“Prove it!” used to be the goal of science. With rampant speculation in the science news media, it’s time to demand accountability.
Some science headlines ask rhetorical questions. The default answer should be, “No.”
- “Did alien life evolve just after the Big Bang?” (Live Science). Default answer: “No.”
- “Did life begin in a drop of water?” (Live Science). Default answer: “No.”
- “Talk is cheep: Do caged birds sing a key to language?” (New Scientist). Default answer: “No.”
Some science headlines tease with possibility words like “could” or “may.” The default response should be, “Maybe not; could not.”
- “Alien life could use endless array of building blocks” (Space.com). Default response: “Maybe not; could not.”
- “Interplanetary dust particles could deliver water and organics to jump-start life on Earth” (Science Daily). Default response: “Maybe not; could not.”
- “Seeds of life can sprout in moon’s icy pockets” (New Scientist). Default response: “Cannot.”
Some science articles make empty promises that evidence will be found later. The default response should be: “Come back when you have proof.”
- “Bold Prediction: Intelligent Alien Life Could Be Found by 2040″ (Live Science). Default response: “Come back when you have proof.”
- “Dark Matter Mystery Could Be Solved in Next 10 Years” (Space.com). Default response: “Come back when you have proof.”
- “Evidence for Universe Inflation Theory May Lurk in New Data” (Space.com). Default response: “Come back when you have proof.”
Some science headlines beg the question of evolution or employ the power of suggestion. The default response should be, “Maybe it didn’t.”
- “From one cell to many: How did multicellularity evolve?” (Science Daily). Default response: “Maybe it didn’t.”
- “Water found in stardust suggests life is universal” (New Scientist). Default response: “Maybe it isn’t.”
Some science headlines promise insight, new light and clues, but not demonstrable proof. The default response should be, “Did you rule out all the alternatives?”
- “Largest study of sponges sheds new light on animal evolution” (PhysOrg). Default response: “Did you rule out all the alternatives?”
- “Lamprey genome reveals new insights into history of vertebrate evolution” (PhysOrg). Default response: “Did you rule out all the alternatives?”
- “Fossil fish offers clues to jawed vertebrate origins” (PhysOrg). Default response: “Did you rule out all the alternatives?”
As a case study on speculative storytelling, consider this article and video clip on PhysOrg: “Theory on origin of animals challenged: Earliest animal life may have required little oxygen.” In the video, a grad student in Denmark named Daniel Mills gleefully speculated about early animals, but all he did experimentally in the lab is find that some living sponges can get by with less oxygen than thought. From that paltry empirical observation, he and his colleagues spun a tale about early life far beyond any justifiable extrapolation, leaping over fantastic hurdles like the Cambrian explosion and the origin of complex biological machinery. In this excerpt, notice the power of suggestion, the use of the words “perhaps” and “maybe,” and the assumption of evolution without consideration of any alternatives:
The big question now is: If low oxygen levels did not prevent animals from evolving – then what did? Why did life consist of only primitive single-celled bacteria and amoebae for billions of years before everything suddenly exploded and complex life arose?
“There must have been other ecological and evolutionary mechanisms at play. Maybe life remained microbial for so long because it took a while to develop the biological machinery required to construct an animal. Perhaps the ancient Earth lacked animals because complex, many-celled bodies are simply hard to evolve”, says Daniel Mills.
To their credit, some scientists and reporters are intolerant of speculation – at least occasionally. When Science Daily and Live Science recklessly reported that a star that “may be the oldest star in the universe,” Geraint Lewis did a reality check with a “Maybe, maybe not” response (PhysOrg). “There is a myth that goldfish have a three-second memory, and I sometimes wonder if the same is true about the part of the human mind that deals with science in the news,” he said. On New Scientist last month, Mark Buchanan asked a smart question, “When does multiverse speculation cross into fantasy?” And a dose of reality came in a PhysOrg article about extrasolar planets: “There’s a lot of hype in this subject, a lot of irrational exuberance,” said Adam Burrows of Princeton. “Popular media have characterized our understanding as better than it actually is.”
That’s a start. Science reporting would dry up and become a lot less colorful without the question-begging and speculation, but that’s good: science is supposed to be about fact, not fiction. Reporters might put the brakes on speculation if there were not a market for it – if the public demanded better.
So many of these kinds of stories pass through the wires on a weekly basis, we can’t respond to them all. What we can do is show you how to ask the right questions. When the subject is evolution or the origin of life, none of the reporters respond the way a scientist should: Prove it! Put up or shut up! Come back when you have evidence! Stop the storytelling! Stop the speculation! Stop begging the question!
Speculation is an integral part of Darwin’s dark legacy. He opened the door for the starving storytellers, promising them job security with a minimum wage, driving out the conservative scientists, collapsing the economy, and watering down science’s constitution that demanded separation of fact from fiction and limited speculation. Darwin blurred the line between science and science fiction. Biographer Janet Browne agrees:
In an era when natural philosophers were consciously coming to rely on idioms of prediction, experiment, demonstration, and discovery, when accredited truths of nature were established by seeing and believing, Darwin’s approach was doubly unusual. He was inviting people to believe in a world run by irregular, unpredictable contingencies, as well as asking them to accept his solution for the simple reason that it seemed to work.” (Charles Darwin: The Power of Place, p. 56).
Seemed to work to whom? To Darwin and his storyteller friends! People need to realize this was a major turning point in the way science is done. Go back and read our 12/22/2003 commentary if you never have.
We must once again demand accountability from scientists. Most science that deals with present-day observations and verifiable results by experiment is sound, but origins stories based on evolution usually take an inch and run a light-year. They are monstrosities of imagination extrapolated far beyond the evidence. This garbage is dished out recklessly all the time in the science media.
We don’t just want to hand you the fish; we want to teach you how to fish. Learn to respond as shown above or else the Darwin Party will continue to lead our impressionable students and low-information adults down the primrose path of philosophical naturalism without them even knowing it, convincing them this is “science” when it’s really brainwashing.
Exercise: Practice your skill at asking the right questions and identifying question-begging or speculation in the Ham-Nye debate.