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Since learning that for every two people there are three definitions of ‘scientific theory’, I have discovered to my dismay that this problem is also rife in science journalism and, perhaps more worryingly, in the technical literature. Perhaps this confusion is ubiquitous in the global scientific community, with the result that there are in fact no agreed-upon usages of terms like ‘fact’, ‘theory’, ‘hypothesis’ and ‘law’. In either case, I’ll lay out the set of definitions that seem to make the most sense both individually and together as a cohesive system of scientific terminology.

Facts are arguably the least interesting of the categories under discussion. They exist in many forms, most notably as quantitative data points and qualitative assessments. They are the core truths about what is found in the world. Chimpanzees inherit 24 chromosomes from each parent whilst humans inherit 23. One of these 23, chromosome 2, has two centromeric sequences, whilst a typical chromosome has only one. Human chromosome 2 is remarkably close in number of base pairs to the combined total of chimpanzee chromosomes 2A and 2B (formerly 12 and 13). Homologues for most of the genes in chimpanzee chromosome 2A are found in one particular half of human chromosome 2, called 2p, and nowhere else, whilst homologues for those in 2B are found in the other half of human chromosome 2, called 2q, and nowhere else. These are facts of nature. Note that on their own they are exceedingly uninteresting. Any intrigue they may provoke is intrigue regarding their explanation; the how, rather than the what. Here we trespass onto the territory of ‘theory’; a good theory would unite the observations just outlined in a single explanatory framework.

Theories are the unifying concepts of science; they connect the dots A common misunderstanding is that there exists a point of graduation at which a theory upgrades to become a fact or a law. Stephen Jay Gould described the role of theories in this misconception as “part of a hierarchy of confidence, running downhill from fact to theory to hypothesis to guess.” To criticise a scientific theory in such trite terms as “it’s a theory, not a fact” is to fail to grasp the concept that theories and facts are not only different things, but different types of things. The statement itself is true, -theories are indeed not facts- but it is a truism, i.e. it adds precisely nothing of any profundity to the discussion. I would go so far as to say that every repetition of “just a theory” directly increases the level of scientific illiteracy in the world.  Comparing facts and theories as unequal rungs in a ladder of certainty is like comparing my location to how I came to be there. In applying this definition to the example of human chromosome 2, a strong theory would present a single core idea that could explain all of the facts detailed. In this case, the strongest theory is that of an ancestral fusion event of chimpanzee chromosomes 2A and 2B. This would explain the extra chromosome inherited from each parent by chimpanzees, the presence of two centromere-like sequences rather than one, the spatial arrangement of gene homologues found on the two chimpanzee chromosomes, and the closeness in the number of base pairs in human chromosome 2 to the combined total of chimpanzee chromosomes 2A and 2B. A useful trick in detecting a misunderstanding of what theories are is listening for a reference to “the evidence for theory X”, rather than to “the facts explained by theory X”.  Another requisite for an idea to be classified as a scientific theory is the power to generate testable hypotheses, i.e. predictions and retrodictions, that give theories another of their defining qualities: the potential for falsification.

In colloquial English, ‘hypothesis’ and ‘theory’ are often used interchangeably, with the result that both have now lost the specific sense of their meanings. A hypothesis is a prediction made prior to collection or analysis of the results, and is confirmed or rejected depending on how well it matches the data. By contrast, theories are judged on their utility in explaining the data. Hypotheses are useful tools to employ, as they provide researchers with specific -and more importantly, testable- claims about the nature of the phenomenon under investigation. An important distinction to make here is that between ‘hypothesis’ and ‘guess’. Hypotheses are generated by theories, which themselves are complex explanatory structures. Thus, hypotheses are not blind, randomly-generated ‘guesses’, but rather specific predictions informed and shaped by a preexisting framework that has shown success in explaining a range of relevant observations. They are the feedback mechanism through which theory and experiment inform one another and effect development in the field.  I don’t want to give the impression that all hypotheses are predictions, however. Whilst a biochemist might make predictions regarding the outcome of an enzymatic reaction, a palaeontologist might make retrodictions regarding the kind of specimens found fossilised in specific geological strata. So whilst predictions relate to events that haven’t yet happened, retrodictions address events that have already happened.

The final scientific category that I felt to be most in need of clarification is that of laws. We commonly hear laws described as forces actively bracketing various occurrences of nature, keeping them within specific boundaries of possibility. Any attempt to understand ‘laws of nature’ at any depth using this definition falls apart almost immediately, however. A more useful way of thinking about laws is as our attempts to construct descriptive models of nature by compartmentalising it into qualitatively distinct boxes. These boxes, labelled ‘thermodynamics’ and ‘Mendelian inheritance’, to take two examples, represent attempts to ascribe generalised descriptive frameworks to the observations contained within. It is easy to see, in the case of Mendelian Inheritance, the distinction between theory and law: the law of Mendelian Inheritance describes the inheritance patterns we observe in diploid organisms, whilst the cellular mechanisms underlying these patterns are explained by various facets of Cell Theory. Hopefully this has clarified that the mistake made by many of those who sympathise with the ‘hierarchy of confidence’ idea -that laws arise when theories become sufficiently supported- is indeed a mistake.

Proof is a category of thought that has no place whatsoever in science (or any other evidential field of enquiry, for that matter), and is hence not a scientific category. The commonly held definition of proof is one of absolute confirmation, of unshakeable certainty. Both of these notions are alien to the scientific process, which generates cumulative banks of data that may be explained by one theory or another. As the wealth of data explained by the prevalent theory grows, so does the conviction with which we can suggest -tentatively, always tentatively- that the explanation proposed may reflect the reality of that component of nature. Keep this in mind next time you find references amongst the confused scribbles of some shoddy science journalism to ‘scientific/clinical proof’. Those skeptical of this exclusion of proof as a meaningful notion in science may instinctively be tempted to adduce scientific theories that explain so many of the observations that they’re commonly taken, for all intents and purposes, to be proven. An example of a theory that has supposedly graduated to a ‘proven’ status could be the idea that microbes are causative factors in some types of disease. Sure, the data explained by this theory is immeasurably more plentiful than those explained by several other theories that come to mind. But there is no magical height, a point of graduation, at which the stack of published data will suddenly constitute ‘proof’ of an idea, and attempts to assign such a height will forever be groundless.

Common speech, it seems, has done a pretty thorough job of eroding and mashing together many of these definitions into a useless, amorphous concept of nothing in particular. If the remaining semantic utility of these categories is not to be lost in this colloquial haze, we as scientists should be especially vigilant in our choice of words, ensuring that we recognise and acknowledge these important distinctions.

Familiar as I am with the circularity of discussing conspiracy theories, I nonetheless recently fell into what ended at 4am as a 5 hour exchange with a friend, X, who happens to hold to some of these ideas. The theories propounded ranged from ancient chinese moon-landings to 9/11 conspiracy plots and young earth creationism. Unlike in previous conversations on similar matters, I began to notice some common threads running through the various theories, and have since been able to mount a logical objection that would act to counter a number of the claims made. It has been suggested in the past that the rate at which new or modified conspiracy theories are churned out makes refuting their factual claims a full-time job. In light of this, it seems that a defence which cuts to the core of a swathe of these theories, without contesting specific claims, may be the ideal approach in equipping people -especially the young- for their inevitable encounters with them.

Perhaps the most significant common thread I noticed running through the stories was the presence of some level of governmental underhandedness. Although any occasional reader of the news will be familiar with examples of this, like MP expenses claims and unkept campaign-trail promises, the scale of underhandedness required for the continued existence of these theories as internally consistent historical revisions is spectacularly larger. As an example, when discussing young earth creationism with X I was presented with claims that fossils/skeletons (the terms appeared to be used interchangeably) of ‘nephilim’, the offspring of angels and humans, had been unwittingly uncovered during archaeological digs. Naturally, I asked for the name of the research journal in which these groundbreaking discoveries were published. To my surprise*,  X informed me that within days of discovery, secret teams were dispatched by the government of whichever country (probably the USA) to remove the findings from the site of the dig and to remove any written reference to the find from the apartment of the archaeologist.

It should be clear that claims of this nature, i.e. claims that incorporate an effectively god-like agency as a crucial cog in their narrative structure, violate the most important logical criterion for a truth claim to be taken seriously: falsifiability. That is to say, a proponent of a truth claim must be able to outline the kind of discovery that would invalidate their claim. Developmental biologist PZ Myers recently accused psychologist Steven Pinker of turning evolutionary psychology into “an amorphous and meaningless grab-bag which can swallow up every thought in the world”¹; PZ Myers is here highlighting another example of unfalsifiability. In practice, unfalsifiable claims are dismissed outright. You likely would reject the claim that you are being trailed by a stalker so surpassingly skilled at his art that you could never find him despite your most determined diligence. For the same reason, any claim asserting that a maximally knowledgeable and powerful agency actively identifies and destroys all evidence contradicting its preferred narrative, such that all counter-evidence has been relegated to the shadiest suburbs of the internet, should be rejected as failing to meet the logical standards of a truth claim. In this way, the unavoidable result of the unfalsifiability of omniscient agency stories is that accepting them requires us to base a belief in the unreliability of our most credible scientific sources on the unverifiable claims of our least credible sources.

I mentioned that in the days following the discussion I mounted a logical objection to counter several of the theories expounded. I chose this approach, as opposed to countering the theories on factual grounds, purely due to the nature of conspiracy theories as memes (in the genetic sense). Genetic memes are ideas that spread from brain to brain, mutating in content and subsequently increasing their chances of surviving intact until they can replicate again. The evolution of conspiracy theories displays both Lamarckian Darwinian traits. Lamarckian in that they can mutate without replication in response to a challenge (imagine an individual giraffe growing a longer neck in order to reach higher leaves), and Darwinian in the tendency for successful mutants to multiply more than unsuccessful mutants**. David Aaronovitch describes this phenomenon particularly clearly in ‘Voodoo Histories’, his book on the subject of conspiracy theories: “the ideas have a determined flexibility whereby any new and inconvenient truth can be accommodated within the theory itself.”² It is increasingly clear in light of the information revolution that the internet has become the primary feeding tube for conspiracy theorists. And yet paradoxically, this revolution has given us, conspiracists included, an unprecedented ease of access to the facts. The optimists who predicted that the rise of the internet would herald the fall of conspiracism, like those false prophets of modernity who saw the demise of quackery in the rise of medical science, must be disappointed today. But despite these past failures of prediction, I am optimistic that the tools of reason and critical thinking, with a little help from the internet, can protect our minds from these explanatory sinkholes.

* I was surprised by the decision of X to resort to an omniscient agency conspiracy theory because many creationists, both young and old earth, maintain that a plausible case for creationism can be built from the evidence available to us. Michael Behe and Ken Ham stand out as examples.

** For further discussion of memes, see ‘The Selfish Gene’ by Richard Dawkins

¹ – http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2013/08/08/repudiating-scientism-rather-than-surrendering-to-it/

² – David Aaronovitch (2010) Voodoo Histories: How conspiracy theory has shaped modern history. Page 10.

The Twittersphere exploded last night with reports that Mona Eltahawy, Egyptian-American journalist, had been arrested for ‘defacing’ one of the many pro-Israel posters that have recently darkened poster-frames around New York. Eltahawy was one of five arrested the same day for similar reasons.

The poster in question reads: “IN ANY WAR BETWEEN THE CIVILISED MAN AND THE SAVAGE, SUPPORT THE CIVILISED MAN.” Keeping with the most trodden clichés of alarmist propaganda, the entire sentence is rendered in capitals in a presumed attempt to capture attention and stir panic, whilst the text, white against a black background, reflects the intellectual depth of an ultra-reactionary faction evidently unable to think outside the binary. But ignoring the poster’s amateurish appearance, the text by itself is difficult to argue with. Civilisation versus savagery: who could object? Unfortunately for readers feeling uplifted by the apparent moral integrity of this message, it becomes obvious when considering the sentence in context with the footnote underscoring it, which reads, “SUPPORT ISRAEL, DEFEAT JIHAD”, that the ‘civilised man’ and the ‘savage’ alluded to are straw men. The ‘support Israel’ line is bracketed by two Stars of David, clearly indicating support not only of Israel as a political entity, but of Judaism as its sole religion.

Yet these details provide inadequate power to explain the volley of racism accusations that have since been aimed at the poster. It’s worth noting here that Pamela Geller, blogger and the leader of the group behind the campaign, felt in the wake of the 2011 Oslo attacks that the racial backgrounds of the victims were perfectly fair game to exploit on her blog for the purposes of entertaining her Tea-Party readership. It turned out that the photo included by Geller to contextualise the racial references was of the Norwegian Socialist Party’s youth wing, and not of the group actually targeted by Breivik: the Labour Party’s youth wing. Geller’s willingness to unflinchingly tell such lies should convince us that she not only holds racial prejudices, but knowingly acts upon them. Combined with the antiquated language of the poster, reminiscent of the colonialist language that characterised racial divisions as ‘the white man and the savage’, this all but dispels any suspicion that the poster may be promoting religious rather than racial Zionism. I can’t be alone in feeling a dark amusement at Geller’s organisation, which supports a state directing all efforts to crushing the freedoms of the Palestinian people, being titled the ‘Freedom Defence Initiative’.

A video of the arrest, published the following day by Arab news channel, ‘Al-Arabiya’, begins with Eltahawy spraying the poster undisrupted, and seconds later shows Pamela Hall, a member of the ‘Freedom Defence Initiative’, harassing Eltahawy and physically attempting to distance her from the poster using a tripod (of course all in the name of ‘Freedom’). Hall’s remarks during the course of the altercation would be terribly amusing in the unbelievable extent of their hypocrisy if the propaganda she were defending wasn’t so disgusting. An example of this blackest of comedy: Hall, whilst herself obstructing the path of the spray-paint, repeatedly asserted that, by ‘obstructing’ the poster’s message with translucent spray-paint, Eltahawy was directly violating freedom of speech. The video makes quite clear that the words were still fully visible even whilst covered with the spray-paint that in reality added nothing more than a pink tint. The ludicrous accusation becomes less funny when considering that the level of intellectual absence proudly paraded by Hall is typical of not only the bigots endorsing the message of this particular campaign, but of all stripes of bigot. This includes bigots with regard to race, religion, sex and sexual orientation, which, in their combined ignorance, form a substantial proportion of the US population. My ideological feathers were also ruffled by the sheer number of repeated requests the police endured before indulging Eltahawy with even the vaguest explanation for her arrest. Watching the footage, I was reminded of an incident detailed by late Anglo-American journalist Christopher Hitchens, who, upon being thrown into a jail cell in the former Czechoslovakia, was chillingly told through the bars that he had no right to know the charges.

Although only a very minor incident in the overall context of American politics, the repugnant political agenda with which Eltahawy was engaged in combat, and the totalitarian dimensions of her arrest, are microcosmic premonitions of the system we could see implemented on a grand scale should a party of intolerance gain a voter majority.

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