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Only a theory
Thread poster: Oliver Walter

Oliver Walter  Identity Verified
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Dec 14, 2013

In Richard Dawkins' book "The greatest show on earth - The evidence for evolution" he presents 2 definitions of the word "theory" (from the Oxford English Dictionary) and points out that creationists (evolution deniers) implicitly use the wrong one when they talk about the theory of evolution and say it is "only a theory".

The 2 definitions are:
1. Theory, sense 1: A scheme or system of ideas or statements held as an explanation or account of a group of facts or phenomena; a hypothesis that has been confirmed or established by observation or experiment, and is propounded or accepted as accounting for the known facts; a statement of what are held to be the general laws, principles, or causes of something known or observed.
2. Theory, sense 2: A hypohthesis proposed as an explanation; hence, a mere hypothesis, speculation, conjecture; an idea or set of ideas about something; an individual view or notion.

The theory of evolution is, of course, a theory in sense 1, but creationists treat it as though it were a theory in sense 2.
My question is: do other languages use the same word to represent both these senses of the English word "theory" and therefore allow creationists the same opportunity to cause confusion or mislead?

Oliver


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Riccardo Schiaffino  Identity Verified
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Yes, and no Dec 14, 2013

1) Yes, other languages have the two different meanings of the word theory, e.g., ”teoria dell’evoluzione”, “teoria della relatività” in Italian, v. “Questa è solo una teoria, ma...”.

2) No, the presence of the two meanings for the word “theory” does not cause problems, as creationism, intelligent design and other such peculiar way of thinking are either very rare or unknown outside certain English-speaking countries.


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Heinrich Pesch  Identity Verified
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I think so Dec 14, 2013

At least in Finnish and German the same kind of confusion is used by creationists. They never use "hypothesis" in its proper place. In politics there are many such confusions about words, and politicians all the time create new cases.

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Erik Freitag  Identity Verified
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Same definitions in German Dec 14, 2013

German uses the same both definitions (haven't looked it up, though). While creationists could use this for their purposes in German as well, I agree with Riccardo: It doesn't happen, because there aren't any of them here (at least not in any significant number, and if there were, they wouldn't be taken seriously).

In a similar way though, I have heard this argument ("it's just a theory") when discussing matters of science (namely Physics) with friends.



[Bearbeitet am 2013-12-14 09:30 GMT]


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Marijke Singer  Identity Verified
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Creationists Dec 14, 2013

Oliver Walter wrote:

The 2 definitions are:
1. Theory, sense 1: A scheme or system of ideas or statements held as an explanation or account of a group of facts or phenomena; a hypothesis that has been confirmed or established by observation or experiment, and is propounded or accepted as accounting for the known facts; a statement of what are held to be the general laws, principles, or causes of something known or observed.
2. Theory, sense 2: A hypohthesis proposed as an explanation; hence, a mere hypothesis, speculation, conjecture; an idea or set of ideas about something; an individual view or notion.

Oliver

Let me play devil's advocate (how appropriate or not).
Creationists would argue that their theory is in sense 1 of the word while the theory of evolution is not a theory as in sense 1 because it contradicts their theory, ergo, it must not be true and mere conjecture.
It is the same logic as with
Sheep live on the Falkland Islands.
Fraser lives on the Falkland Islands.
Therefore, Fraser is a sheep.


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Vitals  Identity Verified
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Politics Dec 14, 2013

Right.

When I taught at the Faculty of Physics a few years ago we watched this short video (as it was just brand new) and I think it was fair when professor Brian Cox - one of the main LHC men - put it like this while talking about the Big Bang story:

"...IF YOU BELIEVE THE SCIENTIFIC CREATION STORY..."

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OAAp4aZugtI (6:10 min spot)

I think people of such caliber are sometimes quite fair in admitting this is not a theory, but a story or hypothesis - something to believe in, just like some choose to believe in Santa Claus.


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Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
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Afrikaans Dec 14, 2013

Oliver Walter wrote:
Richard Dawkins ... presents 2 definitions of the word "theory" (from the Oxford English Dictionary) and points out that creationists (evolution deniers) implicitly use the wrong one when they talk about the theory of evolution and say it is "only a theory".


But before I get to Afrikaans, let's talk about the basis of Richard's ideas:

1. First, we have to acknowledge that the purpose of most dictionaries is not to provide exact definitions that can be relied on for scientific purposes (such as this discussion) but to provide an explanation about how a word or phrase is currently used or about what it could possibly mean. The lexicographer (dictionary writer) found that the word "theory" was used in literature in a number of ways, and he tried to describe those ways.

2. Second, let's look at some other English dictionary's entry. [Unfortunately Cambridge's online entry format gives all meanings in one sentence, followed by examples for those meanings, without explicitly saying which example is an example of which meaning, but they are listed in the same sequence, so we can be fairly certain which refers to which.] This is what Cambridge says:

theory - noun
1. a formal statement of the rules on which a subject of study is based (e.g. economic theory, scientific theory)
2. [a formal statement ] of ideas that are suggested to explain a fact or event (e.g. Darwin's theory of evolution)
3. more generally, an opinion or explanation (e.g. a theory that a hole was caused by a meteorite)

So you see, Cambridge's explanation is closer to that of the creationists than Oxford's. Oxford seems to distinguish between only two meanings, namely Cambridge's #1 and #2 combined, and Cambridge's #3.

Why, I ask, do we say "economic theory" but not "evolution theory" or "evolving theory"? Why do even scientists use the phrasing "theory of" for evolution, which is the same phrasing generally used in the scientific world for experimentially evaluated hypotheses? Could it be that Oxford's lexicographer is not sufficiently precise for the purpose of our discussion, and that in the world of science the word "theory" actually does mean two different things in the expressions "theory of evolution" and "economic theory"?

3. Thirdly, having grown up among creationists myself, I know that most creationists who use the phrasing "it's just a theory" actually mean it in the scientific sense. If you suspect that broken vase is broken because the cat knocked it over, you can say "well, it's just a theory", but when you say "evolution is just a theory", you won't mean "it's just a theory" in the same sense. For creationists, a scientific "theory" is simply a hypothesis that you can be more certain about than the hypothesis that you would explicitly call a "hypothesis".

It is a fact that the army of X destroyed the army of Y in the year 1234 B.C., but it is a theory that they won the battle because of their superiour weaponry, even if we know for a fact that they had superior weaponry and we can't think of any other reason why they could have won the battle. So we teach our children in school that X destroyed Y because of superior weaponry, because we don't care about whether it is fact or actually just a theory. But if you were from a country that assosiated with army Y, and you feel strongly about this, wouldn't you want the school history book to be a little more honest about it? So, I can understand why e.g. Biblical creationists are always up in arms about school books that say "evolution is a fact".

4. Added: Oh, and fourthly, let's not forget that a bunch of quacks in one of the English-speaking countries of the world have adopted the word "creationism" as "their" word for something very specific that is not generic creationism, and that much of what you read about "creationism" in e.g. Wikipedia is about those quacks and not about mainstream creationism... because the Wikipedia editors who have hijacked the evolution and creationism articles believe that the quackery from their own country is "mainstream".

My question is: do other languages use the same word to represent both these senses of the English word "theory" and therefore allow creationists the same opportunity to cause confusion or mislead?


And now, for Afrikaans.

It's a difficult question to answer, because most Afrikaans people are creationists (in the general sense, not the American "scientific creationism" quackery sense). So you would expect what the dictionary says to be coloured or clouded by the lexicographer's own beliefs (but that is true for all languages and all dictionaries).

a. The Afrikaans HAT5 dictionary says (in Afrikaans):

theory:
1. Maxims of a [field of] science to explain observed facts or phenomenon.
2. Representation in one's mind without taking the reality into account or before the reality is taken into account.

b. What's more, the word used for "theory of evolution" in the Afrikaans HAT5 dictionary back-translates not to "theory of evolution" but to "evolution ideology" or "evolution teaching" (note that the Afrikaans word used for "ideology" here is a neutral word, not a negative or judgmental word). A word that back-translates to "evolution theory" is given as a second option, but the first option is the word that back-translates to "evolution ideology".

What this does is it compartmentalises (?) evolutionism into something that is not part of the general public's everyday life but something that belongs in scientific study, along with other scientific things like black holes and distant galaxies.

c. In Afrikaans, we would generally not use an expression that back-translates to "it's just a theory" when we talk about something that is not specifically a scientific theory. The expression that is used for "it's just a theory" in the cat-and-vase sense in Afrikaans back-translates to "I suspect it is so" or "I have a sneaky suspicion that this had happened". So, in that sense, Afrikaans offers less of an opportunity for malicious creationists to mislead the public though the use of common, everyday expressions.

Samuel



[Edited at 2013-12-14 11:26 GMT]

[Edited at 2013-12-14 11:37 GMT]


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Erik Freitag  Identity Verified
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Arguing with creationists Dec 14, 2013

Marijke Singer wrote:

Oliver Walter wrote:

The 2 definitions are:
1. Theory, sense 1: A scheme or system of ideas or statements held as an explanation or account of a group of facts or phenomena; a hypothesis that has been confirmed or established by observation or experiment, and is propounded or accepted as accounting for the known facts; a statement of what are held to be the general laws, principles, or causes of something known or observed.
2. Theory, sense 2: A hypohthesis proposed as an explanation; hence, a mere hypothesis, speculation, conjecture; an idea or set of ideas about something; an individual view or notion.

Oliver


Creationists would argue that their theory is in sense 1 of the word while the theory of evolution is not a theory as in sense 1 because it contradicts their theory, ergo, it must not be true and mere conjecture.


I'd be surprised if creationists would argue with you on the (for them) very thin ice of this definition. They can very easily be disproved. Creationism clearly is not a theory in sense 1, as it is has not "been confirmed or established by observation or experiment", while the theory of evolution is. In fact, being „confirmed or established by observation or experiment“ is one of the main differences between science and belief (another important one being that science is open to change its view, if observation or experiment ask for it, while belief tends to be absolute and undisputable.)

A creationist will need a different line of "argument", for example discrediting the theory of evolution as a "mere hypothesis ..." in the way Oliver describes it.



[Bearbeitet am 2013-12-14 11:39 GMT]

[Bearbeitet am 2013-12-14 11:42 GMT]


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LilianNekipelov  Identity Verified
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I don't personally think the creationists' is a theory, but rather a belief. Dec 14, 2013

The theory of evolution (in the first sense of the meaning) is just a theory in the second sense of the meaning, since it has never been proven well enough.I personally think the truth is somewhere in between: a sort of evolution -- perhaps, but not the way it has been conventionally described.

As to the similarity of the two meanings of "theory" in other languages -- I think it is similar in Polish -- both meanings.

[Edited at 2013-12-14 12:05 GMT]


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Oliver Walter  Identity Verified
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More definitions; not proven well enough? Dec 14, 2013

I probably didn't make it clear enough: Dawkins wrote, just before stating those 2 definitions: "The Oxford English Dictionary gives two meanings (actually more, but these are the two that matter here)."
LilianBNekipelo wrote:
The theory of evolution (in the first sense of the meaning) is just a theory in the second sense of the meaning, since it has never been proven well enough.

The theory of evolution (in the first sense) has been proven well enough (to be considered to be an accepted scientific theory in the first sense).
Just one little part of the evidence is the fossil record. Quotes from Dawkins' book:
"The evidence for evolution would be entirely secure, even if not a single corpse had ever been fossilized. It is a bonus that we do actually have rich seams of fossils to mine, and more are discovered every day. The fossil evidence for evolution in many major animal groups is wonderfully strong. Nevertheless there are, of course, gaps, and creationists love them obsessively."
and
"What would be evidence against evolution, and very strong evidence at that, would be the discovery of even a single fossil in the wrong geological stratum. .... But not a single solitary fossil has ever been found before it could have evolved."

The validity of the theory of evolution is not a contradiction of the fact that selective breeding (done by humans for centuries) can also produce change (quite rapid, in fact) in, for example, dogs, horses, cows, cabbages, roses. The growing resistance of some bacteria to antibiotics is another example of rapid evolution. Dawkins again: "Many bacterial strains have evolved resistance to antibiotics in spectacularly short periods. After all the first antibiotic, penicillin, was developed, heroically, by Florey and Chain as recently as the Second World War. New antibiotics have been coming out at frequent intervals since then, and bacteria have evolved resistance to just about every one of them."

But, remember: this is a discussion about the meanings of the word "theory" and its equivalents in other languages, not about the validity of the theory (sense 1) of evolution or the "theory" (sense 2) of creationism or intelligent design.

Oliver

[Edited at 2013-12-14 14:15 GMT]


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LilianNekipelov  Identity Verified
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Very clear Dec 14, 2013

Oliver Walter wrote:

I probably didn't make it clear enough: Dawkins wrote, just before stating those 2 definitions: "The Oxford English Dictionary gives two meanings (actually more, but these are the two that matter here)."
LilianBNekipelo wrote:
The theory of evolution (in the first sense of the meaning) is just a theory in the second sense of the meaning, since it has never been proven well enough.

The theory of evolution (in the first sense) has been proven well enough (to be considered to be an accepted scientific theory in the first sense).
Just one little part of the evidence is the fossil record. Quotes from Dawkins' book:
"The evidence for evolution would be entirely secure, even if not a single corpse had ever been fossilized. It is a bonus that we do actually have rich seams of fossils to mine, and more are discovered every day. The fossil evidence for evolution in many major animal groups is wonderfully strong. Nevertheless there are, of course, gaps, and creationists love them obsessively."
and
"What would be evidence against evolution, and very strong evidence at that, would be the discovery of even a single fossil in the wrong geological stratum. .... But not a single solitary fossil has ever been found before it could have evolved."

The validity of the theory of evolution is not a contradiction of the fact that selective breeding (done by humans for centuries) can also produce change (quite rapid, in fact) in, for example, dogs, horses, cows, cabbages, roses. The growing resistance of some bacteria to antibiotics is another example of rapid evolution. Dawkins again: "Many bacterial strains have evolved resistance to antibiotics in spectacularly short periods. After all the first antibiotic, penicillin, was developed, heroically, by Florey and Chain as recently as the Second World War. New antibiotics have been coming out at frequent intervals since then, and bacteria have evolved resistance to just about every one of them."

But, remember: this is a discussion about the meanings of the word "theory" and its equivalents in other languages, not about the validity of the theory (sense 1) of evolution or the "theory" (sense 2) of creationism or intelligent design.

Oliver

[Edited at 2013-12-14 14:15 GMT]

The theory of evolution has never be proven beyond the reasonable doubt. It it is stll just a theory in the second sense, even though it is often being presented as an axiom -- a theory in the first sense. You made yourself very clear in your first post.


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Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
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@efreitag and @Richard Dec 14, 2013

efreitag wrote:
Creationism clearly is not a theory in sense 1, as it is has not "been confirmed or established by observation or experiment", while the theory of evolution is.


Its these types of comments that make this debate a murky one.

In scientific terms, "observation" means "what you can see" (or hear, or detect, or observe). You can only observe something while it happens. You can't observe evolution (or any event or process that took place long ago or over a long period of time, during which time no-one was observing it). So, no matter how certain we all are of evolution, we can't say that it complies specifically with those specific words in sense 1 of the original post.

Those of us who are convinced that evolution really happened can only base our conviction on the projections that reliable scientists have made. If anyone is unwilling to admit that the theory of evolution is founded in extrapolation and insists that evolution has been proven by observation, then for that person evolution is not a theory but a religion.

Riccardo Schiaffino wrote:
Creationism, intelligent design and other such peculiar way of thinking are either very rare or unknown outside certain English-speaking countries.


It may be less rare than you think. According to a study quoted on Richard Dawkins' own web site, more than 20% of citizens in 26 of 32 European countries reject the theory of evolution (the countries in which fewer than 20% of citizens reject evolution are: Estonia, Spain, UK, France, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland).


[Edited at 2013-12-14 17:55 GMT]


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Erik Freitag  Identity Verified
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Misunderstandings about natural science Dec 14, 2013

Samuel Murray wrote:

efreitag wrote:
Creationism clearly is not a theory in sense 1, as it is has not "been confirmed or established by observation or experiment", while the theory of evolution is.


Its these types of comments that make this debate a murky one.

In scientific terms, "observation" means "what you can see" (or hear, or detect, or observe). You can only observe something while it happens. You can't observe evolution (or any event or process that took place long ago or over a long period of time, during which time no-one was observing it). So, no matter how certain we all are of evolution, we can't say that it complies specifically with those specific words in sense 1 of the original post.

Those of us who are convinced that evolution really happened can only base our conviction on the projections that reliable scientists have made. If anyone is unwilling to admit that the theory of evolution is founded in extrapolation and insists that evolution has been proven by observation, then for that person evolution is not a theory but a religion.


[Edited at 2013-12-14 16:23 GMT]


Samuel (and Lilly), you're misunderstanding what natural science does.

It's not the job of natural science to prove hypotheses (or theories, if you want). Quite the contrary, it's their job to disprove them. That's one thing that distinguishes a natural scientist from a mathematician, who actually can prove a statement in a way that this proof will be true eternally.

A natural scientist will always have to check his hypothesis/theory against nature. If any contradiction is found, the theory has to be adopted or replaced by a better one. A good example would be Newton's law of gravity, which was proven wrong by Einstein's general relativity (even if we still use Newton's theory if the circumstances allow, i.e. in cases where only relatively small masses and low speeds are involved).

Up to now, no-one has been able to falsify evolution theory in a way that the broad scientific community would even see the need to search for a better one. Still, scientists would happily abandon evolution theory and start a new search if someone found a substantial error.

That's a very important difference from a belief, which usually is not open to discussion. A belief, by definition, can't be disproved.

Apart from that, evolution can be observed even in the narrow definition of the word that you seem to use (Oliver has already quoted relevant statements).

So, as far as the vast majority of the scientific community is concerned, evolution theory of course is a theory in sense 1 of the original post: A scheme or system of ideas or statements held as an explanation or account of a group of facts or phenomena (yes!); a hypothesis that has been confirmed or established by observation or experiment (yes!), and is propounded or accepted as accounting for the known facts (yes!); a statement of what are held to be the general laws, principles, or causes of something known or observed (yes!).

Anyway, we're really hijacking this thread and obfuscating Oliver's inital question. I plead guilty. But the discussion only shows how easily things can go wrong in "science" if the terminology isn't agreed upon.

Edited to add:

Samuel's remark about the "bunch of quacks" is actually a very helpful one, as it helps us to distinguish between people who believe in creation (which, I stress, is a perfectly valid thing to do, if one so choses), and people who try to sell creation as science (which is not).




[Bearbeitet am 2013-12-14 18:19 GMT]

[Bearbeitet am 2013-12-14 18:22 GMT]


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LilianNekipelov  Identity Verified
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I agree. Dec 14, 2013

Samuel Murray wrote:

efreitag wrote:
Creationism clearly is not a theory in sense 1, as it is has not "been confirmed or established by observation or experiment", while the theory of evolution is.


Its these types of comments that make this debate a murky one.

In scientific terms, "observation" means "what you can see" (or hear, or detect, or observe). You can only observe something while it happens. You can't observe evolution (or any event or process that took place long ago or over a long period of time, during which time no-one was observing it). So, no matter how certain we all are of evolution, we can't say that it complies specifically with those specific words in sense 1 of the original post.

Those of us who are convinced that evolution really happened can only base our conviction on the projections that reliable scientists have made. If anyone is unwilling to admit that the theory of evolution is founded in extrapolation and insists that evolution has been proven by observation, then for that person evolution is not a theory but a religion.

Riccardo Schiaffino wrote:
Creationism, intelligent design and other such peculiar way of thinking are either very rare or unknown outside certain English-speaking countries.


It may be less rare than you think. According to a study quoted on Richard Dawkins' own web site, more than 20% of citizens in 26 of 32 European countries reject the theory of evolution (the countries in which fewer than 20% of citizens reject evolution are: Estonia, Spain, UK, France, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland).


[Edited at 2013-12-14 17:55 GMT]


I absolutely agree with you, Samuel. Evolution is just a theory, that cannot be proven in an experimental way because we cannot make one species evolve into another in an experimental way, since the process, took apparently millions of years for the species to undergo the alleged changes or it might have even involved something else, that we don't know about, or cannot examine or even see perhaps using our capabilities and resources. So, evolution is nothing but a theory -- an assumption, and creationism is only a belief, in my humble opinion. You can believe anything, and no one can tell that it is not tue, because beliefs are beyond true and false -- they belong to a different reality.

There must be a better theory than the current theory of evolution, because this one seems quite incoherent. What was it that brought about the changes? In the past they believed it was work and tool production that turned some primates into Homo sapiens, but I don't think anyone, including the scientists, believes it anymore. I think the theory has been somewhat modified, however, I am not exactly sure where it stands as of now

[Edited at 2013-12-14 21:14 GMT]


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Erik Freitag  Identity Verified
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Oh please Dec 14, 2013

LilianBNekipelo wrote:

There must be a better theory than the current theory of evolution, because this one seems quite incoherent. What was it that brought about the changes? In the past they believed it was work and tool production that turned some primates into Homo sapiens, but I don't think anyone, including the scientists, believes it anymore. I think the theory has been somewhat modified, however, I am not exactly sure where it stands as of now

[Edited at 2013-12-14 21:14 GMT]


Oh please ... sigh ...


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