Only a Theory

For the discussion of the sciences. Physics problems, chemistry equations, biology weirdness, it all goes here.

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NOT Steve
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Only a Theory

Postby NOT Steve » Wed Feb 20, 2008 6:22 am UTC

http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20080219/sc_ ... orida_dc_4

So I was looking over the popular news stories on Yahoo and this caught my eye. At first I thought they were being sarcastic in some way but they appear serious. My main issue with this is that they refer to evolution being taught as "only a theory." Isn't that exactly what evolution is? The way they describe it here, it seems as though there is some other, higher realm of scientific designation that evolution has yet to achieve. Perhaps some sort of horrific supertheory? I don't see how it could fall under scientific law, like gravity. So are they being dumb, is the topic of their story being dumb, am I being dumb, or is it some wacky combination of the three?
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Re: Only a Theory

Postby Nath » Wed Feb 20, 2008 6:41 am UTC

Isn't gravity also just a theory? A darn compelling one, but still.

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Re: Only a Theory

Postby NOT Steve » Wed Feb 20, 2008 6:47 am UTC

Well, I guess it all depends on those darn scientists.
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Re: Only a Theory

Postby Likpok » Wed Feb 20, 2008 6:49 am UTC

The trouble arises from the strict scientific definition of "theory" (a falsifiable statement that has not been falsified), and the English definition of "theory" (a guess).

So you have people who misunderstand exactly what "theory" means.
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Re: Only a Theory

Postby Solt » Wed Feb 20, 2008 8:07 am UTC

The problem is that people are trying to talk about biology the same way they talk about physics, and it's a bit like comparing apples and oranges.

Evolution is not a law of the universe, it is simply something that happened once under certain conditions. If we find other life, it is likely that it will have undergone evolution as well, but nevertheless, the process will never be a fundamental property of existence like the hard physical laws.

That means we are probably going to be having this discussion for a very, very long time.
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Re: Only a Theory

Postby __Kit » Wed Feb 20, 2008 8:12 am UTC

/offtopic/ I like your avatar I remember seeing that on the rubiks cube website about a year ago I was going to use it for something...
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Re: Only a Theory

Postby ArmonSore » Wed Feb 20, 2008 10:27 am UTC

How is gravity a theory? It's an observable physical phenomena!
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Re: Only a Theory

Postby ConMan » Wed Feb 20, 2008 11:08 am UTC

I would go a little further than Likpok, and say it's a misunderstanding between theory and Theory. The first, "theory", refers to an idea someone has had but has no proof for, and is often prefixed with "I have a" or "crackpot". The second, "Theory", is a scientific concept referring to a hypothesis that has been subjected to both experimental and theoretical scrutiny, and found to be sound and consistent with the known data and previously accepted Theories and Laws. In the scientific world, the first type of "theory" would be more accurately referred to (depending on how generous you're being) as a "hypothesis", "crazy idea", "lunatic notion", or "utter bollocks".
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Re: Only a Theory

Postby BlackSails » Wed Feb 20, 2008 1:24 pm UTC

ArmonSore wrote:How is gravity a theory? It's an observable physical phenomena!


The idea that the force between two objects is proportional to their masses and the invervse of the square of the distance between is a theory.

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Re: Only a Theory

Postby parallax » Wed Feb 20, 2008 1:33 pm UTC

ArmonSore wrote:How is gravity a theory? It's an observable physical phenomena!


What I don't understand is why people don't think evolution is an observable physical phenomena. The fossil record is fairly impressive in this regard.
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Re: Only a Theory

Postby Steve » Wed Feb 20, 2008 1:34 pm UTC

The best way to explain it to people who bring up this "its just a theory" stuff is to explain the difference between inductive and deductive logic as a method of analogy.
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Re: Only a Theory

Postby Karrion » Wed Feb 20, 2008 1:59 pm UTC

Solt wrote:Evolution is not a law of the universe


Actually it really is. Anytime you have self replicating entities, where the copying process occasionally makes changes*, and an environment that can change, you're going to get evolution.

In addition to people not understanding the word 'theory', a lot also misunderstand 'theory of evolution', which is really short for 'the theory of evolution by means of natural selection' - evolution itself is an observed fact, the theory part is that natural selection is the way it happens.

* and if the copying process can't make changes, then they'll die out if their environment changes, which it eventually will.

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Re: Only a Theory

Postby Ended » Wed Feb 20, 2008 2:23 pm UTC

The panel includes the word "evolution" in state science standards for the first time, but it is relegated to a place among a host of ideas, including Albert Einstein's theory of relativity. By contrast Isaac Newton's law of gravity is taught as undisputed fact.

I think this paragraph makes it clear that either the journalist or the Board of Education don't know what they're talking about.
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Re: Only a Theory

Postby evilbeanfiend » Wed Feb 20, 2008 2:28 pm UTC

Karrion wrote:In addition to people not understanding the word 'theory', a lot also misunderstand 'theory of evolution', which is really short for 'the theory of evolution by means of natural selection' - evolution itself is an observed fact, the theory part is that natural selection is the way it happens.


the usual part that people point out as being 'only a theory' is speciation by natural selection, evolution by natural selection can be observed pretty easily
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Re: Only a Theory

Postby Robin S » Wed Feb 20, 2008 2:31 pm UTC

Which is interesting, because speciation has also been observed, has it not?
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Re: Only a Theory

Postby evilbeanfiend » Wed Feb 20, 2008 2:36 pm UTC

yes i believe so, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speciation ... speciation
but who wants to let the facts get in the way of theological debate?
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Re: Only a Theory

Postby SU3SU2U1 » Wed Feb 20, 2008 3:51 pm UTC

I believe that I can go with Stephen Jay Gould, and say that its BOTH a theory and a fact. The observation that species change over time IS observed/empirical fact/physical law, etc. The whole edifice of natural selection, mutation, etc is a theory designed to explain that fact/law.
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Re: Only a Theory

Postby Interactive Civilian » Wed Feb 20, 2008 5:09 pm UTC

Solt wrote:Evolution is not a law of the universe, it is simply something that happened once under certain conditions. If we find other life, it is likely that it will have undergone evolution as well, but nevertheless, the process will never be a fundamental property of existence like the hard physical laws.
Once?

I think I understand what you are getting at, i.e. evolution has only been observed to happen on one planet known to support life as we understand it. However, "once" sounds like a very dangerous term to use here. Evolution happens every time an organism reproduces and has a viable offspring.

Anyway, evolution is a fact (i.e. organisms change). The mechanisms behind evolution are theory (natural selection being the leading theory). Just like gravity is a fact (i.e. masses are attracted to each other). The mechanisms behind gravity are theory (apologies for being fuzzy, but things like the idea of the graviton, matter shaping space/time, etc.).

Since the theory of evolution is pretty much the basis for modern biology, to me, the idea of disputing evolution is the same as discrediting every branch of biology.

I find it interesting (to me) that I have become MUCH more careful about my use of the words theory (a strong hypotheis that has not been falsified over many, many tests), hypothesis (a falsifiable statement based on observation), and conjecture (an idea not based on empirical observation and/or not falsifiable). I look at it this way:

Evolution through natural selection: Theory - it is the strongest thing we have, and hasn't been falsified, though, arguably, artificial selection can be a factor (depends on how you want to define natural... look at the difference between modern dogs and modern wolves)

The number of mosquitoes in a given area is dependent on the amount of water in a given area: Hypothesis - I have observed in Bangkok that there are more mosquitoes near canals than away from them. Experimentation and more observation is needed to solidify or falsify this.

There is an invisible pink unicorn which controls the outcomes of my decisions living in my closet: Conjecture - (I would rather call it irrationality at best) There is no observational data behind this idea. It is based on what feels right. Perhaps similar to the idea of "objects of different mass will fall at a significantly different rate"... until you actually base this on something other than "common sense" it is conjecture).

To put it simply:
Evolution is a fact.
Evolution through natural selection is a theory.
Evolution through sunspot activity could be a hypothesis (easily falsifiable: show evolution happening regardless of sunspot activity)
Evolution through intelligent design / some guiding unmeasurable presence is conjecture (it cannot be falsified and is not based on observation).

That is how I see it. Anyone more knowledgeable than I, please correct my mistakes.
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Re: Only a Theory

Postby leigao84 » Wed Feb 20, 2008 5:59 pm UTC

ArmonSore wrote:How is gravity a theory? It's an observable physical phenomena!


But so is evolution, it's also an observable phenomena. People just fail to logically observe it when the conclusion violates their pre-existing conclusions of how the universe works.

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Re: Only a Theory

Postby Sir_Elderberry » Thu Feb 21, 2008 12:09 am UTC

I've decided every creationist I meet is being forwarded to talkorigins.org

Should they still be a creationist/IDer afterwards, well, there's nothing I can do.
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Re: Only a Theory

Postby Charlie! » Fri Feb 22, 2008 3:04 am UTC

ArmonSore wrote:How is gravity a theory? It's an observable physical phenomena!

It's both. There's a fact of gravity, the fact that things fall, but there's also the theory of gravity, which is the framework of ideas that tries to explain the fact of gravity.

Similarly there's the fact of evolution: living things adapt over generations in a specific way. Then there's the theory of evolution, which is the framework of ideas that tries to explain the fact of evolution.


This is in part why it's bad when people mix up their definitions of theory (discussing evolution is a scientific context and the definition appropriate for that context should be used, etc.). In a scientific context, evolution happening can be a fact, and there can also be a theory explaining this fact. Using the wrong definition implies that evolution doesn't happen by implicitly stating that evolution is a theory RATHER than a fact.
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Re: Only a Theory

Postby akashra » Fri Feb 22, 2008 4:18 am UTC

parallax wrote:
ArmonSore wrote:How is gravity a theory? It's an observable physical phenomena!


What I don't understand is why people don't think evolution is an observable physical phenomena. The fossil record is fairly impressive in this regard.

I don't even understand why people need to cite fossils. We've seen evolution in many species. Small birds in forests have been observed to change - where they previously had short beaks they now have long beaks which allow them to break through and chip away at trees; bacteria we always see evolving, particularly when we try (and fail) to use drugs and antibiotics against them.
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Re: Only a Theory

Postby diotimajsh » Fri Feb 22, 2008 4:42 am UTC

akashra wrote:I don't even understand why people need to cite fossils. We've seen evolution in many species. Small birds in forests have been observed to change - where they previously had short beaks they now have long beaks which allow them to break through and chip away at trees; bacteria we always see evolving, particularly when we try (and fail) to use drugs and antibiotics against them.

I agree. However, anti-evolutionists at that point will often make a distinction between microevolution and macroevolution--minor adapation within a species versus the kind of evolution where a species alters in a more drastic and fundamental way. They can then admit that the existence of microevolution is incontrovertible, while denying that we have any real evidence of macroevolution.
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Re: Only a Theory

Postby schmiggen » Fri Feb 22, 2008 4:51 am UTC

Another problem that comes up when people make a distinction between micro- and macro-evolution is that proponents of this view will often (manipulatively, or naively?) suggest that anything more than what they would call micro-evolution would immediately imply that, for example, cats can and might already have evolved directly into birds. (directly meaning in like... a few generations, not billions of generations and lots oftime... which I'm not sure would necessarily happen, but meh)
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Re: Only a Theory

Postby 0xDEADBEEF » Fri Feb 22, 2008 4:59 am UTC

parallax wrote:What I don't understand is why people don't think evolution is an observable physical phenomena. The fossil record is fairly impressive in this regard.


Didn't you know? Jaysus put the fossils there, to confuse the unbelievers! (and logically, how can you completely refute that argument?)

I've lived and worked among those people. They don't really believe that crap any more than you do. They just say it just to be "Christ-ier" than the next guy, "Hey *I* believe in something so ridiculous that it proves I'm religious.

The more moderate Christians usually believe that God created the Heavens and the Earth, and that the physical evidence seems to indicate that Evolution is the method that he used. Which of course is also impossible to logically refute, but at least I don't feel the overpowering urge to point and laugh!

Oh, by the way, the Onion has a good article on the very topic of the "Theory of Gravity:"
Evangelical Scientists Refute Gravity With New 'Intelligent Falling' Theory

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Re: Only a Theory

Postby mehmattski » Fri Feb 22, 2008 6:00 am UTC

0xDEADBEEF wrote:
parallax wrote:What I don't understand is why people don't think evolution is an observable physical phenomena. The fossil record is fairly impressive in this regard.


Didn't you know? Jaysus put the fossils there, to confuse the unbelievers! (and logically, how can you completely refute that argument?)

I've lived and worked among those people. They don't really believe that crap any more than you do. They just say it just to be "Christ-ier" than the next guy, "Hey *I* believe in something so ridiculous that it proves I'm religious.

The more moderate Christians usually believe that God created the Heavens and the Earth, and that the physical evidence seems to indicate that Evolution is the method that he used. Which of course is also impossible to logically refute, but at least I don't feel the overpowering urge to point and laugh!

Oh, by the way, the Onion has a good article on the very topic of the "Theory of Gravity:"
Evangelical Scientists Refute Gravity With New 'Intelligent Falling' Theory


I have no problem with these religious beliefs about the origin of life, per se. To each his (misguided) own.

But don't teach my children fairy tales in public school science class. Teach them science in public school science class. Teach them the scientific method and the real meaning of the words "theory," "hypothesis," and "logic." Teach them how we use observations to refute hypothesis that break down theories (or support hypothesis that hold up theories). Teach them that deductive reasoning has lifted and will continue to lift mankind to untold heights of understanding.

As noted in another thread- there is irrefutable evidence that Darwinian natural selection happens. There is an overwhelming body of evidence from multiple lines of argument that support the mechanism of speciation through natural selection. The only thing we need is time. And we've had, to an accuracy of 3 million years, 4.54 billion years of Earth on which to evolve. There are no irreducible complexities, only blind watchmakers.

Evolution by common decent, natural selection, and random genetic drift created all the life on earth. I know this to be true, and others can disagree. But please, for the sake of children and civilization, keep that disagreement out of the public science classroom.

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Re: Only a Theory

Postby Grumpy Code Monkey » Fri Feb 22, 2008 11:52 pm UTC

Interactive Civilian wrote:To put it simply:
Evolution is a fact.
Evolution through natural selection is a theory.
Evolution through sunspot activity could be a hypothesis (easily falsifiable: show evolution happening regardless of sunspot activity)
Evolution through intelligent design / some guiding unmeasurable presence is conjecture (it cannot be falsified and is not based on observation).


That's brilliant.

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Re: Only a Theory

Postby OneFish » Sat Feb 23, 2008 2:51 am UTC

The fundamental problem here is that scientific types try to argue with religious types as if those folks can ever really understand or play fairly. While we discuss the meaning of the word theory and the specifics of the theory (whatever the fuck that means) at hand, the opponents are having a good laugh because they really couldn't care less about the understanding we seek. They have their own narrow view of the world and for some reasons of insecurity or blind fear they are on a mission to wipe us out. Our ramblings about uncertainty in our own view of the exact meaning of the observations is a sure sign to them that we are wrong and weak, not that we are open-minded and inquisitive. Play the game their way and they win.

Science is the quest for understanding through the hunting and exposing of facts. The enemy's game is political. And sorry, yes, they are the enemy.

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Re: Only a Theory

Postby Firnagzen » Sat Feb 23, 2008 3:04 pm UTC

OneFish wrote:Science is the quest for understanding through the hunting and exposing of facts.


Not quite. Science is the quest for understanding through the hunting and exposing of past mistakes and unanswered questioned. Eg. Newton's law of gravity was wrong, and was kicked out by Einstein. Einstein may be kicked out be a new theory. Or here's my favourite: Gravity is a force exerted on mass, so mass is _____ exerted on _______?

In any case, there IS a reason that they're called science lessons, not who-wants-to-leave-their-imprints-on-tender-young-minds-class, yes?
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Re: Only a Theory

Postby OneFish » Sat Feb 23, 2008 7:24 pm UTC

Firnagzen wrote:
OneFish wrote:Science is the quest for understanding through the hunting and exposing of facts.


Not quite. Science is the quest for understanding through the hunting and exposing of past mistakes and unanswered questioned. Eg. Newton's law of gravity was wrong, and was kicked out by Einstein. Einstein may be kicked out be a new theory. Or here's my favourite: Gravity is a force exerted on mass, so mass is _____ exerted on _______?

In any case, there IS a reason that they're called science lessons, not who-wants-to-leave-their-imprints-on-tender-young-minds-class, yes?


Not to put too fine a point on it, past mistakes are generally recognized when facts, new or already know, seem to contradict accepted theory.

Also, I wouldn't say that Newton's theory of gravity is wrong any more than classical mechanics is wrong. They are just models that work in a constrained setting, outer layers of the infinite onion as it were.

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Re: Only a Theory

Postby 4=5 » Sat Feb 23, 2008 8:27 pm UTC

Solt wrote:The problem is that people are trying to talk about biology the same way they talk about physics, and it's a bit like comparing apples and oranges.

Evolution is not a law of the universe, it is simply something that happened once under certain conditions. If we find other life, it is likely that it will have undergone evolution as well, but nevertheless, the process will never be a fundamental property of existence like the hard physical laws.

That means we are probably going to be having this discussion for a very, very long time.

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Re: Only a Theory

Postby gryphonguy » Mon Feb 25, 2008 11:44 pm UTC

BlackSails wrote:
ArmonSore wrote:How is gravity a theory? It's an observable physical phenomena!


The idea that the force between two objects is proportional to their masses and the invervse of the square of the distance between is a theory.



I believe that that is a law. The how gravity works is the theory part. Laws espouse facts; theories tell why or something does it.

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Re: Only a Theory

Postby antonfire » Tue Feb 26, 2008 12:48 am UTC

*sigh*

It is only a theory that "the force between two objects is proportional to their masses and the invervse of the square of the distance between". Hell, it's a false theory. A pretty good approximation, but wrong.

Anything involving defined terms like "force" is a theory. The idea that there is such a thing as a "force" is a theory. It gives us a good mathematical model for how things behave, but what is a "force", really? What's "velocity", what's "acceleration", what's "mass"? These are all defined terms, things that happen to be useful in a mathematical model of the world. The idea that gravity is a force is part of Newton's theory of gravitation. Notably, it's not part of Einstein's. So, whether it's a force or not is really a matter of interpretation. It's not even a fact that gravity is a force, so it's certainly not a fact that it's a force that's proportional to the masses of two objects and the inverse of the square of the distance between them.

We're all so used to the mathematical descriptions of things that we often make the mistake of equating them with the things themselves.
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Re: Only a Theory

Postby 0xDEADBEEF » Tue Mar 11, 2008 5:57 pm UTC

This post had objectionable content.

This is not the forum for religious flaming.

Suffice it to say that I don't believe in Christianity.

That's all my post really said, anyway.
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Re: Only a Theory

Postby Yakk » Tue Mar 11, 2008 7:07 pm UTC

Charlie! wrote:
ArmonSore wrote:How is gravity a theory? It's an observable physical phenomena!

It's both. There's a fact of gravity, the fact that things fall,


Um, "things fall" is only a "theory". The next time you drop something it might not fall -- you can't prove that things will always fall. You can't even prove that your memory of things falling is accurate!

Sure, it is a "theory" with a slightly stronger basis than the "Newtonian Theory of Gravity", which deals with "small" masses over "long" distances attracting each other with force Gm1m2/r^2. (The "small" and "long" deal with the relativistic edges of the Newtonian theory).

but there's also the theory of gravity, which is the framework of ideas that tries to explain the fact of gravity.

Similarly there's the fact of evolution: living things adapt over generations in a specific way. Then there's the theory of evolution, which is the framework of ideas that tries to explain the fact of evolution.


Both are theories in the same sense. The "Theory of Evolution" is a theory about as much as any other "fact" you know is a theory. Science uses "Theory" with the capital to refer to a set of proposals about the way things are that has yet to be proven wrong or demonstrated to contain redundant assumptions.

"facts" just refer to observations that have less structure than "Theories". :)
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Re: Only a Theory

Postby ThomasS » Tue Mar 11, 2008 7:49 pm UTC

I think it is important to understand that scientific theories aren't absolute, but they do tend to be useful, and this is, in some sense, the important thing.

F=ma doesn't quite work in general relatively, or at least it only works after you redefine m, a, and the definition of time. So Newton was wrong. Einstein found a correction. However, huge portions of engineering and other fields start with a basic understanding of newton's law. It binds huge swaths of physics and engineering together.

Similarly, there are aspects of evolution, both macro and micro scaled, which are still under active research. There is still refinement going on in understanding how and when it happens. However, huge portions of biology start with a basic understanding of evolution. it binds huge swaths of biology together.

The statement "God did it all" only binds things together in a rather superficial sense, it doesn't seem to make it easier to organize physics or biology. For me personally, it comes down to a version of Occam's razor. "The best explanation is the simplest one that would predict what has previously been observed." You have to start somewhere, and i would claim (philosophically, not scientifically) that experience has shown that Occam's razor tends to work. When you then use experiments to form a sort of feedback loop, it works even better.

Now, even without experimental tests, the statement "It is God's will" would not help you predict, even in theory, the results of the Michelson-Morley experiment or the existence of ring species. So it isn't even in the running.

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Re: Only a Theory

Postby Garm » Tue Mar 11, 2008 8:06 pm UTC

Firnagzen wrote:
OneFish wrote:Science is the quest for understanding through the hunting and exposing of facts.


Not quite. Science is the quest for understanding through the hunting and exposing of past mistakes and unanswered questioned. Eg. Newton's law of gravity was wrong, and was kicked out by Einstein. Einstein may be kicked out be a new theory. Or here's my favourite: Gravity is a force exerted on mass, so mass is _____ exerted on _______?

In any case, there IS a reason that they're called science lessons, not who-wants-to-leave-their-imprints-on-tender-young-minds-class, yes?


Einstein didn't prove Newton wrong. I think that's a common misconception. Einstein proved Newton to be correct except in the cases of the very very fast or the very very small. Neither case was really of any import to Newton so the poor man can't blamed for his failures to account for traveling the speed of light and whatnot.

I mean... before Einstein, Newtonian mechanics was essentially just "formulas shit that observably works". Einstein was able to open up the door so we could say "here's why"
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Re: Only a Theory

Postby skeptical scientist » Tue Mar 11, 2008 9:08 pm UTC

Garm wrote:Einstein didn't prove Newton wrong. I think that's a common misconception. Einstein proved Newton to be correct except in the cases of the very very fast or the very very small. Neither case was really of any import to Newton so the poor man can't blamed for his failures to account for traveling the speed of light and whatnot.

I mean... before Einstein, Newtonian mechanics was essentially just "formulas shit that observably works". Einstein was able to open up the door so we could say "here's why"

No, Einstein really did prove Newton wrong. He proved that the Newton's laws do not, in fact, correctly describe reality. However, they provide an extremely accurate approximation to reality under a wide range of circumstances, and are therefore extremely useful. I don't think anyone blames Newton for being wrong about this - he was undeniably brilliant, and saw further into the nature of reality than anyone who came before. If people who came after him saw further, it was only because they were standing on Newton's shoulders.
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Re: Only a Theory

Postby Blubb3r3ng3l » Tue Mar 11, 2008 11:57 pm UTC

The channer in me finds it very difficult not to troll the living hell out of this thread, but I promised myself a new start when I came here...

The TOPIC is whether or not the person was reading it wrong. I agree with the OP, it seems to me like it has been edited in a fashion to suggest there is a higher degree of agreement than theory. Not really. Theory is science's way of saying 'it's the effing best we got. Try to disprove it, we'll love it if you do, and it stands up to testing". Evolution is to biology what thermodynamics is to physics (though my math roomate seems to disagree... but I'm proving a point here damnit), or plate tectonics is to geology. It's dogma, it's the founding principle upon which it is all based. To me, there is no higher ground, but that doesn't mean that it is 'sacred'. The man who disproves IN A SCIENTIFIC AND REPEATABLE MANNER the theory of evolution will be lauded as one of the greatest biologists of all time. It WOULD be accepted, and biologists would say 'Well, evolution was the best thing we had going, but this is clearly more truthful.'

I don't think that will happen, and it won't be held on a higher 'platform' as appears to be suggested by the author, but yeah... I read the article in the same way that you did.
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Re: Only a Theory

Postby Firnagzen » Wed Mar 12, 2008 9:27 am UTC

Blubb3r3ng3l wrote:Theory is science's way of saying 'it's the effing best we got. Try to disprove it, we'll love it if you do, and it stands up to testing".


Yes. So just about everything is 'just a theory'- But 'theory', in this case is a solid statement, that's based on the best information and logic that we can come up with.
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