Are you a creationist? Or an advocate of Intelligent Design? If so, you know perfectly well how your views are received by scientists, and surely you’re tired of it. If you would like your positions to be taken seriously by those with whom you disagree, please consider the following:
How to argue against a scientific theory:
Method One: If you want to present a rational argument against a theory — instead of something that will be dismissed as a meaningless rant — probably the best method is to point out a verifiable fact that clearly contradicts the theory. But … to do this, you must understand the theory, so that you understand what might contradict it.
You will accomplish nothing if you argue against an incorrect comic-book version of the theory, one which no scientist accepts or teaches. Building up and tearing down straw-men is a useless exercise. To put it bluntly, you need to know what you’re talking about.
The evidence you present can be something newly discovered, or the discrediting of something discovered earlier, which turns out to have been wrongly understood — or even bogus. However, even if you’ve really got something, you must be careful, because this is the stage where kooks and cranks and Einstein wannabes so often go astray.
For your discovery to completely overturn a theory, the new evidence (or newly-discredited old evidence) must be essential to the theory, so that without it, the theory collapses. Merely pointing out that some unneeded datapoint is wrong — even a famous one like Piltdown Man — doesn’t bring a well-established theory crashing down in ruins — especially if (as with Piltdown Man) the theory never depended on such evidence in the first place. At most, such discredited evidence might require a footnote, or perhaps a minor correction in the next edition of a textbook. Corrections occur all the time as our observations improve. Such matters are rarely of any genuine importance; but people outside the profession often lack the perspective that comes from knowing the full range of evidence that supports a theory, and therefore assign a disproportionate significance to relatively trivial matters.
Method Two: Another method of arguing against a theory is to present a testable theory of your own, one which explains all of the available evidence better than the existing theory. It’s a difficult task, but not impossible. Contrary to the frequent complaint of cranks, scientists are not closed-minded to new theories. In the last century, general relativity, quantum mechanics, the big bang, and plate tectonics prevailed over initial skepticism. But to devise a new theory, you need to know two things.
First, you must know what a scientific theory is, and what it isn’t. This will help: What’s a Scientific Theory? Asserting as a competing “theory” something that isn’t testable is a waste of everyone’s time in a scientific discussion.
Second, you must be aware, at least generally, of the evidence which supports the existing theory. That is what your competing theory must explain. The more evidence an existing theory explains, the more difficult it becomes to devise a credible alternative. Your new theory has to thread a lot of needles.
A competing theory which offers an explanation of only one thing (an ad hoc explanation) isn’t of much use. Science is not a collection of numerous mini-explanations, each of which operates by its own unique rules, in grand isolation from all the others. One thing, considered as if it were unrelated to anything else, may have many possible explanations, and your explanation may seem as plausible as any other. But but does your theory explain all the evidence that the existing theory explains? Can it survive the same tests that the existing theory has survived? Is it consistent with other branches of science? If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” then you’re unlikely to be successful.
How not to argue against a theory:
1. Neither ignorance of, astonishment at, dislike of, nor refusal to accept an existing theory will serve as scientific objections. All such arguments are really about you, not the theory.
2. No scientist claims that he knows everything, or that he has solved all problems; and no theory has been subjected to all possible tests. Therefore, pointing out that that there are things not yet known, tests not yet made, or problems not yet solved, isn’t much of an argument. Such items routinely become the research projects of scientists and PhD candidates; the scientific journals are filled with the results of their research. That’s how science progresses. Unsolved problems are the daily work of science, and no unresolved question, by its mere existence, is a magic bullet that will bring a theory crashing down. A newly-discovered fact may indeed upset an existing theory; but a list of unknowns is inevitable. The unknown does not refute a theory. Theories explain that which is known.
3. It should be obvious that denial of verifiable facts doesn’t score any points; it just costs you credibility. And blindly copying material found at frequently discredited websites — especially their often bogus quotes from alleged experts — is intellectually vacuous and makes you appear ridiculous.
4. A theory is not disproven by pointing out occasional acts of academic misconduct, or even outright fraud. There are about five million scientists worldwide, and a few have disgraced themselves. (Similarly, a religion is not discredited because of the personal flaws of a few clergymen.) A demonstration of fraud could be a successful attack on a theory, but only if the theory can’t survive without the fraudulent material. This would amount to a contradiction of the theory, which is Method One described above. But be careful here; well-supported theories usually don’t collapse because of one faulty data point.
5. Other worthless arguments are attempts to discredit the character of individual scientists, or to quote them on unrelated topics, because such matters are irrelevant to the scientific merits of a theory. Isaac Newton was said to be an unpleasant man, and Einstein was a socialist; but the value of their scientific work is not affected by such irrelevancies.
6. Likewise, quoting opinions of people who aren’t practicing in the field is of little value, because a scientific theory isn’t about opinion — it’s about testable explanations of verifiable data.
7. Claiming that the theory somehow causes undesirable consequences — even if such claims were true — is irrelevant to the validity of the theory. Atomic theory, for example, is not discredited because of the bomb, nor is gravity discredited because someone gets tossed out of a window.
8. Claims that a scientist (like Darwin) renounced his theory are meaningless, even if true — but as with Darwin’s deathbed recantation, such tales are almost always fictitious. Galileo, however, really did renounce the solar system (when threatened with torture), yet the heliocentric solar system theory survives quite handily. A scientific theory can survive even a sincere renunciation by its originator (although no such event is known to have happened), while a religion would probably collapse under similar circumstances. This is because a scientific theory is based on objectively verifiable evidence, not the support of its founder or anyone else.
9. Claiming that your opponent’s religious views aren’t the same as yours is irrelevant in a debate about a scientific theory. Also irrelevant is claiming that you can’t harmonize your religious views with the theory. The subject under discussion is the theory, not your religion, and not your opponent’s religion. Science isn’t opposed to religion; it’s just not about religion.
See also: Creationism and the Burden of Proof.
Copyright © 2008. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.
Well said. If both creationists and sceptics followed this advice we could have a real debate and some valid points, on both sides, could be aired. Perhaps we could even come to some agreement.
Thanks for attempting to inject some civility back into the discussion. Points 4 and 5 especially are applicable to all sides of the debate.
Thanks, but I’ve got doubts that the people who need that essay will pay any attention to it. Far too many are accustomed to doing it the way they’ve always done it.
This should be required reading for all school boards across the country, as well as every student in every high school — and college!
Thanks, but it’s never going to happen.
Thank you – what a great essay 🙂 I’ll link to it as I’d like my own students to read it – it’s always good for them to hear this message again.
Thank you, alison.
Great piece. Very well done.
How does something like this get in front of those who need to read it?
Thank you. Some outfit in England asked my permission (which was granted) to put it on their site, “The Pantaneto Forum,” which “aims to promote debate on how scientists communicate, with particular emphasis on how such communication can be improved through education and a better philosophical understanding of science. ”
So maybe it’s getting seen.