The highly influential philosopher of science, Sir Karl Popper, in his now classic The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1959), focuses upon one major criterion for distinguishing between legitimate science and pseudoscience. He labels this criterion falsifiability and contends that any theory claiming a legitimate scientific status must be, at least in principle, falsifiable. That is, there must be some conceivable observation that could disprove the theory. It is most relevant to note that Popper explicitly recognizes that a legitimate scientific theory may be falsifiable in principle but, due to limitations of time, space, or technology, unfalsifiable in practice.
I think it is safe to say, in light of the extensive references to Popper's work throughout the whole spectrum of the professional literature, that for most modern scientists and philosophers of science Popper's concept of falsifiability has come to completely replace the concept of proof as the major criterion for evaluating the worth of scientific theories. It is now generally recognized that the concept of proof was improperly transferred from the domains of pure mathematics and logic, where it still retains its legitimacy, to the realm of the empirical sciences. We now realize that no legitimate scientific theory can be proven in any kind of absolute sense.
The reason for this is basically a logical one. Given that every theory is a product of human reason and thus potentially fallible, it therefore follows that there is always the possibility that someone may develop a superior theory—that is, one that explains more or one that explains better. Hence, as long as there is this logical possibility, we can never say of any existing theory that it has been proven in any absolute sense. (In fact, it is really superfluous to qualify the word proof with the modifier absolute.) Hence, when we do run across the use of the term proof, or some variation on it, either in the older literature or in the current writings of those few who have not been exposed to Popper's influence, we should automatically translate the language into a form consistent with this modern view. For example, the claim that some theory has been "proven" should be read to say no more than that there is "overwhelming evidence" supportive of the theory.
In light of the foregoing, it is in a very basic sense illogical or reflective of a deep ignorance of the modern philosophy of science to demand that any theory must be proven before it can be considered legitimately scientific. Yet, one of the most persistent claims to be found in the literature of "scientific" creationism is the contention that the theory of evolution is not a valid scientific theory because it has not been "scientifically proven" (see, for example, Morris et al. 1974:4; Wysong, 1976:44).
This contention is, incidentally, quite often framed in a vocabulary that creationists have evidently brought with them from their common grounding in fundamentalist theology. Just as nonfundamentalists are dismissed as not being "true" Christians, so, in a parallel exercise in word magic, evolutionary scientists are held to not be practicing "true" science. The briefest of analyses soon reveals that "true" Christianity and "true" science are simply Christianity and science as defined by fundamentalists and "scientific" creationists, respectively, with a total disregard for any definitions offered by nonfundamentalists and "nonscientific" creationists to the effect that "scientific" creationism enjoys some sort of scientific validity simply because a number of its advocates have earned degrees in various sciences—as if the conferring of such a degree somehow magically transforms one's religious convictions into scientific propositions (see, for example, Morris et al. 1974:8; Wysong, 1976:21).
Returning to Popper's concept of falsifiability and its role in the evaluation of scientific theories, it is important to note that Popper pointed out that a theory is to be judged just as much for what it predicts will not occur as for what it predicts will occur. In other words, a legitimately scientific theory not only predicts various allowable observable events but also forbids the occurrence of a whole domain of possible events. While the occurrence of one of the allowable events does not prove the theory (because the same event could have been predicted by other theories as well), the occurrence of one of the forbidden events does falsify it. (It should be pointed out, however, that, when confronted with one or a few such falsifying events, a theory that has withstood numerous attempts at falsification and which has no serious, legitimately scientific competitor, will still be retained, in spite of such anomalies.)
Let us now consider how "scientific" creationism on the one hand and the theory of evolution on the other stand up to the criterion of falsifiability. Here we shall see the most basic reason why "scientific" creationism is forever doomed to remain in the realm of pseudoscience.
By definition, "scientific" creationism is irrevocably grounded in an appeal to the existence and operation of an obviously omnipotent supernatural being—that is, a being that by its very nature is capable of virtually anything. It therefore follows that there is literally no conceivable observation that cannot be reconciled with the virtually limitless actions of such a being. "Scientific" creationism thus lacks the central defining characteristic of all modern scientific theories. It is absolutely immune to falsification. Literally any problem confronted by "scientific" creationism as it is applied to the empirical world can be resolved through an appeal to unknown and unknowable supernatural operations. And although "scientific" creationists are extremely fond of pointing out various alleged problems with the theory of evolution (problems that are more often than not the result of their own strawman conceptions of both science and evolution), they appear to remain blissfully ignorant of the fact that any legitimate scientific theory must generate problems. (Apparently, once again under the influence of their theology, "scientific" creationists feel that "true" science is some kind of quest for absolute certainty—a conception of science that is totally rejected by Popper.) It is extremely important to emphasize again that "scientific" creationism is not, as is the case with some legitimately scientific theories, only unfalsifiable in practice; it is also unfalsifiable in principle.
The same point can be expressed in another way. Science is concerned with explaining why the world is one way rather than some other way. The introduction of an omnipotent supernatural being into any explanation immediately precludes this possibility. As the scriptures tell us, "With God, all things are possible." This may be fine theology, but it stands in direct opposition to the central goal of all science. This is why "scientific" creationism actually acts as a brake on any valid scientific research. It is really what Gillespie characterizes as an antitheory—a void which has the function of knowledge but which conveys none (1979, p. 8).
I will illustrate this diametric difference between legitimate science and the "true" science of "scientific" creationism with an example from the field of biological anthropology.
According to the theory of evolution as it has been applied to the development of the Primate Order, the chimpanzees represent our closest living relatives. This conclusion was based upon comparative anatomy and the principle that similarities in form reflect evolutionary relationship. Once again, this cannot be said to be a "proof" of the postulated evolutionary relationship. Biologists can cite many instances of parallel evolution in which forms that are only distantly related have developed similarities in structure—for example, the almost identical structures of human and octopus eyes.
However, the recently developed techniques for measuring the detailed structure of the most basic molecules of life, DNA and protein molecules, have provided a potential means of falsifying the theory of evolution or at least this particular implication of that theory. Simply consider the two extremely opposed possible research results: on the one hand, it could have conceivably turned out that humans and chimpanzees were totally dissimilar in their molecular structures; on the other hand, it could have been found—as it was—that humans and chimps are practically identical in those structures. (Indeed, in the molecules so far compared, the identity has been found to be over 99 percent.) Had the former situation been found, it would have constituted a falsification of the postulated close evolutionary relationship between humans and chimpanzees. Were there to be similar discoveries throughout the whole range of postulated evolutionary relationships, this would constitute a severe, perhaps even fatal, blow to the entire evolutionary edifice. In point of fact, as now has been well established, the findings of such molecular comparisons have provided overwhelming support for the evolutionary relationships postulated initially on the basis of comparative anatomy.
Now consider the alternative responses of "scientific" creationists to these same two possibly opposing research findings. Had the molecular researchers found that human and chimpanzee DNA and protein structures were totally dissimilar, the "scientific" creationists would not have been able to contain themselves. They would have been shouting from the rooftops that this was "proof" positive of the validity of "scientific" creationism—that this finding revealed clear evidence of the creator's intention to keep distinct the "created kinds." As it is, of course, the research results were just the opposite. Now, we may safely anticipate that "scientific" creationists will be arguing that this finding, too, is just as their "model" would have predicted, that what we have here is clear evidence of the creator's grand common design. Heads I win; tails you lose.
Now, it can be appreciated why "scientific" creationists, in setting up their debates around the world, are so fond of framing those debates around some variation on the question: "Does evolution or creation provide a better explanation of the scientific evidence?" Invariably, the "scientific" creationists glibly slide over the fact that scientific evidence is only scientific if it is viewed from the framework of science—a framework that, as we have seen, excludes appeals to the supernatural. Thus, in one recent presentation of the creationist position, we are informed of the "fact" that "the Creation Model fits the real facts of science at least as well as the Evolution Model" (Morris and Parker, 1982, xiv; emphasis added). Note, incidentally, the word magic implicit in the use of the qualifier real to imply that any "facts of science" which either do not support creationism or which do support evolution are not "real" scientific facts—the qualifier real is the functional equivalent of true in the writings of fundamentalist "scientific" creationists. Thus, "scientific" creationists consistently argue that creationism provides a better explanation than does the theory of evolution.
And in this, they are in a very limited sense absolutely correct. Given an omnipotent supernatural creator, virtually anything can be "explained" as a result of that creator's actions and desires. The problem is, of course, that such an "explanation" is not a scientific one, and it is totally dishonest to imply that it is by framing the question at issue in terms of "scientific facts." In my own debating experience with Duane Gish of the Institute for Creation Research, when I raised this issue, he neatly slithered away from the point with an observation to the effect that, whenever he came to debate scientists, he wanted to talk about scientific facts while they wanted to talk philosophy (as if the question of what constitutes a scientific fact is totally unrelated to the philosophy of science).
Considerations such as these are almost totally ignored in the writings of "scientific" creationists. Indeed, in one of those unintended ironies with which that literature abounds, Sir Karl Popper is actually cited as a scientific authority who is opposed to the theory of evolution. He was never, of course, a "scientific" creationist; he simply once had some reservations about various aspects of general evolutionary theory. Today, Popper is a full-blown evolutionist, a point conveniently and consistently ignored by those "scientific" creationists who cite his earlier statements. Indeed, when Gish, Bliss, and Bird of the ICR cite a later criticism of Popper's regarding natural selection (1981, p. i), they even suppress the full title of the book referred to. They identify it in their bibliography as Objective Knowledge when in fact the full title is Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach (1975). Also conveniently ignored is the fact that, in this very same book, Popper explicitly rejects his earlier criticisms and frames his description of the nature of science in evolutionary language. He speaks, for example, of competing theories in terms of the survival of the fittest. Unlike legitimate scientists, as Popper conceives of them, "scientific" creationists have a highly developed talent for ignoring and even denying any facts that contradict their preconceptions. Wysong, for example, pays lip service to Popper's criterion of falsifiability (1976, p. 27) and even contends that in evaluating the relative worth of creationism as opposed to the theory of evolution, "each of the propositions must be falsifiable" (1976, p. 49). Lip service having been paid, this is the last we hear of the concept of falsifiability in the remaining 406 pages of his book!
Yet, it cannot be denied that "scientific" creationists are enamored of at least the form, if not the substance, of science. One cannot escape the suspicion that if the fundamentalists who provide the overwhelming majority of "scientific" creationists were to adopt a clerical garb it would consist of a lab coat emblazoned with a cross.
At the same time, they are obviously committed to a set of religious dogmas that bring them into direct conflict with one of the most widely accepted theories in all of science: the theory of evolution. Thus, they find themselves in a perpetual double bind. And their attempts to resolve this double bind take the form of an effort to redefine "true" science in such a manner that it no longer conflicts with their cherished fundamentalist dogmas.
As a result, they have developed their own little "folk conception" of science, one that is totally subservient to their preconceived fundamentalist theology. Folk conception is a term used by cultural anthropologists to refer to the set of ideas that the people in a particular culture or subculture have about some area of reality. For example, people in different cultures have different folk conceptions of the law, of the proper form of family, of morality, and so forth. However, the folk conception of "true" science developed by "scientific" creationists has about as much resemblance to legitimate science as does astrology to astronomy or witchcraft to medicine. To a great extent it is simply and simplistically an extended exercise in two old debater's tactics: begging the question (that is, seeking to define the point at issue in such a manner so as to win the debate by definition) and the strawman argument (that is, misdefining your opponent's position in such a way as to guarantee its easy destruction) combined with liberal doses of word magic. Word magic is a typical feature of primitive closed thought systems in which it is commonly believed that words have the power to create or affect the things for which they stand (see, Horton, 1967).
In coming up with their definitions of "true" science, "scientific" creationists virtually never rely upon the writings of philosophers of science. At best, their definitions began as unjustified extrapolations from dictionary definitions, usually combined with out-of-context quotes gleaned from the writings of evolutionary scientists (see, for example, Gish, 1973, p 2; and, for particularly simple-minded definitions of science and the scientific method, Wysong, 1976, pp. 40-43).
One omnipresent characteristic of "scientific" creationists' folk definitions of science is the contention that "true" science cannot address itself to the explanation of any event that occurred before there were any scientists present to observe it (see, for example, Morris et al. 1974, pp. 4-5; Gish, 1973, p. 3; Wysong, 1976, p. 43; Morris and Parker, 1982, xiii). One can see the obvious fundamentalist theological motivations that underlie this particular begging of the question. In one fell swoop, by definition, evolutionary studies, historical geology, and much of astronomy are automatically excluded from the domain of legitimate science.
Before dealing with the shortcomings of this particular attempt to restrict the range of science, it is most significant to note that this tactical maneuver also automatically excludes "scientific" creationism from the realm of "true" science. Surprisingly, in an uncharacteristic display of honesty and humility, this is frequently openly conceded by "scientific" creationists themselves. But, this is really a form of copping a plea to a lesser offense as well as being a kind of diversionary tactic. By pretending that they are guilty of some kind of alleged scientific misdemeanor—that is, dealing with events that occurred prior to the existence of scientific witnesses—the "scientific" creationists draw attention away from their actual scientific felony: the utilization of a completely unfalsifiable appeal to the supernatural. Moreover, as we shall see, the alleged misdemeanor to which they so graciously plead guilty turns out on analysis to be no scientific crime at all. Finally, and here we see the schizophrenic element manifesting itself, this admission of a completely nonscientific status for "scientific" creationism is conveniently forgotten in their persistent use of the term scientific creationism in their articles, books, and, indeed, in the very name by which they identify themselves.
The contention that "true" science cannot deal with phenomena that occurred before any scientists were present to observe them is based upon two unvoiced and demonstrably false presuppositions. The first and more general false supposition is that science deals only with that which is directly observable—that is, the empirical world. At best, this is only a half-truth (even this is generous—it would probably be more legitimately characterized as an eighth-truth). Science constantly postulates the existence of theoretical forces and entities that are not directly observable. No one has ever actually seen an atom. No one has ever directly observed either electricity or gravity. To even suggest that science cannot deal with unobservables is to display an ignorance of the nature of the scientific enterprise. This is not to say that such unobservables have no relationship to that which can be observed. The legitimacy of postulated theoretical forces and entities is constantly being tested against the observable world. Such testing constitutes a way of attempting to falsify the postulated theoretical entities and forces. Such testing, so crucial to any legitimate science, is, as we have seen, impossible with respect to the omnipotent supernatural being that constitutes the central "theoretical" entity in "scientific" creationism. Indeed, if we once again turn to the writings that provide the ultimate motivation for "scientific" creationism, we are explicitly told, "Thou shall not test the Lord, thy God." Once again, this may be fine theology, but, if that same God is assigned the function of a theoretical entity in a proposed explanation, this injunction represents a prohibition against the central activity of the scientific enterprise!
The second false presupposition that underlies the creationists' restriction against "true" science saying anything about events that occurred prior to the existence of scientific witnesses is the apparent presumption that such postulated past events will have left no record of their occurrence, no evidence by which theories about that alleged occurrence can be tested. This is analogous to arguing that, because there were no actual witnesses, we can never "truly" scientifically know if the bear actually did defecate in the woods—this despite the presence of a steaming pile of bear fecal material and numerous bear footprints. Likewise, we would have to deny, in spite of the superabundant fossil evidence, "true" scientific legitimacy to the claim that vast numbers of new extinct species once roamed the earth, simply because there were no scientists present to directly observe them.
When confronted with such criticisms of their theologically motivated folk conception of science, "scientific" creationists commonly resort to another tactic popular among debaters: equivocation. This is the practice of switching definitions of a key word or concept in mid-argument. By far one of the master practitioners of this art is Henry M. Morris, director of the ICR. Faced with attacks on the scientific legitimacy of "scientific" creationism, Morris invariably ignores the substance of those attacks and argues that "true" science simply means "knowledge" (Morris et al. 1974, p. 1; cf. Morris 1982, p. i; Morris and Parker, 1982, xiii). In a very restricted sense, Morris is correct. If we look up the etymology of the word science, we do indeed find that in the original Greek form it did mean "knowledge." The problem here is that words very often cannot be simplistically defined solely in terms of their etymology. Language itself evolves. Words, in the history of their usage, often undergo radical revisions in their accepted meanings. One would expect that a self-proclaimed biblical expert such as Morris pretends to be would be quite cognizant of this elementary fact.
In Darwin's day, for example, the word science referred to philosophy or knowledge derived from nonrevealed sources (Himmelfarb, 1959, p. 36). Scientists were then referred to not as scientists but as natural philosophers. To this day, teachers in the natural sciences in universities are assigned the academic rank of "professor of natural science" (even a number of "scientific" creationists claim this title—although what they advocate is anything but "natural" science). Even the dictionary, the primary source of "scientific" creationists' misconceptions of science, identifies science and natural science as synonyms of one another.
All of this is, once again, conveniently ignored when "scientific" creationists accuse scientists of begging the question in denying the mantle of science to claims which invoke the supernatural. Instead, it is held that "scientists are supposed to 'search for truth' wherever that search leads" (Morris and Parker, 1982, xiii). Totally disregarded in this hopelessly naive conception of "true" science is the fact that it would require scientists to spend innumerable hours in the consideration of multitudes of supernaturalistic "explanations" that are intrinsically unfalsifiable. Furthermore, if we were to accept the equation of science with knowledge, then every field of knowledge, from stamp collecting to polishing shoes, would have to be considered a legitimate science.
The issue of the proper definition of what constitutes legitimate science, as well as many ether issues in the evolution-creation controversy, boils down in many ways to an argument over proper authority. Confronted with the undeniable fact that the overwhelming majority of scientists in general, and certainly practically all life scientists, do accept the scientific legitimacy of the theory of evolution, "scientific" creationists frequently include in their folk definitions of science the claim that scientific truths are not established through some kind of majority rule or popular vote (see, for example, Wysong, 1976, pp. 20-21). In this claim, they are, as usual, wrong.
If students of the nature of science are in agreement on anything, it is that science is a communal activity. The individual scientist may indeed formulate a particular theory explaining some phenomenon. But that explanation does not really enter the domain of science until it has been scrutinized, criticized, and tested by his or her colleagues in the relevant discipline. And, when the colleagues in a particular scientific discipline are in well-nigh complete agreement on the validity of some given explanation, it comes close to a form of scientific lunacy to proclaim the learned majority opinion wrong and to advocate some explanation that they emphatically reject.
This is not to say that the majority is always right. As "scientific" creationists and advocates of other pseudoscientific explanations never tire of pointing out, there have been a number of explanations that at one time have been rejected by the scientific community only to have later been demonstrated to be valid. Invariably ignored by those who make this argument is the fact that the number of such cases is miniscule compared to the number of cases in which the original negative judgment of the scientific community was subsequently and totally corroborated. Indeed, in the twisted logic of this sort of argument, it would seem that the truth value of any idea increases with the degrees to which it is rejected by the scientific community! It is also revealing to note that, in their own fundamentalist educational institutions and in direct contrast to the accepted practice in science, such minority or dissenting opinions are allowed no expression whatsoever.
It is difficult to imagine any alternative to a kind of majority rule by experts in the evaluation of the worth of scientific ideas. What better guideline can there be than to at least tentatively accept the authority of a body of experts on any given subject matter? If I go to a thousand auto mechanics and 999 of them tell me I have a cracked engine block while one, who claims to be in contact with aliens from another universe, contends that my problems flow from my having offended Sydney the avocado spirit, whom am I to believe? In a parallel manner, if we follow the lead of the "scientific" creationists regarding their confrontation with evolutionary scientists, I am to reject the authority of the entire scientific community and to accept the claims of a group who openly admit that their ultimate commitment is not to a quest for the truth but to the propagation of an alleged truth already divinely revealed.
Consider the words of Henry Morris on the question of the historicity of the universal flood as it relates to geology:
But the main reason for insisting on the universal Flood as a fact of history and as the primary vehicle for geological interpretation is that God's Word plainly teaches it! No geological difficulties, real or imagined, can be allowed to take precedence over the clear statements and necessary inferences of Scripture. [1970, p. 33; emphasis added)
It would be difficult to formulate a statement that could stand in greater opposition to the central spirit of modern science.
But this same Henry Morris actually had the gall, several years ago, to stand at the pulpit of Jerry Falwell's church, after having been introduced as "Mr. Creationism," and proclaim that the media were misrepresenting the conflict between "scientific" creationism and evolution as a conflict between religion and science. The congregation, instead of falling out of their pews with laughter at the blatant incongruity of such a statement in such a context, sat there piously nodding their approval.
Comedian George Carlin has observed that there are some words that just don't seem to go together. He gives as examples the terms jumbo shrimp and military intelligence. I think that there can be little doubt that the top honors for such contradictions-in-terms should go to scientific creationism.