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Theory or Fact?

Sarah Chaffee


In a post, “Climate facts versus climate theories,” at the Watts Up With That? blog, petrophysicist Andy May expresses skepticism about man-made global warming. In his analysis, he compares aspects of the climate change issue to evolution, and states that evolution is a fact.

What exactly is meant by evolution? Evolution can refer to change over time (micro and macro evolution), universal common descent, or the mechanisms by which change occurs. May has the first definition in mind.

Here’s what he says about speciation:

How about evolution? Species evolve, we can see that in the geological record. We can also watch it happen in some quickly reproducing species. Thus we could describe evolution as a fact. It happens, but we cannot describe how without more work. Early theories of the evolutionary process include Darwin’s theory of natural selection and Lamarck’s theory of heritable species adaptation due to external stresses. Due to epigenetic research we now know that Darwin and Lamarck were both right and that evolution involves both processes.

He concludes by noting that climate change is real. The question is, he says, whether man’s actions are the dominant driver, and if so, whether human actions will lead to catastrophe. He likens this discussion to evolution — speciation, to May, is a fact, but there is debate over mechanisms of evolution. Is natural selection or are epigenetic factors primarily responsible?

But what exactly does he mean by calling evolution “a fact”?

Dr. Roy Spencer, climatologist and meteorologist from the University of Alabama, and former NASA scientist, responded to a commenter on May’s article:

July 26, 2016 at 3:31 pm
Evolution as a chaotic physical process is a fact. Evolution as a creative process is a theory.

Roy Spencer
July 26, 2016 at 4:10 pm
a little too black-and-white…I’d say all there are only theories…some are so well established that people no longer try to disprove them an [sic] they are routinely used to make accurate predictions, others are highly speculative.

So what is “fact,” according to Spencer, is elusive here. Rather, there are theories held with varying degrees of confidence. May follows up:

Andy May
July 27, 2016 at 9:39 am
Thanks Dr. Spencer that was the sort of feedback I was after. Hypotheses and theories are clearly the same, since the difference is a judgement call. “Law” as a simple description of the what [sic] happens, seems a little arbitrary. But, facts versus the others, even though we know facts can come and go? I like having the term fact to use when debating science, at least for a period of time a fact is universally accepted, even if it can go away tomorrow. Language is tough, making science clear is tough.

Note where May takes this: It’s a fact because it’s “universally accepted, even if it can go away tomorrow.” Leaving aside the question of the term “fact,” this is an appeal to consensus science — which may be legitimate in some cases, but in others is rightly the object of skepticism.

As regards origins science, May ignores the growing scientific controversy over evolution and intelligent design. Evolution in the most sweeping and comprehensive sense is, in fact, not fact.

Sarah Chaffee

Now a teacher, Sarah Chaffee served as Program Officer in Education and Public Policy at Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. She earned her B.A. in Government. During college she interned at Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler’s office and for Prison Fellowship Ministries. Before coming to Discovery, she worked for a private land trust with holdings in the Southwest.