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Most Annoying Ideas

Entry 1403, on 2012-06-22 at 21:55:15 (Rating 3, Skepticism)

There are a number of odd ideas and statements which I hear over and over again and which get really annoying after a while. They get annoying because they have been shown beyond any reasonable doubt to be untrue - and often the person supporting them knows that - yet we keep hearing them anyway.

I can understand people not knowing a particular fact or being misinformed on a particular subject, but I can't understand or forgive someone making the same mistake many times after being corrected, especially when they are being deliberately ignorant or misleading.

I'm going to mention a few of my favourites here and explain why I should never hear these opinions being offered again!

First, there's the statement that some well established scientific principle is only a theory. Of course this is most often used in conjunction with evolution. How often do I hear that "evolution is only a theory". I always correct the person making that statement when I can because, as I said above, I can excuse the initial ignorance, but after that there is no excuse for ever making that statement again!

So why is it so untrue? There are three reasons.

First, a theory in the scientific context is an extremely well proven and accepted set of hypotheses and explanations which go far beyond the use of the word in common speech. Something can't be describes as "just" a theory because the word "just" implies something far less that what a scientific theory actually represents.

Second, evolution is fact and the theory of evolution is something which explains that fact. So evolution is both a fact and a theory. The evidence that evolution has occurred is so overwhelming that no knowledgeable, sensible, or fair person would deny it. It's as undeniable as the fact that the Earth is "round" (it's actually closer to an oblate spheroid) or that it orbits the Sun.

Third, the theory of evolution is extremely well accepted and backed up by threads of evidence from multiple areas of science. The theory of evolution explains the mechanisms behind the fact of evolution and there is no other alternative which makes sense. So even if you want to reject the theory you will not find an alternative which makes any sense.

Right, so I have explained why "evolution is only a theory" is a combination of words which should never occur again, what else is annoying in a similar way?

Well there's a related statement which goes something like "we don't have to prove this because it is beyond the reach of science and cannot be explained so easily". This is often used to excuse religious superstition or belief in magical pseudoscience such as alternative medicine or other quackery.

I reject this concept. Either something exists in some way or it doesn't. If the phenomenon exists in a more subtle way than a physical object then it must have some interaction with the physical world. If it doesn't then it just doesn't exist. So anything which is beyond the reach of science is automatically untrue.

What I said above is a rather bold statement and quite a complex idea so let me give some examples.

Let's use one of the classic subjects for this statement: god. Some people will say that god exists but he cannot be examined by science. Maybe he exists in a different dimension or has no interaction with our universe. Let's assume these statements are true (or even make sense). If god never interacts with our reality then he doesn't exist. Just like Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings don't really exist except as an imagined concept.

Or what about this: "homeopathy works but it's efficacy can never be examined by science". Well if it works then there must be some real outcome from that process. The person the homeopathy is being used on must have changed in some way and that is a physical phenomenon which science can examine. If there is no change which can be detected then in what way has it worked? Clearly it hasn't.

Science has proved the existence of some really subtle things. Things which can never be seen visually or even detected in a direct way. Things like neutrinos and virtual particles. These are surely at least as difficult to detect as the influence of a god or the effect of a homeopathic treatment. But science has no trouble accepting them.

So even if some things are even more subtle than virtual particles I still think the statement that science can't detect them is flawed. You might say that science hasn't detected them yet but to say it never will or can't is meaningless.

Well I have ranted on about those two points so much that I might have to leave other annoying ideas for another blog post. There are some really good ones in the realm of politics for example, but I'll tackle those some other day.

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Comment 1 (3167) by Anonymous on 2012-06-26 at 15:56:23:

I would like to make two points. Even if you think theories are that great you have to admit they have been wrong before. I think Newton gravity theory was wrong and fixed by relativity? What can't evolution be wrong and fixed by something like intelligent design? Also I cannot follow your argument about things science can't understand not existing. That seems circular to me. Circular arguments are something you don't like aren't they.

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Comment 2 (3168) by OJB on 2012-06-26 at 22:16:37:

First, very few theories have ever been shown to be totally wrong, just less accurate than later theories. Your example of Newtonian gravitation being replaced by relativity is a classic example. Newtonian theory still works, it's just not as accurate as relativity.

Second, we should always admit that a theory could be proven wrong in the future because nothing about the real world can ever be known 100% But that doesn't mean we should't accept current theories if they are very well supported, like evolution is.

My point about science and reality is this: if there is no way at all of showing something exists then effectively it doesn't. Something which only exists in a person's mind isn't real. Even the most subtle interaction between something (even if it exists somehow "outside" our reality) and our universe can still be detected. If it has no interaction at all then it doesn't exist.

This is a philosophical point more than anything else but I think it's valid. If anyone has a good objection to it or can think of something which is well accepted as existing yet can't be detected in any way, directly or indirectly, then I would be interested to hear about it.

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