The Science of Sustainability

Chasing Beetles, Finding Darwin

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It's been 150 years since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species. Yet his ideas remain as central to scientific exploration as ever. QUEST follows researchers who are still unlocking the mysteries of evolution, like entomologist David Kavanaugh, who predicted that a new beetle species would be found in the Trinity Alps. Find out if his prediction came true…

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Category: Biology, Television

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Gabriela Quirós

About the Author ()

Gabriela Quirós is a TV Producer for KQED Science & Environment. She started her journalism career in 1993 as a newspaper reporter in Costa Rica, where she grew up. She won two national reporting awards there for series on C-sections and organic agriculture, and developed a life-long interest in health reporting. She moved to the Bay Area in 1996 to study documentary filmmaking at the University of California-Berkeley, where she received master’s degrees in journalism and Latin American studies. She joined KQED as a TV producer when QUEST started in 2006 and has covered everything from Alzheimer’s to bee die-offs to dark energy. She has shared two regional Emmys, and four of her stories have been nominated for the award as well. Independent from her work on QUEST, she produced and directed the hour-long documentary Beautiful Sin for PBS, about the surprising story of how Costa Rica became the only country in the world to outlaw in-vitro fertilization.
  • Robert Thomas

    In the preamble to the television broadcast, the narration asks something like "…can Kavanaugh's work prove that…"

    Answer: no.

    Please believe me when I state that I am no denier of evolutionary mechanisms or natural selection or descent with modification and as a lay person I harbor no exotic views about evolution of species.

    What is crucial to my assertion is the fact that "prove" and "proof" are words appropriate when speaking of the theorEMs of mathematical tautology but are alien and inappropriate when discussing the theorIEs that are objects of scientific inquiry.

    I can provide clear arguments for the following but it would be better to just accept them as true and proceed to the prescription:

    In discussions of scientific inquiry and when describing the reasonable conclusions resulting from such inquiry, whenever and wherever one might, in colloquial speech, be tempted to invoke "proof" in any of its forms to describe the character of an assertion about the world, substitute instead a word or phrase such as "shown"; "demonstrated"; "conclusively shows"; "conclusively demonstrated"; "clearly and conclusively demonstrates" etc., as will be most appropriate.

    If required, carry a small, pointed implement that can be used to deliver to oneself a stabbing pain whenever one fails to avoid uttering or writing "proof" and "prove" in this context.

    Here's the thing: when lay people or scientists lazily , thoughtlessly (there is no other way in which they do this) use these "pro[x]" words, SCIENCE IS DAMAGED. It is damaged. It is wounded. Science education is impaired and imperiled. "Proved" and "proof" are bullets that science deniers use to argue that their assertions, having honorably descended from Revealed Truth, are categorically the same as conclusions drawn from scientific inquiry.

    Since science is the activity of using our imperfect observations and our imperfect reason to create with verisimilitude nevertheless reduced models of the world, its conclusions must always be contingent. They're never proved. Assertions of Revealed Truth are true beyond reason and require no evidence. So the latter can never be objects of science. But apologists who are unscrupulous or confused or both will try to represent that assertions from revelation are categorically similar to contingent scientific conclusions and that since scientific models are "only theories", that their assertions ought to be presented along side those of scientific inquiry, in the same way.

    You will note that this assails "scientific proof" with a flavor of the falsifiability argument. Without explicitly recalling that argument (and without disparaging it), I hope that I have explained why this and similar casual, idiomatic usages are best avoided. The lay understanding of science in America and the success of science education in the schools is endangered when they aren't.