ton, the English poly­math, was held as sacro­sanct for more than 400 years be­fore it was mod­i­fied by Ein­stein’s gen­eral the­ory of rel­a­tiv­ity.

The spe­cial­ized lan­guage of sci­ence can be con­fus­ing to the layper­son, but such speci­ficity is nec­es­sary if we are to com­mu­ni­cate clearly. In the case of evo­lu­tion, the term the­ory is mis­used by some peo­ple in the pub­lic to dis­credit a body of knowl­edge that is vir­tu­ally unas­sail­able. It is not a use­ful sit­u­a­tion. As­tronomers re­cently faced a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion when they re­clas­si­fied Pluto as a dwarf planet, de­mot­ing it from full plan­e­tary sta­tus. It was a po­si­tion that as­tronomers never re­ally con­sid­ered. It was a case of ev­ery­one know­ing what a planet was and the an­cient Greek word planet, mean­ing “wan­derer,” suf­ficed for all prac­ti­cal pur­poses.

It was only when we started dis­cov­er­ing many small “plan­ets” or­bit­ing the sun at ex­treme dis­tances that this be­came an is­sue. The In­ter­na­tional As­tro­nom­i­cal Union, the body re­spon­si­ble for nam­ing and clas­si­fy­ing ce­les­tial bod­ies was faced with hav­ing a so­lar sys­tem with po­ten­tially dozens of plan­ets, or de­mot­ing Pluto and hav­ing eight plan­ets and a swarm of dwarf plan­ets. They chose to de­mote Pluto, an ob­ject that was not very much like the other plan­ets, and cre­ate a new clas­si­fi­ca­tion of ob­jects – dwarf plan­ets.

Sci­en­tists face dif­fi­cul­ties that most peo­ple never have to con­front as they strive to un­der­stand ev­ery­thing around us. While it may be good enough for the average per­son to be un­able to de­fine a term, but know it when you see it, it is cer­tainly not good enough for sci­ence, which re­quires a pre­ci­sion of lan­guage and def­i­ni­tion that is for­eign to most of us.

For sci­en­tists, words and their def­i­ni­tions are im­por­tant. It is an ex­am­ple wor­thy of em­u­la­tion.

POST­MEDIA NET­WORK

The the­ory of grav­ity, as for­mu­lated by Isaac New­ton, was held as sacro­sanct for more than 400 years be­fore it was mod­i­fied by Ein­stein’s gen­eral the­ory of rel­a­tiv­ity, notes colum­nist Tim Philp.

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