Certainty and Science Do Not Go Together!

Dr. Daniel Botkin holds a PhD in ecology and is currently Professor Emeritus in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is best known for his books about nature, and has been called “one of the preeminent ecologists of the 20th century.” His website has a lot of good material, including an excellent FAQ regarding global warming.

The reason I am blogging about Dr. Botkin is that he authored a fantastic article in the December 2, 2011 issue of the Wall Street Journal. The article starts with an incredibly unscientific quote which comes (ironically enough) from NASA senior scientist Michael J. Mumma:

Based on evidence, what we do have is, unequivocally, the conditions for the emergence of life were present on Mars—period, end of story.

This kind of statement might excite people, but it does nothing to promote science. In fact, it does quite the opposite. As Dr. Botkin masterfully points out in his article, the phrase “period, end of story” should never be uttered by anyone who is trying to be scientific. The fact is that in science, we never have the end of the story. New information comes in constantly, and sometimes, it overturns old ideas, despite the fact that those ideas might be accepted by virtually every scientist on the planet. As the title of Dr. Botkin’s article correctly proclaims, absolute certainty is not scientific.

Dr. Botkin goes on to discuss how global warming advocates hurt their cause by making statements with absolute certainty, and I agree with his assessment. As I read his article, however, I couldn’t help but think about the hypothesis of evolution.

In my previous post, I discussed a debate about evolution that occurred in a university humanities classroom. I called this a win for science, but the first commenter said:

You’re a scientist who doesn’t believe in evolution? What about gravity? Photosynthesis?

The “debate” between “evolutionism” and creationism is invented. Evolution is a fact and creationism is superstition.

This is something I hear a lot, and it contains the same unscientific certainty that Dr. Botkin points out. The commenter is so absolutely certain about the hypothesis of evolution that he can’t imagine any debate could possibly exist on the issue or that any serious scientist could possibly disagree with it. Of course, even a cursory investigation will show that the debate is currently raging, even among scientists, and that many, many very serious scientists have a problem with the hypothesis of evolution, at least in the way the hypothesis is generally discussed.

I am glad that there are scientists like Dr. Daniel Botkin out there. I don’t agree with everything he says, but that’s not important. What’s important is that he is stressing a fundamental truth in science. It’s a truth that has, unfortunately, been lost to many in our society, but it is one we need to rediscover if we want science to continue to progress!

8 thoughts on “Certainty and Science Do Not Go Together!”

  1. If there is one thing that I really learned from your science textbooks, it is that science cannot prove anything. At the time, I assumed all scientists believed this. But there was also a point were I thought they had stopped teaching the Big Bang hypothesis in schools. Oops.

  2. Dr. Wile,

    Thanks for the article. I am continually aggravated by claims made by pop science, that say this or that is certainly true, when in reality, they are basing their statements on many unproven assumptions.

    On a side note, I was just watching a youtube video of a lecture you made on young-earth creationism some time ago. In it you said that the rapid-decay theory predicted a measurable drop in the magnetic field of Mercury from the time we last measured it. You also said that there was another mission that was due soon that would verify that. I was wondering what the results of that were.

    Also, do you know where I could find a video of any of your debates?

    1. Thanks for your comment, Enoch. There was a paper in the journal Science regarding the latest analysis of Mercury’s magnetic field. The Institute for Creation Research has already posted on this, but I don’t think their analysis is quite right. I have a colleague of mine who is more knowledgeable about planetary magnetic fields reading the paper now, and we will discuss it. Once that has happened, I expect to have a blog post about it.

  3. Looking forward to seeing it, as a major interest of mine is planetary science. Planetary magnetic fields are a big headache for nebular accretion models, so I would love to know more about the degree of change in Mercury’s field since the 1970s. By the way, is it possible for me to get your e-mail, Dr. Wile? I would like to discuss matters regarding your experience while in school with you.

    1. WSH, I’ll post it as soon as I know I am understanding the paper correctly. I agree that planetary magnetic fields are a big headache for most models of planetary formation. I’ll contact you via E-MAIL, since I have your address.

  4. I am doing Exploring Creation with Biology this year, and I am looking forward to the evolution discussion with excitement. I was wondering, have you ever read “Did Darwin Get It Right: Catholics and the Theory of Evolution”? It’s an interesting read, even for non-Catholics.

    1. Thanks for the suggestion, Lydia. I have not read that book, although it is on my shelf. Unfortunately, that can be said of several other books! As I understand it, Johnston takes an approach similar to C.S. Lewis. He shows that while the biological mechanism of evolution can explain many of the physical aspects of nature and people, it cannot explain morality, art, appreciation of beauty, etc., that make us human. In addition, it cannot explain the origin of life itself. Thus, while evolution is a part of nature and is one of the mechanisms by which God created, it cannot take God out of the picture. He also has stern words for any absolutists on this issue. That includes the absolutists on the creationist side as well as those on the evolutionist side. Is that a fair summary of the book’s thesis?

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