Friday, April 10, 2009

Arguments XXV - Weaknesses and Flaws

One of the arguments being heard around the country, most recently in the voting on the new Texas science standards, concerns the strengths and weaknesses arguments against evolution -- and other scientific theories. I have addressed them, but I want to hit on the 'weaknesses' one more time, this time examining more terminology differences starting with a simple question, what s a flaw?

A 'flaw' in anything is a point of failure, a point where whatever it is can, and someday will, stop doing whatever it does. A flaw in a baseball bat will result in a broken bat. A flaw in a bridge will result in a fallen bridge. It may happen quickly, it may happen slowly, but over time it will happen. Look at the recent bridge failure in Minnesota. That bridge stood for decades until one, or several, flaws reached a certain point and the bridge fell.

What is a flaw in a scientific theory? It would be a point where the theory fails! Now I have frequently asked what are the flaws in the scientific theory of evolution? I have asked here in the blog, I have asked over on Topix, I have asked on the numerous posts I have made on a number of articles across multiple on-line publications. I get lots of responses, but no flaws.

For example the one that people immediate see as a flaw is that the current Theory of Evolution (TOE) doesn't explain life's origins on Earth. The is not a flaw, since the TOE does not address the origin of life on Earth. I have also heard that the TOE doesn't account for Noah's Flood. Again, that is not a flaw in the TOE since evolution doesn't address flood or flood geology. Another common 'flaw' is how random chance cannot adequately explain the diversity of life. This supposed 'flaw' is based on a poor understanding of the TOE, because the TOE is not a random chance process.

So what we have are a bunch of perceptual flaws, but not actual flaws. None of the ones told to me, nor claimed in places like Answers in Genesis or Discovery Institute press releases, describe anything resembling a point where the TOE fails. There is a pretty simple reason for it. Before an idea/hypothesis becomes a scientific theory it is tested, beat-up, abused by literally an army of scientists over decades of time. Anything that is an actual flaw is discovered and it the hypothesis cannot adequately explain it, then the hypothesis NEVER becomes a scientific theory. What is not addressed are the things OUTSIDE of the theory. If the theory does not explain things like life's origins, flood geology, or a random process, then these are not and cannot be considered flaws in the theory!

So once again I ask anyone who reads this blog, send me a list, or post it here in the comments, of flaws in the TOE! Actual ones, not perceptual flaws, not wishful thinking flaws, but actual flaws that address one or more parts of the actual TOE. Then we might have a discussion on them.

I have used the term 'weaknesses' before and how I separate the terms is simple. There are things that we do not know. In other words there are areas of theories that may someday need to change, usually based on new knowledge. I certainly don't think Newton's theories about gravity are 'flawed' simple because we have access to technology that he didn't have. We ave discovered areas where his theories are not applicable. That still doesn't mean there is anything wrong with them, just that they need new work. Einstein added that new work and while he didn't replace Newton's theories, he certainly expanded the over all Theory of Gravity. This is an example of how science works and should not be considered an actual weakness, or a flaw by any stretch of the imagination. Weaknesses are not weaknesses in the theories, but more weaknesses in our knowledge and understanding. Again, if they were actual weaknesses, a hypothesis would never become a scientific theory.

One last little note about the idea of flaws/weaknesses in scientific theories. It amazes me how someone like Ken Ham or Casey Luskin can make claims about the absolute inerrancy of the Bible and yet claim that there are flaws in any scientific theory based either on things we don't know, or things completely outside the theory. So in other words with no evidence at all he accepts one concept blindly, yet demands a level of perfection before he will even consider the other. Hmmm, anyone else see the FLAWS in those arguments?


  1. Let me add a bit of rigor to the relationship between Newtonian mechanics and relativity and quantum mechanics:

    We say that in the low energy limit, or in the limit of v<<c (relative speeds are much less than the speed of light), special relativity looks like Newtonian mechanics. Similarly, from quantum mechanics we get Newtonian mechanics when we average over distances much larger than the wavelength of the wave function for the system.

    I can't quite wrap my head around how that applies to the theory of evolution and natural selection...maybe because a lot of the things we see in the living world don't fall neatly out of rigorous equations. Still, some things do.

    I suppose we could say that an ideal version of evolution by natural selection would apply when the generation time is much less than rate of change of the environment, and probably something to do with how the alleles are distributed in the population, and the variation of the alleles available, and maybe there would be some assumptions about how the likelihood of mutations relates to variations in phenotypes, the degree of isolation of populations during a speciation "event," the timescale of the speciation "events", etc...yeah, I've never really given that type of thing any thought.

    But we can reasonably expect that any better theories about the diversity of life would include the modern theory of evolution as a special case or a limiting case. That doesn't mean that the modern theory is "flawed." It just means it's a "good approximation."

    Also, it is true that once life is in place, natural selection pretty much must take place, regardless of how the life started. So the particulars of abiogenesis can't overrule natural selection. However, I do think it's a safe assumption that natural selection plays some role in the original transition from non-life to life. That also doesn't demonstrate a "flaw" in natural selection, rather it demonstrates "exciting research opportunities."

  2. Overall, a good point, but a few quick points:

    First, Casey Luskin is not as far as I'm aware a Biblical literalist. (He might be, but I've never seen any indication that he is. It would be nice to pin him down on the age of the Earth at minimum)

    Also, there are genuine open issues in evolution which we can't completely explain: We have a rough idea how sex evolved but not very good details. We also don't have a good understanding of how much the founder effect influences speciation. Similarly, it is unclear how much of evolution is due to neutral drift.

    The key issue is that all of these are issues within the broader theory that have a genuine degree of controversy. But these are never the issues that teach-the-controversy people want. Why not? It couldn't be that it has something to do with the complete acceptance of the basics of evolution by everyone discussing these questions, now could it?

  3. Joshua,
    I doubt you will ever pin down Casey Luskin. The DI has never admitted to any age of the Earth issues because they are trying to have this 'big tent' approach for all those opposing evolution. The DI, and Casey is nothing more than one of their mouthpieces, will never settle on that issue.
    Sure there are lots of issues about the details of many parts of evolution, but that doesn't mean the theory of the source of controversy, and it also doesn't mean the details are controversial. Just because different groups of scientists are working on different approaches and don't agree doesn't make it controversial. This is how science works and how science is advanced.

  4. Well, Behe said explicitly he accepts common descent and an old earth (it is so fun to point that out to his fans). Dembski seems to believe in an old Earth but not common descent. So sometimes their personal opinions do come through.

    I'd disagree with your assessment though: Those disagreements are genuine controversies. The reason that the DI doesn't care about them is because they all only make sense as issues to discuss in the context of evolution. If one is arguing about how much neutral drift matters that doesn't help the DI at all because it isn't something one can point to and say Goddidit.