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Helping Students Answer a Professor’s Challenge to “Find a Fact” That Supports Intelligent Design (Part 1)

We’ve recently received a number of e-mails from students asking for help. A university biology professor has apparently challenged his class to “[f]ind a fact (observation, data) that supports” evolution or intelligent design. The students e-mailed us asking for help answering his challenge with regards to intelligent design. My response, which I’ve now sent to a few of the students in the course, has been, “Where to begin?” Below I post Part 1 or my reply to one student, with names and quotes removed to protect the innocent:

Dear [Snip],

Greetings and thanks for your email. I think that someone else from your class already emailed me with the same question. According to the document you sent me, your professor stated the following:

To qualify as a theory, ID must meet the following criteria:

1. It must be supported by a large amount of data (observations in the physical world) and it must have broad application to explain a wide range of phenomena.

2. It must provide a framework that allows the development of novel hypotheses (questions about nature).

He then challenged you to “Find a fact (observation, data) that supports” intelligent design. My response is, where to begin? Before we get into that, let’s address your comment that you are struggling to clearly understand the proper definitions of theories and hypotheses.

First, I appreciate the difficulties you are having with the definitions of terms like “theory.” I agree with your professor’s definitions of “fact” and “hypothesis,” and I partly agree with your professor’s definition of “theory.” For some details on these questions, I recommend that you read an article I wrote on this topic at: Is “Evolution” a “Theory” or “Fact” or Is This Just a Trivial Game of Semantics?

Here I explain that in practice, scientists use different definitions for terms like “theory,” thus creating confusion. Here’s a point I make in the article, modified to help answer your present concerns:

“Theory” can have multiple definitions. When I look up “theory” in my 1996 edition of Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language (WEUDEL), the word “theory” has 7 or 8 different entries:

1. a coherent group of general propositions used as principles of explanation for a class of phenomena: Einstein’s theory of relativity.
2. a proposed explanation whose status is still conjectural, in contrast to well-established propositions that are regarded as reporting matters of actual fact.
3. Math. a body of principles, theorems, or the like, belonging to one subject: number theory.
4. the branch of a science or art that deals with its principles or methods, as distinguished from its practice: music theory.
5. a particular conception or view of something to be done or of the method of doing it; a system of rules or principles.
6. contemplation or speculation.
7. guess or conjecture.

According to entry #2, “theory” can mean “a proposed explanation whose status is still conjectural, in contrast to well-established propositions that are regarded as reporting matters of actual fact.” Similarly, entries #6 and #7 define “theory” as “contemplation or speculation” or “guess or conjecture” (what I’ll call the “soft” of theory). The upshot of the soft definition of theory is that evolutionists who imply that the term “theory” can never mean that “conjecture or guess” are in fact wrong, because “theory” can in fact mean conjecture or guess. On the other hand, if you’re a Darwin-skeptic who thinks that “theory” necessarily means “conjecture” or a “guess” and can never mean a verified scientific explanation, then you are wrong: After listing these entries, my 1996 edition of WEUDEL elaborates on proper usage of the word “theory” within the scientific community:

“1. THEORY, HYPOTHESIS are used in non-technical contexts to mean untested idea or opinion. The THEORY in technical use is a more or less verified or established explanation accounting for known facts or phenomena: the theory of relativity. A hypothesis is a conjecture put forth as a possible explanation of phenomena or relations, which serve as a basis of argument or experimentation to reach the truth: This idea is only a hypothesis.”

Within technical scientific discussions, the term “theory” typically is understood to mean “a more or less verified or established explanation.” We’ll call this the hard definition of theory. But is this hard definition of theory the only way that scientists use the word “theory”?

When a Darwin-skeptic says “evolution is a theory, not a fact,” evolutionists often pounce and assert that the authoritative scientists never use the word “theory” to mean conjecture or guess.

For example, Ken Miller’s 2007 edition of the textbook Biology bluffs by implying that there is a united front and complete conformity within the scientific community regarding proper usage of the word “theory.” Miller’s textbook states: “In science, the word theory applies to a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations.” Such evolutionist claims of unanimity within the scientific community are not correct.

While scientists do typically imply the “hard” definition when using the word “theory,” they don’t always use it in that sense. If scientists always meant the “hard” definition of “theory,” then scientists would virtually never use the phrase “new theory” because an idea does not attain the status of a theory until it becomes well-established and verified, withstanding many tests until it is no longer “a proposed explanation whose status is still conjectural.” Yet a quick search of PubMed for the phrase “new theory” reveals dozens and dozens of hits from the technical scientific literature where scientists offered “a proposed explanation whose status is still conjectural” but called that explanation a “theory.”

You can read my article for examples of where scientists use the term “theory” in the “soft” sense. The truth is that scientists can use both the “soft” or “hard” definition of “theory” when they use the term.

Regardless, this is a semantic debate, and if we accept your professor’s “hard” definition as the only proper usage of “theory,” then ID most definitely is “supported by a large amount of data (observations in the physical world)” and it does “have broad application to explain a wide range of phenomena” and “a framework that allows the development of novel hypotheses (questions about nature).”

I’ll finish the rest of my response to this student in a subsequent post.


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.