What Makes a Theory ‘Scientific’?

scientific theory

There are all kinds of ‘theories’ that exist, from the philosophical to the conspiratorial – the term ‘theory’ is also used colloquially to refer to something that may be more accurately called a hypothesis, an idea not yet confirmed. Scientific theories, however, are not mere speculations about what the world is like, but frameworks that rely on certain methods and observations to add credence to claims about the world. This essay aims to clarify more definitely what constitutes a ‘scientific’ theory; how such theories are set apart from ‘unscientific’ theories. In order to do so, I will use creation science as an example, as this worldview is widely considered unscientific, which if it is, can by way of contrast, help to illuminate the defining scientific qualities of other theories.

Creation science or creationism is a creed based on the literal interpretation of Genesis in the Bible, or of the Judaeo-Christian creation story. It is much easier to define what creationism is than what we mean when we use the term ‘science.’ For example, creationism holds explicit beliefs about the natural world, about the earth’s age, the origin of species, and the arrival of human beings. To answer if creation science is really science we first need an explicit definition of science, but this is an issue because many philosophers of science disagree as to what makes a body of beliefs ‘scientific’ or what grants it the title of being a ‘theory.’ Even if I am not able to fix an exact definition to ‘science’ this does not make it impossible to distinguish between a scientific and unscientific theory.

It is clear that science contrasts with other views about the world, in astrology or religion for example. Science is supposed to contrast with such views because unlike being based on faith or folklore as in astrology or religion, it relies on evidence and experimentation in order to confirm hypotheses. Creationism, since its beginnings, has not been involved in finding evidence or conducting experiments to support its claims, but has paid more attention to criticising the theory of evolution. Any biology or anthropology professor will say Darwin’s theory of evolution is science and that creationism is not, but for the philosopher of science it is important to establish why this is the case, if at all.

Those Who Believe Creation Science is a Science

Creation science has had an interesting evolution. Since the 1920s it has been associated with Christian fundamentalism, which is a doctrine based on the literal interpretation of the Bible, where not one passage is symbolic or allegorical. This doctrine first pervaded school classrooms in the US in the 60s, in biology classes were students were taught about a world-wide flood (based on the story of Noah’s ark) and also about a young earth (6000 years old). But when the courts ruled that this went against the separation of church and state in the US Constitution, creationists changed the name of their doctrine to ‘creation science’ in order to gain scientific status.

An article in Creation magazine by Tas Walker called What Makes Us Human? highlights some of the tenets held by creationists which Walker argues are truly scientific. For example, Walker claims that “Noah’s flood is not a myth…Geologist Dr. Steve Austin has uncovered massive physical evidence revealing the magnitude of that cataclysm.” Walker makes the very salient point that the way to distinguish myth from scientific fact is with evidence. Strangely though Walker does not provide any examples of such evidence, but this is probably because no such evidence exists for a world-wide flood.

If the story of Noah’s ark were true, sea levels would have to rise to the top of Mount Everest to ensure all living creatures not on the ark were destroyed. This is not a possibility and if it did occur there would be overwhelming evidence to support it, but there is none. Walker also argues in the article that “man is distinct from the animals, created supernaturally by God.” Scientific claims rely on independent evidence for support (because anyone can look at it) but Walker appeals to the Bible for his claim (Genesis 2:7). But this then begs the question – using the Bible to support a biblical claim is not the sort of method involved in science.

In science, hypotheses are made and then methods are used to try and prove that hypothesis. This same fallacy is made when creation science claims that the world is 6000 years old. Apparently, the ages of all Old Testament characters are added up (including Adam and Eve) and this leads to the conclusion that the earth was created at 4004 B.C. Adam was supposed to have lived to be over 900 years old, but there is no archaeological evidence which suggests people ever, at any time and place, lived to be this old.

Those Who Deny Creation Science is a Science

Since the theory of evolution is opposed to creation science and its tenets, many scientists have been determined to show that creationism does not deserve scientific status. Under the new banner of ‘intelligent design’ creationists have resurrected William Paley’s argument that if something looks designed it must have a designer. In an article titled Intelligent Design? in the magazine Natural History, evolutionists reply to intelligent design theorists on why their arguments are not scientific.

For example, Robert Pennock replies to William Dembski who argues that complexity in organisms is a signature of God because natural processes could not achieve the same feat. Pennock makes it clear that “science requires positive evidence” because Dembski is defining intelligent design negatively as “anything that is not chance or necessity.” Pennock also criticises Dembski for being unscientific because he misinterprets certain laws of nature. For example, Pennock states that “Dembski’s argument boils down to a recasting of an old creationist claim that evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics.” However, this law only applies to closed systems and biological systems are open.

Eugene Scott replies to Jonathan Wells who makes similar arguments to Dembski, stating, for example, that “many features of living things appear to be designed” and goes on to say that natural selection cannot create these features because it is an undirected force. However, as Scott shows, this misses the point. Scott says that “the fit between organisms and environments is the result of natural selection. Like all scientific explanations, his [Darwin] relies on natural causation.” Creation science does not give scientific explanations because it does not rely on natural causation – saying that ‘God’ created us does not explain anything, because it does not include how ‘God’ created us, which is crucial. And because there is no room for non-natural causation in science, Scott argues, then there is no room for ‘creation science’ in science.

Wells posits that “natural explanations are inadequate” but to the contrary, studies in population genetics, in DNA analysis, and in taxonomy have revealed the amount of relatedness that all species have to each other. Strangely though, even Dembski says that intelligent design “…isn’t really, and never has been, a debate about science” but “about religion and philosophy.” Many theologians and historians of the Bible suggest that Genesis should not be taken as a scientific account because it was never intended by the authors to be a scientific account of how the earth and all living things were created. This is shown by the pre-scientific language employed by the authors.

What is Science and is There Room for ‘Creation Science’?

The debate about what science actually is has been a long-standing debate and has been most focused on greatly by Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper. They hold two diametric views; Kuhn holds that science is dogmatic and conforms to paradigms whilst Popper claims science is critical and innovative. Perhaps with Kuhn’s definition of science, there could be room for ‘creation science’, but with Popper’s, there is no room because creationism is by definition uncritical (being based on the literal interpretation of an immutable book). There may be a reason to prefer Popper’s definition, however.

Since the aim of science is to obtain as much knowledge as we can about the world, science has to be critical because being critical allows for the exchange of ideas and evidence. It is this exchange of ideas and scrutiny towards evidence that allows theories to build and knowledge to be obtained. In Science: Conjectures and Refutations, Popper states one can distinguish science from other studies by the method involved – specifically science involves an “empirical method” while subjects like astrology involve “non-empirical” methods. Creation science would seem to fall into the latter category.

Popper goes on to argue that “irrefutability is not a virtue of a theory,” or in other words, for something to be scientific it must also be falsifiable or have the potential to be proven wrong. Creation science does not possess this virtue because it holds fundamental beliefs which, by definition, can never change; nor will their proponents give them up in the face of evidence. This is why creationists never conduct experiments because as Popper argues an experiment is an “unsuccessful attempt to falsify the theory.” Popper’s aim in this essay was to distinguish the sciences from subjects like religion and by doing this ‘creation science’ would be not be classed as a science

Larry Laudan, on the other hand, has criticised Judge Overton’s Opinion, which states that creationism is not a science because it fails to commit itself to “the essential characteristics of science.” The essential characteristics include: guided by natural law; has explanatory power; is testable against the empirical world and lastly that its conclusions are tentative. Lauden retorts Judge Overton’s Opinion by pointing out that creationists “make a wide range of testable assertions” for example, that the earth is 6000 years old and about how much variability there is of species etc.

These assertions have of course been tested and have failed these tests, but arguably this failure does not make creationism any more unscientific than evolutionary theory. In addition, Lauden remarks that if you say creationists make no empirical claims then you immediately immunise them from “empirical confrontation.” Lauden goes on to assert that revisability has been evident in creationism, for example with how much more variability is allowed “at the level of species change.” A criticism of this is that some creationist claims are so fundamental (like the age of the earth) that they will never change; even there is so much evidence to the contrary.

Lauden counter-argues this by saying that a degree of fundamentalism exists in science as well. But this is hardly a fair point. Newton’s laws of motion have remained believed by scientists for hundreds of years, not because of dogmatism, but because there has been no evidence to falsify them. On natural law, Judge Overton stated that “a worldwide flood…is not the product of natural law”, but as Lauden rightly points out, something is not ‘unscientific’ just because a law has not been discovered to explain some phenomenon. It seems that whilst ‘creation science’ can satisfy some conditions because they are very general (falsifiability) it fails to satisfy the core characteristic of science – the importance laid on evidence.

Michael Ruse in his research article Creation Science Is Not Science remarks that science includes looking at laws (blind, natural regularities), giving explanations, making predictions, conducting tests, and being tentative. Ruse goes on to demonstrate how creationism fails on all five counts. World-wide floods and men made from dust do not seem to coincide with any laws of nature and this is because the flood and the creation of man are supernatural, not natural events. When Ruse asks: “why are Darwin’s finches distributed in the way that we find” the creationist is not able to explain this, but Darwin can, based on the fact that organisms are adapted to different environments.

In terms of testability, creationism has no breakthrough experiments which confirm its hypotheses, but rather its aims are to discredit the evidence for evolution. As Ruse rightly points out “Denying evolution in no way proves Creationism.” Ruse lastly establishes science to be “open to change” and claims creationism is not so cannot be scientific. However, it is questionable how tentative science really is since throughout history scientists have held onto their theories with an almost religious reverence. Even today the steady-state theory of the universe is unable to gain research funding because big bang theorists are ruthlessly dominating universities and scientific journals.

In conclusion ‘creation science’ is not a competing scientific theory to evolution because it is not a theory at all. All theories have a basis in empirical evidence and they have to have explanatory power as well – ‘creation science’ just does not possess these features. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection has simplistically explained how and why organisms evolve, whilst large masses of DNA and fossil evidence have been uncovered to support Darwin’s explanation. Furthermore, evolutionists are always critical; amendments are constantly made to the tree of life when new species arrive, for example. ‘Creation science’ is not really a science because it is not critical in this manner.

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