Science demands precision in understanding our world
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.
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.