We run into a lot of circular arguments with people when basic terminology remains grossly misunderstood, so here is a quick easy break-down for anyone who ever runs into “evolution is/isn’t true” wall with other people. It’s nothing more than actually a very basic misunderstanding of scientific terminology, but in many conversations it leads to the widest possible array of incorrect claims and misunderstandings, so fundamental that it’s not even funny. Some people use a common dictionary to define words, failing to understand that in scientific community words such as ‘theory’ or ‘fact’ have very specific meaning, often completely different from what people think they normally mean.
In science, there exist such notions as Hypothesis, Theory, Evidence, Proof and Fact. Each notion has a very specific definition, and most people are unaware of such, thus twisting their understanding, in turn, of such things as the theory of evolution and what that statement actually means and implies. People talk about scientific theories but understand the terminology to mean what it means in day-to-day language use – and voila, the root of most debate.
Before I even start, please remember one all-too-common blunder that also causes much confusion (and tattoo it onto your foreheads if needed): the THEORY OF EVOLUTION does NOT address the question of HOW LIFE BEGAN on earth!!!!!!!! The theory of EVOLUTION ONLY deals with the question of HOW ALREADY EXISTENT ORGANISMS AND SPECIES CHANGE OVER TIME. If you wonder about how life on earth started – it’s called ABIOGENESIS and is a completely separate topic!
Now, back to science and evolution again: to clear this mess up once and for all, here is an explanation.
Let’s begin with the general outline of the scientific process:
1. Ask questions -> 2. Formulate hypothesis -> 3. Outline predictions -> 4. Search for evidence -> 5. Test evidence for validity -> 6. Formulate theory
Right here you can see how ‘theory‘ and ‘hypothesis‘ – often used interchangeably in common language – are extremely different notions in science. A scientific theory is actually the end product of the scientific process. And for those of you looking for the word ‘proof’ – leave that to mathematicians. In science, something is either valid or not, and science is not the realm of ‘proof’.
Now let’s walk through the scientific process. Stage 1 is easy: For example, often something is an observable phenomena – something that happens (for example, sun apparently ‘rises’ and ‘sets’ every day) or an observable fact* – something that is (some animals live in water and others on land and all of them look/act different, for example), and you wonder WHY and HOW does it do so. *(Note that ‘observable fact’ implies not ‘can be SEEN by the eyes’ – as this would be ridiculous in view of modern developments. That something IS there, however, can be ‘seen’ in many ways, using measurements and instruments of a wide range). These are two separate questions, of course, and what is particularly amazing for science is that even simplest questions often, as one sets off to answer them, lead to even more fascinating questions and discoveries. But I digress.
Stage 2 is formulating a hypothesis. A scientific hypothesis is a speculation of a sorts. For example, by looking at the rising and setting sun, one can speculate that the sun goes around the earth. Or that a sun gets born of a morning star, then slides over the sky and dies in the evening, and the next day the lonely morning star gives birth to a totally new sun. Both are hypotheses. By looking at all animals one can speculate that they were just dropped there from the sky this way. Or one may speculate that they could change over time.
Stage 3. Outlining predictions is also a guess-game stage of the process. Given all available knowledge and understanding to date, at this stage science asks IF the hypothesis is accurate, what predictions would we have to be able to make about the reality. For example, if the hypothesis that the sun is born of the morning star and dies at the end of the day, we would have to also explain what is going on on ‘the other side’ of the earth, how the sun gets born, why it dies – all of these potential explanations, in turn, need to be reflected in reality. It is basically saying “IF xyz hypothesis is valid, then all of the following MUST be true:…” A hypothesis remains such until it begins to hold up in the light of evidence and allows to make consistent predictions.
Stage 4 – searching for evidence. Evidence and type of evidence will heavily depend on the nature of the hypothesis. To put it bluntly, if I am at a crime scene and have a prime suspect (my hypothesis is “person A killed person B”), I will NOT go looking for the statistics on lottery ticket probabilities as evidence to help me resolve the case.
Stage 5 is testing the evidence for its validity. Say I find a pack of cigarettes at the crime scene and suspect A smokes the same brand – does it automatically follow that person A killed person B? No. I would have to send the pack to the laboratory to determine whether that pack carries any DNA on it or anything else that a) clearly establishes that pack even belonged to person A at any point b) was not left by person A (if it was, say, their pack) at the crime scene at a different time/occasion than when murder itself took place. In addition, was this pack maybe left by someone else to incriminate person A? Or say even person A left that pack at the crime scene at the time of the murder – does it actually prove the original hypothesis (person A killed person B)?
Evidence in science undergoes constant scrutiny. Even evidence that has been already established as valid still continues to be tested – after all, even ‘established’ evidence can turn out wrong or simply incomplete. Evidence, once it is solid (irrefutable and consistent), substantial (holds to scrutiny both within the specific branch of science and generally across disciplines), demonstrable (can be demonstrated as existent and accurate) and testable, then allows to formulate a scientific theory.
And here we come to the scariest part of them all – stage 6: formulating a theory. Scientific theory (contrary to what virtually everyone thinks this word means) is nothing but a consistent INTERPRETATION of the evidence. Or in other words an explanation of observed facts and phenomena. A theory continues to be tested and amended by constantly up-dating it through newly emerging evidence and constantly checking whether it is capable of allowing us to make consistent and confirmed predictions about reality. A scientific theory is NOT “WHAT is happening”. It is “HOW and WHY” it is happening.
Back to the (scientific, remember?) theory of evolution and my examples now, and afterwards I will address common mistakes.
In a narrow sense, keep in mind that a scientific theory is INTERPRETATION of existing FACTS. (Note: philosophical questions of whether or not anything exists, or whether we are just a dream of a butterfly are irrelevant: even in our potentially virtual ‘matrix/dream’ we have such stuff as existing objective facts and reality – existing and objective for us, in our frame of reference).
Let’s revisit the theory of cosmos first… The facts (or observable phenomena) were the existence of sky, celestial bodies, and observable patterns of movement of stars, sun, moon. A long time ago, the INTERPRETATION of all that was that earth was stationary (or at least in the middle of it all) and everything else orbited it. And that was one theory. It was in fact a theory and not a hypothesis because it actually allowed to make consistent and confirmed predictions of reality: the duration of a day, the change of seasons, the positions of celestial bodies in the skies, eclipses… However, some people (Galileo et al) had a conflicting theory based on those SAME exact facts: that earth orbits sun instead. I’m not aware of a specific culture that would interpret those facts in the exact same manner as my morning star scenario supposes, but there exist many myths personifying the sun and the sky and attributing it with birth and death, or having it eaten then spat out the next day, or having it travel to the underworld etc. ALL of these, in a scientific sense, were theories. However, in time new evidence began to emerge. The theories that could before be used to explain reality very well could not explain the newly discovered and freshly understood aspects of reality very well – if at all. Slowly, those theories have been completely invalidated by the overwhelming evidence.
In short: the same facts can be interpreted by several theories to imply completely different things. When we keep getting new facts and evidence, they inevitably support/invalidate either ones of the existing theories, or call for a formulation of totally new ones. For example, quantum theory explains the realm of sub-atomic particles – something humanity had not even a clue about up until very recently. It is thus a new theory.
That a theory is ever revised (as is the theory of evolution), it doesn’t automatically mean that the theory is “wrong“. Quite on the contrary – it is just undergoing face-lifts. Constant revision actually IS the very essence of the scientific process in action. The theory of evolution, thus, is still is the best fitting theory overall describing what happened and is happening and how. That it is adjusted all the time in light of new findings doesn’t discredit the theory – it validates it. An invalidated theory would NOT be adjusted – it would be DISCARDED.
If a theory is wrong, new evidence would inevitably stop fitting in. Copernicus ran into this problem when trying to explain earth-centered universe by other planets doing weird shit in the sky, unless my dyslexia makes me mix up the two guys again on the names… But it’s the one who tried “Music of the Spheres”, anyway… Whenever new evidence calls for theory‘s re-adjustment, it’s great – it makes the theory more complete (you remember to substitute “theory” with “interpretation/understanding” and you’ll probably not confuse it with hypothesis ever again ;)). Thus far, the most far-fetched evidence we ever got across virtually all disciplines supports the general theory of evolution. And YES, Darwin WAS wrong on many details – his tree of life was a bit off etc., etc., but this does NOT mean the process he described is invalidated in any sense – we just have better instruments nowadays than he could ever dream of.
IF we ever find any evidence that’d be way too square to fit into the circle, then we’d start elaborate testing and inquiry to figure out what it is and why it happened. So far nothing like this emerged.
There ARE, of course, many hypotheses (un-tested assumptions) that point out to potential flaws in the understanding in some respects. Those hypotheses MAY, in fact, turn out right one day – which will again then force us to alter the theory of evolution so that it is up-to-date. If enough evidence is gathered to discard the theory of evolution – we WILL. That’s the whole point of science.
Before you jump to scientific conspiracies that no one wants to ever prove something that has come to be a scientific consensus as being wrong and blah blah… You clearly know nothing of the scientific world. Anyone who can do something as bloody fundamental as, say, showing the theory of evolution is utter bullshit, or, say, prove existence of god is going to get a shitload of money and recognition for all that! It’s not just Nobel Prize, it’s freaking over-turning the entire science! In case you haven’t heard the latest superluminal neutrinos buzz – if scientific community was so fixated on keeping mum all things that go against what has been established as factual, you would NEVER get CERN specialists release their results about the neutrinos! If they were shown by consistent testing to really travel faster than light, that would turn physics onto its head and create a buzz for a few upcoming hundreds of years at the very least!
Now, back to theory of evolution: At THIS point of our history, anyone who says “evolution isn’t true” makes that same darned old mistake of confusing the theory and hypothesis: evolution is a FACT, actually. Certain processes that are KNOWN TO HAPPEN. Like genetic mutation, passing on of the genes, genetic similarities between all species, adaptations to environment, speciation etc., etc., etc., – these are FACTS. THEORY OF evolution EXPLAINS HOW those FACTS we observe have come to be.
Back to planets for a second: that we see sun rise and set, stars and planets move is a FACT.
That some people thought they orbit the earth was THEORY.
It was proven to be fully wrong and heliocentric model was adopted. We nowadays have extended that same theory (heliocentric) to knowing that orbits aren’t circular, that our solar system orbits the center of our galaxy, etc etc – but it remains essentially that same theory (non-stationary celestial bodies, and earth being one of those, rotating around something in space) albeit almost hard to recognize as such because of consistent facelifts.
This is what’s happening with theory of evolution now. What we came to call “evolution” is a series of FACTS. Which is exactly why many people wanna eat the brains of those who say evolution is or is not “true“. This is a wickedly wrong terminology and understanding: evolution simply IS THERE.
Theory of evolution (i.e. interpretation of observable FACTS) can be false. Or true. At this point, it is considered as the most accurate one we’ve got, in view of all the evidence, the facts and its supreme ability to predict consistent outcomes.
Finally, equally infuriating are the claims and questions regarding ‘believing’ in the evolution…
Wrap your head around this one, will you: whether one ‘believes’ in evolution or not has no more meaning than assuming that believing in a kitchen table or not makes it somehow change the FACT of its material EXISTENCE in objective reality…
Some misunderstanding also arises in other related domains, and I shall thus address them too:
1. Evidence vs. Proof
In everyday life, these two are often viewed as synonyms. In scientific world, they are nothing of the sorts.
Remember how in science nothing is strictly considered as “proven”? Therefore, while theories may be revised/discarded in light of new emerging evidence, the idea of “proof” in science (even though the word is, unfortunately, used very often even by scientists themselves – except they know what it actually implies in the context, unlike us laymen 🙂 ), once something is “proven” in science, it no longer undergoes any further revision and is considered impossible to disprove. (This sort of goes against the scientific premises, but I won’t go into that). When scientist use the word “proven” or “proof”, it simply means that no matter what evidence ever comes up in any field of studies, the premise in question always holds. For instance, it can be said that “earth orbits sun” is “proven” to be true… However, hypothetically it may only be a holographic illusion of earth orbiting the sun… But I digress again :).
To illustrate the point, the fact that sun disappeared every night and appeared every morning to an ancient man could be EVIDENCE of, say, my morning star scenario.
However, to equate evidence to proof would be to say that BECAUSE sun appears/disappears daily, it PROVES that morning star gives one birth every morning and it dies every evening… See?
2. Proof vs. truth/objective reality/existence
Strictly speaking, one can “prove” by means of logic, philosophy or otherwise, pretty much anything. However, that does NOT constitute as EVIDENCE of that something’s actual existence in objective reality.
Mathematically, Newton was able of constructing a proof of the theory of gravity. However, gravity ACTUALLY EXISTED before any proof, would have existed if such proof was never found, and would continue to exist even if it was “disproven” by any means. The falling apples (btw it’s a fable, just f.y.i.) are EVIDENCE of gravity.
Finally, just to throw another hot potato into the pile, some people just as in case of evolution (notice: NOT THEORY OF evolution – but evolution ITSELF 😉 ) argue about the Big Bang Theory. I do hope you now understand what it means, and if you find it hard to accept it as accurate, just like the theory of evolution it has to date confirmed all of its predictions (is consistent with observable Doppler shifts of the galaxies, radiation readings, General Relativity, so forth).
Overall, it is one of those shady areas indeed with ‘proof’.
The actual NOTION of “proof” exists in science (although scientists would say that “proofs are for math”). In very strict terms, it applies to something that has been ‘proven’ to be correct beyond any possibility of DISproving it… At such state, any further inquiry into the subject is seized… I mentioned, however, that this is an idea contradictory to the scientific premise: everything IS falsifiable or at least is to be always considered/presumed as such, and thus is constantly re-tested.
Outside of the realm of hardcore science principles, in regular speech scientists use words ‘proof’ or ‘proven’ only to mean that something had been shown consistently beyond any reasonable doubt by all evidence as correct/existing etc (depends on the nature of the original inquiry). The ‘falsifiability’, so to say, principle is still assumed. If tomorrow we all of a sudden figure something out that fully disproves gravity as an existent force, well then we’d deal with that. For the time being, however, despite the fact that we still don’t actually know wtf gravity IS, it is considered as ‘proven’ to be an actual existing force by all evidence ever gathered thus far.
In the everyday speech WE use, ‘proof’ is really easy. Say I tell you I’ve got a pet monkey. You ask to prove it. I can provide you with pictures of me and monkey at my house over time, blog entries about it, friends testimony, evidence of animal food etc in the house, receipt of purchase and so forth. I can invite you to live with me for a year and see the monkey is mine and always there :).
The type of evidence accepted by you as enough to ‘prove’ something is up to you to determine. This little point is vital in many debates. Generally speaking the more extraordinary the claim (say, I went to the North Pole vs. I went to Hungary), the more evidence you are justified in requiring before believing it (I wish pple knew this about politics too… sigh… ).
You can use the word ‘proof’ in this sense. In an argument, you would have to be careful, however, to distinguish whether you are talking about ‘proof’ as ‘enough evidence to convince ME, or ‘scientific proof’ (pardon this horrible wording, but it’s for the advancement of the better cause!) – evidence ‘enough to convince the scientific community‘. Most people confuse those two all the time and imply conflicting degree of burden as substantial for their claim in both their speech and others’… For example, my standard of proof may me at “my mom said so” (which is argument from authority, if you see the next link 😉 ), but I’m pretty sure it just wouldn’t cut with that darned scientific community :D. (Other things that won’t cut it can be found in the list of top 20 logical fallacies).
Unless otherwise stated, or ALWAYS when the specific point/subject of a debate relates to something scientifically ‘provable’ (in other words, anything for which real data and evidence can be/has been gathered), the ‘scientific proof‘ is to be presumed, unless otherwise stated. Unfortunately, standards of what is acceptable to constitute such a ‘proof’ are extremely high, and sky-rocket when it comes to anything ‘supernatural’. This doesn’t presume to DENY supernatural, but each such claim should be testable at least in theory to even discuss any claim’s probability of being ‘true’ or ‘false’ or ‘existing’ or ‘non-existing’.
A lot of misunderstanding arises when, for example, believers in some faith present something that by their subjective standards of ‘solid evidence’ is sufficient to ‘prove’ the claim as accurate, valid or even plausible. To them. All the while for atheists/scientists/skeptics of any sorts the presented ‘evidence’ is often non-substantial as ‘proof’ of the original claim. This leads to a lot of head-banging and facepalming on both sides 🙂
I sincerely hope this finally settles the confusion because if not – we have absolutely nothing to talk about when it comes to the realm of assessing reality and no way to communicate our points across to either side without distortion and major misconceptions.