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A Scientist Scoffs at “Scientific Fact” April 28, 2009

Posted by markgeil in Academia, Philosophical musings.
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I am grading final papers in one of my classes. So far, they’re pretty good, although I still see some of the superfluous absolutes that seem to pop up in student papers. I’ll see a statement like, “Robinson et al. (2009) proved that collateral ligament injury is caused by…” and out comes the red pen. I’ll cross out the word “proved” and replace it with a more benign word, like “demonstrated”. Scientific theories and experiments are what they are: limited ideas or demonstrations of a principle in a given context. That’s why I’m amused when a body like the National Academy of Sciences declares that a theory like evolution has been studied enough that we might as well call it fact. That’s also why I chuckle at the following from the most recent Time magazine:

When a scientific principle is common knowledge even in grammar schools, you know it’s long since crossed the line from theory to established fact. That’s the case with dinosaur extinction. Some 65 million years ago – as we’ve all come to know – an asteroid struck the Earth, sending up a cloud that blocked the sun and cooled the planet. That, in turn, wiped out the dinosaurs and made way for the rise of the mammals. The suddenness with which so many species vanished after the 65-million-year mark always suggested a single cataclysmic event, and the 1978 discovery of a 112-mi., 65-million-year-old crater off the Yucatán peninsula near the town of Chicxulub seemed to seal the deal.

Now, however, a new study in the Journal of the Geological Society throws all of that into question.

The title of the article is, “Maybe an Asteroid Didn’t Kill the Dinosaurs.” My translation: “Maybe we don’t know jack.” Just because we study something a lot, and talk about it a lot, our theories will still be theories, and our proofs of theories will be proven in the limited context of the experiment offering “proof”. Meanwhile, God is God and I am not, and He knows how wrong we are about some of our scientific “fact”.

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