When failure to embrace what the scientific establishment currently believes in cases where it can produce no conclusive evidence results in a witch-hunt, the cause of true science is not served.
Recently, Christina Wilkinson, of St Andrew’s Church of England school in Oswaldtwistle, Lancashire, came under fire for falling out of step with orthodoxy on the issue of the origins of life.
The Guardian reports that Wilkinson tweeted in response to London headteacher Tom Sherrington who urged teachers to stick to science when teaching young minds where life comes from: “Evolution is not a fact. That’s why it’s called a theory! There’s more evidence that the Bible is true.”
Wilkinson is correct at least in the first part of her initial statement: evolution is, objectively, a theory. It may be treated by the scientific establishment as a fact, but that does not make it one.
Theories like thought experiments have a place. The realm of theory is where the mind goes for an after-dinner glass of port and cigar and stretches out in a leather armchair in front of the fire and blows a few what-if-scenario smoke-rings around the sitting-room.
But scientific methods are where the evidence comes in. What such methods have in common is that conclusions are based on observation and experimentation. While exact methods vary depending on the field, the constant is: you can check; the findings are demonstrable and repeatable. This is what distinguishes law from theory.
Reputable, genuine scientists use both systems and the world is much improved as a result.
The problem comes when those who presume to speak for science forget the distinction between theory and law, and simply attack those who have not forgotten it.
The secular priest Richard Dawkins chimed in that Wilkinson was misusing the word theory.
“Scientists call evolution a theory only in a special scientists’ sense, which is NOT the same as the layman’s tentative hypothesis’,” he said.
He continued: “This is so often misunderstood that I now recommend abandoning the confusing word theory’ altogether for the case of evolution. Evolution is a fact, as securely attested as any fact in science. We are cousins of monkeys and kangaroos’ can be asserted with as much confidence as Our planet orbits the sun’.”
I am not here interested in the rightness or otherwise of Dawkins’ assertions. My point is that theories do not cease to be theories simply because Richard Dawkins recommends that they not be seen as such. There is either empirical evidence, or there isn’t. And if there isn’t, Dawkins’ “recommendations” should not interest us if our allegiance is to science and its methods, rather than to Mr. Dawkins and his recommendations.