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How to challenge a scientific theory

Posted at 09:00 on 12 October 2020

This is the first post in a series of three.

  1. How to challenge a scientific theory
  2. How to challenge a scientific theory, method 1: Evidence that contradicts it
  3. How to challenge a scientific theory, method 2: propose an alternative

So you are confronted with a scientific theory, such as evolution or man-made climate change, that you don't agree with. How do you respond to it?

If there's one thing that we should all agree on, no matter how old we believe the earth to be, or who or what we believe did or did not evolve from what, it is that you can't just spout any old rubbish in support of your position. It should go without saying, for example, that you can't cite mermaids as evidence for a young earth -- or indeed for anything else, for that matter. Nonsensical or easily falsified claims will just undermine your credibility.

Even the young-earth creationist organisations acknowledge this. Creation Ministries International has an entire web page listing arguments that they think creationists should not use. While they are to be commended for attempting to filter out at least some of the bad arguments, they give no guidance or underlying principles about what differentiates bad arguments from good ones. Why, for example, do YEC organisations tell us that moon dust is a bad argument, but at the same time that ocean sediment is not?

But the fact remains that science -- or, more to the point, just basic honesty -- has rules, and if you want to challenge a scientific theory without coming across as either clueless or an outright liar, you must stick to them.

In this series of posts, I will explain what a successful challenge to a scientific theory does or does not look like. First, we need to establish the basic ground rules.

1. Your account of the theory must be accurate.

The first thing that you must do is make sure that you are challenging what the theory says in reality, and not an incorrect cartoon caricature of it. Attempting to debunk something that no real scientist does or teaches is called a straw man argument, and it is a form of lying. So for example, don't start claiming that "fossils are used to date rocks and rocks are used to date fossils," and don't start describing evolution as "a cat turning into a dog" or "a cat giving birth to a dog." Stratigraphy and evolution do not work like that.

This means, for starters, that you need to understand how science works in general. Science is not intuitive; it is very mathematical and technical, very exact and rigorous. It is also very hands-on and practical, and often involves working in situations where getting scientific theory and practice wrong, even in seemingly minor ways, can have real-world consequences for which you could be held personally responsible. This gives you an understanding of science in general that you simply don't get from watching YouTube videos, reading books, or listening to sermons. It means, for starters, that you simply cannot afford to tolerate sloppy thinking, factual inaccuracy, intellectual dishonesty, or insufficient scrutiny when it comes to anything science-related.

Similarly, if you are going to claim that a theory, such as evolution, contradicts another theory, such as the Second Law of Thermodynamics, you must make sure that you have understood the other theory correctly, and that you are taking into account its limitations and preconditions. Besides ignoring the fact that the earth receives energy from the sun and then radiates it back out into space, arguments about the Second Law of Thermodynamics also ignore the fact that entropy is quantifiable. There is only one correct way to determine whether or not the Second Law of Thermodynamics contradicts the theory of evolution, and that is to do the maths.

2. Your account of the evidence must be accurate.

It should go without saying, but denial of verifiable facts will just cost you credibility. No matter how strongly you disagree with a theory, it is never acceptable to respond to it by making things up, inventing your own alternative reality, or telling outright lies.

So for example, before you claim that evidence (such as transitional fossils) does not exist, first make sure that it doesn't actually exist in reality. Anyone listening to you can type "transitional fossils" into Google on their mobile phone as you speak. You will need to have a very good explanation as to why every result that comes back is not a transitional fossil. Similarly, before claiming that something is untestable, make sure that nobody has actually proposed a test for it.

Make sure too that evidence that you cite is exactly as you describe it. Claiming that a rock formation is not fractured, when photographs exist that clearly show otherwise, is lying, especially if you yourself have visited the rock formation in question on multiple occasions. Another example where we commonly see misrepresentation is claims of soft tissue in dinosaur fossils. Make sure that you are reporting the state of the remnants accurately. Remember, for example, that fossilised skin is not actual skin, haemoglobin breakdown products are not actual haemoglobin, and tiny structures that float in a demineralising solution are not fresh dinosaur meat.

3. Your quotations must be accurate.

Before you include a juicy quote in your challenge, make sure that it accurately reflects the context from which it was originally taken.

Quote mining -- quoting scientists out of context in ways that disregard or distort the point that they were actually trying to make -- is one of the biggest mistakes that people make when trying to challenge scientific theories or methods. It is an easy trap to fall into, especially if you are approaching science as some sort of "ammunition gathering exercise." People who do it often justify it in terms of exposing the "true thoughts" of the scientists they are quoting, which they are supposedly only not admitting because they don't want to lose their jobs.

Make no mistake about this: Quote mining is lying. Even if the mined quote did represent the source's "true thoughts," this is rarely if ever spelt out explicitly, let alone justified. Many examples routinely take completely unconscionable liberties with their sources, rewording things, missing things out, or in some cases outright making things up.

One common hallmark of quote mining is a lack of transparency about where the reference actually came from. References are frequently not cited, and even when they are, the citations are often unclear. Here is an article, for example, whose nine footnotes all reference lengthy sections between 16 and 60 pages long in expensive geology textbooks. While that in itself does not necessarily mean that there is any misrepresentation going on, without access to a university library and a lot of spare time on your hands, it is very difficult to check.

If you quote anybody for any reason, always make sure that you stick to the following rules:

  1. Stick to sources that can be easily located and checked by your target audience.
  2. Provide a precise, easily accessible link or reference directly to the original.
  3. Make sure that the original says exactly what you are quoting it as saying.
  4. Make sure that the part that you are quoting accurately represents the context from which it was taken.
  5. Make sure that you are accurately describing the views of the person you are quoting. For example, be careful not to describe them as an "evolutionist" if they are actually a creationist or an ID advocate.
  6. If you do believe that you are justified in taking the quote out of context nonetheless as a representation of the source's "true thoughts," make it explicit that that is what you are doing. Acknowledge the context from which the quote was taken, and provide additional evidence to justify your claim that your extract really does represent their "true thoughts."

4. Your measurements must be accurate.

This is what the Bible has to say about measurement:

¹³Do not have two differing weights in your bag — one heavy, one light. ¹⁴Do not have two differing measures in your house — one large, one small. ¹⁵You must have accurate and honest weights and measures, so that you may live long in the land the Lᴏʀᴅ your God is giving you. ¹⁶For the Lᴏʀᴅ your God detests anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly.

Deuteronomy 25:13-16

These are not verses that you can fob off as being taken out of context. They come from a passage that consists of a number of laws and regulations concerning a variety of different aspects of life in general. In any case, even if they did have some specific contexts in mind, to argue that they only applied to some contexts but not to others would be to openly advocate lying. No, these verses apply to every context. No exceptions, no excuses.

And measurement is fundamental to science. In fact, honest and accurate weights and measures are what science is all about.

This means that if you are going to address a scientific theory, you must address them in terms of addressing the underlying measurements. Your challenge must obey the rules of measurement and mathematics.

One such rule, for example, is that measurements have error bars. Error bars are determined by taking a range of measurements and using a formula called the standard deviation to determine how tightly they cluster around the average value. This gives an indication of precisely how reliable (or unreliable) your measurement is. You cannot claim that your measuring technique is significantly more unreliable than that.

In other words, errors of just a few percent in a minority of cases do not justify claims that everything is consistently out by a factor of a million, right across the board.

So, having established the ground rules that your challenge must obey, how can you actually go about it? There are two basic ways of challenging a scientific theory, and next week we shall look at the first: providing evidence that contradicts it.

Featured image: The Pillars of Creation. Photo by NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team.