January 20, 2009

Theories and facts

A few years ago I went to see an exhibit about Darwin at the Field Museum in Chicago. They used Darwin's journals and animals (actual lizards and birds!) to recreate his journey on the HMS Beagle and attempt to allow you to have the experience of seeing what he saw; the moments and observations that would form the basis for the theory of evolution. It was an amazing exhibit. (Describing it now, I realize how much it is reminding me of John Dewey's Art as Experience. sigh. I guess I did learn a few things in grad school.)

But perhaps my favorite part was at the end when the exhibition took on the issues surrounding evolution and intelligent design through Q&As with scientists. One of them said, "Theories are not facts. Theories explain facts." And I was almost bowled over by what a succinct, powerful statement that was in part because it illuminated a fundamental issue in our misdirected national conversation. When we argue about evolution and intelligent design, we're not only arguing about theories, we're arguing about what counts as a fact.

And that is such an interesting argument. In Darwin's time, a fact was an observable truth meaning (maybe. I'm making this up as I go. Write to understand, remember.) that others could look at it and see the same thing. Birds on one island had different types of beaks than birds on another island. But somehow, that act of looking has become so much more subjective, influenced by belief as much as observation. Theories begetting facts as opposed to facts begetting theories. What qualifies as a fact in today's day and age? How is it different in different academic disciplines? We tend to use the same words (data, facts, theories, arguments) but we're not really referring to the same things and at what point does our quest for a common language (an absolute necessity in our multi-disciplinary world) hide important conversations that we need to be having?

This post includes more questions than answers, but I suppose that is as good a place to begin as any. I think Darwin would be proud.

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