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500 Years Ago, Geocentrism & Astrology Would have Fit NAS definition of “Theory”!

I’ll make one unnecessarily obvious point: Michael Behe, I, and everybody else at Discovery believe that geocentrism and astrology are 100% wrong.

Michael Behe today concluded his testimony at the Dover Trial. Behe did a great job of making his views excruciatingly clear to the Court and fending off attacks during cross-examination.

Unfortunately, one article misleads readers by wrongly insinuating that Behe somehow endorsed astrology as a scientific theory. Since these false allegations are in print, we will respond to them here. (I’ll make one unnecessarily obvious point: Michael Behe, I, and everybody else at Discovery believe that geocentrism and astrology are 100% wrong.)

The tilted article is titled “Astrology is scientific theory, courtroom told” and it alleges the following

“Astrology would be considered a scientific theory if judged by the same criteria used by a well-known advocate of Intelligent Design to justify his claim that ID is science, a landmark US trial heard on Tuesday. Under cross examination, ID proponent Michael Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, admitted his definition of “theory” was so broad it would also include astrology.

This unqualified statement does no justice to Behe’s views (which include Behe’s complete rejection of astrological explanations). Let’s now return to reality.

The line of questions came when Eric Rothschild, counsel for the plaintiffs, asked Behe about the definition of the term “theory.” Behe explained that the National Academy of Science’s (NAS) definition of a theory is not one typically used by scientists. The NAS defines “theory” as:

“In science, a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, and tested hypotheses. The contention that evolution should be taught as “theory, not as fact” confuses the common use of these words through the accumulation of evidence. Rather, theories are the end points of science. They are understandings that develop from extensive observation, experimentation, and creative reflection. They incorporate a large body of scientific facts, laws, tested hypotheses, and logical inferences.”

(Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences, 2nd Ed. (1999), pg. 2)

This definition does not actually represent how scientists usually use the word in their technical writing. To witness this fact, perform a PubMed search for the phrase “new theory” (go to pub med and type ” “new theory” ” [leave in the double quotes]) and you’ll find hundreds of hits showing scientists using the word “theory” to describe a “new” idea which can explain a lot of things, but may not yet be “well-substantiated” and may not yet enjoy evidentiary support from many scientific studies.

Many scientists who have used the phrase “new theory” use the term based upon the new findings of a single study. The phrase “new theory” is antithetical to the idea of “extensive observation, experimentation, and creative reflection” and the phrase should not exist in scientific literature if the NAS is correct in its definition.

Nonetheless, let’s explore the implications of the NAS’s definition.
About 500 years ago, most “scientists” believed (albeit incorrectly) that the Earth was the center of the solar system. Had you asked an early astronomer in the year 1500 if the geocentric model of the solar system was “a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, and tested hypotheses … that develop[ed] from extensive observation, experimentation, and creative reflection … [and] incorporate[s] a large body of scientific facts, laws, tested hypotheses, and logical inferences” she would have probably told you YES!

Put the NAS on the witness stand, and they would admit that 500 years ago, some people would have said that geocentrism qualified under their definition of “theory.” In fact, 500 years ago, many of these same people would have put “astrology” under the NAS definition (note: we find this incredible today, but in his time, it was not scandalous that Newton was an astrologer). Today we know both astrology and geocentrism are totally wrong, and so nobody wants them taught as science in school.

But how does Behe define a scientific theory? Behe’s testimony referenced his definition from a paper he authored in Philosophy and Biology:

“Without getting into the difficult problem of trying to define science, I will just say that I think any explanation which rests wholly on empirical evidence and basic logic deserves the appellation ‘scientific’.8”

[Footnote] “8 On the other hand, if an explanation depends critically on specific tenets of a particular faith, such as the Trinity or Incarnation, or on sacred texts, then that of course is not a scientific explanation.”

(Behe M.J., “Reply to my critics: A response to reviews of Darwin’s Black Box: The biochemical challenge to evolution,” Biology and Philosophy, 16 (5): 685-709, Nov, 2001)

Plaintiffs’ attorney tried to twist Behe’s statements into making it appear that Behe believed that astrology was a scientific theory. Behe did say that 500 years or so ago, when people knew much much less about the world and were trying to explain things, they had an idea that things on earth might have been influenced by things on stars. This was a historical fact. But Behe made it clear that today, astrology is known to be incorrect. This is just like phlogiston theory of burning–people once thought it was true, and once thought it was an empirically-based scientific theory, but today it would not stand up to scientific scrutiny.

The problem with astrology is not that it could have fit the NAS or Behe’s definition of science 500 years ago. The problem is that it is not supported by the evidence. That is why, unlike ID, no serious scientists are advocating astrology as a good theory which could be presented to students in science classrooms. Nor do serious academics reference the peer-reviewed scientific literature in support of astrology, as serious scientists do for ID.

Nonetheless, under the NAS’s defintion, a “theory” is in the eye of the beholder. And there are many scientists, like Behe, who believe that intelligent design is a “well-substantiated explanation.” Perhaps the NAS might want to try finding a new definition of “theory” which better excludes ID.

Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



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