Theories vs "facts" (was Re: What will the creationists think?)
David Ralston comments (1st October 2007): "Dare I say carbon dating is only a theory! This is what the scientific community states as a "fact". Which is the basic problem with creationism vs evolution. You are trying to shove "theories presented as facts" down our throats. Present them as theories and the scientific community in evolution would have more acceptance."
Here we go again! Science does not deal in "facts", in the naive sense of indisputable absolute truths; it can only establish theories. A scientific theory is a conceptual model of the universe which unites a certain class of observations so that they can be understood as a whole and which enables us to predict future observations so that the theory can be tested. A theory becomes "established" by having been tested (exposed to being contradicted by observation) and not falsified (in other words, its predictions are borne out by observation). An established theory is as close to a fact as scientific truth gets, and many scientific truths are so well established that only the deranged would seriously doubt them, but all scientific theories are open to test and possible falsification.
Science proceeds by continually improving its theories. The ultimate "truth" may be unknowable, but successive theories are ever more accurate approximations to "truth", as shown by the accuracy of the predictions that we can make using them.
This is now the generally accepted view of science, and was first systematically described by the philosopher Karl Popper in "The Logic of Scientific Discovery" in 1959 (originally published in German in 1934). Popper was inspired by the supplanting of Newtonian dynamics in the early 1900's by Einstein's theory of relativity: a view of the universe that had been accepted as "fact" for nearly 200 years had been rejected in favour of a new theory that better explained certain experimental and astronomical observations.
Popper held that what makes scientific knowledge "scientific" is that it is open to experimental falsification and replacement by better theories. Other types of statement may be "true", but are not falsifiable, and so are not scientific, e.g., "Your face is beautiful." may be true for your mother, but not for me.
I said "Here we go again!" at the outset, since it is necessary to explain the nature of scientific knowledge ad infinitum (or ad nauseam), to people who seem unable to grasp that it is always necessary to live with some residual doubt, and that science is not just another fixed body of unquestionable dogma, but a self-correcting process of acquisition of knowledge. Above all, it is based upon objective evidence gained from experiment and observation.
Scientific theories fit together. (Where they don't yet match up, scientists are working hard to reconcile them, as in the current attempts to reconcile general relativity with quantum theory.) Theories of nuclear behaviour (e.g., decay of radioactive substances), chemistry (e.g., reactions between oxygen and other elements), physics (e.g., the greenhouse effect), and geology (e.g., vulcanism, plate tectonics) can all be brought to bear on the problem of explaining the early history of planet Earth.
Carbon dating is not a "theory": it is a method of dating substances based upon the theory of the decay of radiocarbon. It can only be applied with reasonable accuracy to human artifacts and to biological remains up to around 60,000 years old, due to the relatively short half-life of carbon-14. For older substances, longer lived radio-isotopes must be used for radiometrics, or other evidence must be used (geological, astronomical, etc.). The investigators of the ice cores would have used every shot in their scientific lockers to have dated their samples, and loads of theories about the chemical reactions between oxygen and iron, silicon, etc., to estimate the proportion of oxygen in the atmosphere at the relevant times.
Guesswork? Of course! All science is "guesswork" (i.e., theory) but it is the kind of sublime inspired guesswork that raises mankind above the brutes and closer to the gods (if these exist, of course).
Given everything that we have learned through science (even just during the past two hundred years), the theories that the Earth is around 4.5 billion years old, that evolution gave rise to all of the living species that we now observe, and that free oxygen was not present in the Earth's original atmosphere but first appeared at some intermediate point (to be measured more precisely by the investigations described in the article) now have the same status as the "fact" that the Earth is round (or a slightly oblate spheroid, to be more scientifically precise).
Belief in the literal truth of primitive myths belongs to the infancy of humanity. The fundamentalist belief in the inerrancy of bronze-age middle-eastern texts is a wish to revert to that infantile state: Daddy (God) knows best and will tell us what to think! (I say "revert" advisedly, since the fundamentalist mind-set arose (in Christianity at least) only in the late 19th Century.)