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Monday, March 5, 2007

Scientific Semantics

Being a skeptic, it often troubles me how many Americans reject such carefully tested theories as evolution through natural selection or the Big Bang. There is so much data to verify these theories that it is mind-boggling to me that someone would choose to ignore them. Until recently, I have blamed this phenomenon on ignorance and confusion. I heard people say evolution was "just a theory" as though it were merely a hunch or a guess, no better or worse than any other. This, of course, is not at all what scientists mean by the word "theory." They mean a clear, usually simple, explanation for gathered observations that is both predictive and falsifiable. The general public simply doesn't grasp this.

Recently, however, it occurs to me that certain chunks of the scientific community are not practicing what they preach. Consider the present predicament in physics. There have been no major advancements in the understanding of physics in thirty years, except for possibly the discovery that neutrinos have mass. Instead, the vast majority of the theoretical community are plugging away at string theory or M theory or some other background-dependent scheme that as beautiful and elegant as it may be, has not been supported by any experiment thus far, nor likely to be in the future. Instead, the theories (because there are something like 10^1500 of them) hide just out of reach. That's not the way it is supposed to be. Either it agrees with experiment or it doesn't, and if it doesn't, we throw it out. The music of the spheres theory of planetary orbits was elegant as well. Beauty doesn't keep something from being wrong.

So we can't expect the general public to understand what constitutes a theory if our own scientific priesthood is breaking the rules to suit their own needs. It's just bad science.

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