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Word Play

But, No Fun Here. By,

Martha Adams

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In a rasff thread, 'Wired reality,' Paul Ciszek writes on 2007 May 14 that "The life sciences are going to be for the twenty-first century what physics was for the twentieth, while scientists in the USA are trying to find ways to write their grant proposals that avoid using the word "evolution"."

In fact, this topic starts with my own posting in rasff, in which I pointed to a piece in a recent Wired Magazine. See, Greta Lorge, 'May the Best Theory Survive', Wired, 2007 May, p.60-61. A chart there shows America standing #29 of 30 countries in social acceptance of Darwin's evolution theory. (Where more acceptance moves you down toward list bottom -- and ignorance.)

This is really an awful result. How are so many people so wrong? I see immense relevance in the plain fact that these Americans are almost without exception, graduates of our public schools. It raises a very serious question.

Can an America whose people are trained to choose faith-based authoritarian ideology over reality-based observation and science, go on to face the challenges to build space settlements and a new culture there? Challenges of the future? Of competition from other countries? But also, Lorge's piece underscores America's diminishing stature in today's world in other fields and economic sectors.

(Seen recently in cyberspace: "If you want to go out to space, study Mandarin.")

I think much of this American decline can be laid at the doorstep of America's public-schools education system for children. If you teach foolish things to children, they won't magically become wise adults. To wrap growing young minds into a religious straitjacket of faith-based belief (obsolete for millennia past), fails as preparation for today's world. But it's what happens here in America. I see a sorry expectable future for America, and against this too-likely prospect, I suggest a small but central terminology change: let's replace 'theory' with 'model' in our words and thinking.

In fact, this is hardly a change at all. These two different words, so alike in meaning, carry different connotations. To many people who do not work in science and engineering (nearly the entire American public), 'theory' connotes impractical and irrelevant ideas. But most people more or less know from their childhood experience what a 'model' is; and in fact, making up abstract models seems to be a basic human activity. Which abstract models are the same in their practical application, as 'theories.'

A theory, or a model, is an inductive work. It grows from observations, and usually, also from earlier works by other people. It is a practical embodiment of the principle of empirical disproof, or it should be. It cumulates disparate informations and measurements into a more or less tidy whole. Then this whole is put to the most severe tests anyone can think of. Where empirical disproof is one of the most effective tests.

This testing and examination is followed by thoughtful evaluation. Does the model survive critical tests designed to disprove it or break it? Does it predict the results of observations made, and new ones not made yet? Are the results compatible with present understandings of things? Do several different groups of people working independently in different shops and labs, find highly similar results?

A theory or a model is said to be good when it passes these tests. Thus, to find any practical difference between 'theory' and 'model', view their context. The difference is found in the writer.

A religion is, in fact, a model. A religious model, however, is strikingly and centrally different from any science or engineering model. The Christian models seen in the American news seem to all include a provision that upon hearing evidence challenging the model, the believer must intensify his belief in the model. (Disproof is Satan's work: fail and be cursed to supernatural eternal torment etc etc.) Of course that shuts-out the principle of empirical disproof. (And Occam's razor and all other comparable philosophical tests.)

Very odd. The religious models statically reflect oral history from primitive, pre-science, pre-literate cultures of a few thousand years ago. Whose members perceived a world completely unlike ours, for they understood nothing of it. They ignored observational tests because they had no science knowledge base to understand what they were doing. Thru intensely conservative practice, elements of some of those cultures survive today, and they work serious hurt in a world which has gone far beyond them.

A good topic for a philosophy grad student would be to study roots of the faith based idea that this whole universe is constructed on a pattern identically like a very conservative, Father dominated human family.

Thus I propose the simple device that whether some logical construct is called a theory, The Word of God, tradition, or something else; let's call it a model since that's what it is. This makes a useful parsimony in terminology (Occam's razor). It makes a logical space for more models, and for practical observations of how they work -- and fail. The various models, all of them, can be set out, studied and tested for their consequences. Those that fail usefulness can be labelled 'interesting, but useless,' and relegated to some historical dustbin (Hume's guillotine) or placed into fantasy fiction. But all that is another topic.


As I'm drafting the original of this text, I'm in Texas at the NSS ISDC 2007. I see in a local newspaper that the Texas Legislature is working on the urgent (to them) question of teaching Christian Bible in schools. I might be ok with that, provided the Bible stuff is taught in an appropriate philosophical context of proof, testing, and empirical disproof of all models. Of historical thinking about how we know what we know. Of course they won't do that -- they imagine children shouldn't hear such argument, contrary to religious belief. Which in fact concerns me seriously, since religious belief is at the root of so much that is failed and wrong in today's world.

------------------------------------------------- Notes, Resources, and Pointers:

To enter upon the complexity and the large history of my "Word Play" topic, visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empiricism/. Be warned the world's most able and effective thinkers have worked in this topical area and arrived at divergent results. Your mastery of it probably won't get those space settlements out there sooner. However, some familiarity with it will certainly help you deal with faith-based fanatics by setting your feet upon reality-based ground.

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