facts, theories, models, hypotheses, equations, data, ..

Danny Yee (danny@STAFF.CS.SU.OZ.AU)
Sat, 9 Mar 1996 12:44:57 +1000

fortier@STUDENTS.WISC.EDU writes:
> I've been a bit bemused by this hoopla over "evolution as fact" as well.
> Since when did scientists speak of *facts* anyway?

All the time. They use the term as much as anyone else (ie, quite
often). "Data", "Facts", "Theories", "Equations" -- the choice is as
much a result of the historical and sociological background as anything
else. So one hears "Maxwell's Equations" far more often than
"Maxwell's Electromagnetic Theory"; one might talk about a cosmological
model (there's another term) being supported or refuted by astronomical
observation (another) or the astrophysical facts.

Obviously all the terms have different epistemological connotations,
but the differences vary between disciplines. Look at the arguments
about whether the Aquatic Ape idea is a Theory or a Hypothesis; the
standard theory (?) is called the "Savannah Model" by AAT supporters.
Does it make sense to talk of the "theory" that Caesar was assasinated
on 15 March 44 B.C.? Doesn't that sound better as a "historical
fact"? Or does ones choice depend on the context, on whether one is
discussing the history of the Republic or Golden Age literature or
something as specialised as numismatics?

> Most of us treat Darwin's theories as theories, or am I
> being too presumptuous?

What does it mean to treat something as a theory as opposed to treating
it as a fact? The basic fact -- there you go, that popped out before I
thought about it -- that "evolution happened" (what exactly "Darwin's
theories" means is problematic) is something I don't even think about
-- it is as much a given as that Antarctica exists or that Germany lost
World War II. That gives it a different sort of status to that of
particular approaches to evolutionary genetics or phylogenetics, which
I am continually revising my feelings about in the light of my reading.

> Plus,,, There's already a movement, started by quantum mechanics to show
> that Darwin's work is ready for some revisions.

There are many, many aspects of evolution never addressed by Darwin;
there are also quite a number of details he got wrong (though in many
cases he knew he was just speculating). As such, talking about
"Darwin's work being ready for some revisions" is just silly -- it has,
like all science, been continuously revised over its lifetime, and it's
not about to undergo any modifications so drastic as to warrant talk of
a new movement.

And quantum mechanics has nothing to do with evolution! (Well, no more
than general relativity, particle physics, or fluid dynamics, anyway :-)
Why is it that pseudo-science always latches onto quantum mechanics as
the foundation for their ravings?

> And there are the wonderful
> 'epistemology of science' groups who show how Darwin's work is part of the
> cultural fabric of its times, i.e., that metaphors of struggle and
> evolutionism were part of colonialism and other political forces at the time.

Yep! There's a huge amount of material on the background to Darwin and
Darwin's ideas. There are new biographies appearing all the time, not
to mention more specific studies. Darwin may yet overtake Galileo as
the most popular source of examples for philosophers and historians of

Danny Yee.