The Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense

By Michael Shermer | Go to book overview

14
THE GREAT BONE
HOAX

Piltdown and the Self-Correcting
Nature of Science

IN THE PHYSICAL SCIENCES the uncovering of new facts takes one down a reasonably straight and clear path toward support of one theory or rejection of another (where Karl Popper's falsifiability criteria so well applies). There is a fairly straight one-to-one correspondence between theory and reality. The problems to solve, while difficult, are not nearly so complex as those in the biological and especially the social sciences (where falsifiability criteria and operational definitions of measured variables become clouded in fuzzy complexities). When these sciences bump up against national prejudices, as in the race-IQ debates, and religious preferences, as in the evolution-creationism controversies, emotions run high, theories are clouded in bias, scientists and their critics exchange salvos of prejudicial accusation, and the science seems far removed from whatever the reality might be.

To take one example of a scientific controversy that erupted in 1859 and has not abated to this day, the theory of evolution continues to stir emotions in people who wouldn't know the difference between a pongid and a hominid (but if enlightened would unhesitatingly express their preference for the latter). When the creationists were defeated in the 1987 Supreme Court decision that prohibited Louisiana teachers from teaching so-called creation-science in public schools, it appeared that this peculiarly American social movement had finally heard its death knell, which should have been rung in the 1925 Scopes trial. 1 And when Pope John Paul II released his 1996 encyclical that gave sanction to the theory of evolution and admitted that evolution was “more than a theory”

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