No, You Can’t Just Refute A Scientific Theory
Whenever I try to explain the Big Bang or evolution, so many deniers tell me that it’s “just a theory”. This argument is frustrating because scientific theories are extremely reliable pieces of evidence. The word “theory” might be a little bit misleading. In our vernacular, the idea is often interchangeable with guesses, beliefs, or assumptions. However, in the scientific world, there is a big difference between a guess and a theory. There are guesses in science, which are commonly known as hypotheses. A hypothesis is just a conceivable explanation for an observation. For example, when you hold a pen a couple feet above the ground and then let go of it, it is going to fall. There could be a million possible reasons or hypotheses for why it fell. Perhaps a giant vacuum opened up underneath the ground. The pen got sucked towards the vacuum, but then the vacuum quickly closed up, so the pen just landed nicely on the ground. Before the scientific community goes around saying that a vacuum opened up underneath the pen, scientists will first run some tests on this hypothesis.
To test a hypothesis, a scientist is going to conduct a series of experiments and collect plenty of data. After a couple of experiments and making a few more observations during these experiments, a scientist may alter the hypothesis a little bit. After all, if a vacuum really did open up underneath the ground, then one would expect the entire ground to get sucked into the vacuum. Therefore, a better hypothesis designed to fit the observation might state that a very specific type vacuum opened up that only wanted to suck in the pen. Of course, scientists might realize that no such vacuum exists, so they have to fix their hypothesis some more and say something is specifically pulling the pen towards the center of the Earth without pulling down the rest of the ground. Eventually, scientists will call this phenomenon gravity. The pen moves towards the center of the Earth because it has enough mass to move towards something else with a lot of mass.
This force of gravity actually does have an effect on the ground, even if the ground is not going to collapse in on itself. It has an effect on many different things and Newton gave us a handy way of mathematically describing the effects of gravity. The law of gravity states that every single point of mass attracts every other single point of mass with a force that acts along the line that intersects the two points. This force is proportional to the product of the two masses and it is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between the two points of mass. We can all thank Newton for giving us more words and equations to memorize in physics class, but his law of gravity basically states that masses are attracted to each other and the strength of this attraction will depend on both the distance between the two masses and the size of the two masses. Therefore, bigger objects that are closer together are going to exert a lot of gravitational force. The pen is admittedly a rather small object, but the Earth is a relatively big object, so the gravitational force coming from the center of the Earth is going to pull that pen towards the ground.
Gravity is also more than just a law. It started as a hypothesis, meaning it was used to explain why your pen falls. However, it became much more than a simple guess about why something occurs the way it occurs. After all, we can use this explanation to understand a whole array of natural phenomena. We can also use this explanation to predict future phenomena. If a hypothesis successfully predicts future events and adequately explains past and current events, then it is considered an incredibly strong hypothesis. Once a hypothesis starts explaining enough events, scientists will start to call it a theory. The theory of gravity actually fits mostly within Einstein’s theory of general relativity.
Luckily, unless you believe the Earth is flat, you probably are not going to dispute that things fall towards the center of the Earth. Still, theories can never be fully proven. Since the theory of gravity has made a bunch of accurate predictions, it is difficult to disprove it. However, there is no way to show that there are not any specialized invisible pen vacuums opening up under our feet every time a pen falls to the ground. These vacuums exist within the realm of plausible deniability, meaning it is possible to deny it, but it is also possible to accept it. Of course, very few people are going to start denying gravity because of some irrational notion about vacuums. After all, if you accept the hypothesis about pen vacuums, you are definitely ignoring the mounting evidence that gravity is real.
Most scientific theories are just as tried and as tested as the theory of gravity. In fact, they would not be considered theories if they did not make sufficient predictions about the universe. However, somehow, people still find a way to deny theories under the assumption that plausible deniability is a valid argument. Unless you think a valid argument is one that has no solid evidence to back it up, you cannot use plausible deniability as an argument, which means that you are making a meaningless point if you say something is “just a theory”. Of course, the theory of gravity may not have that many opponents who claim that it is “just a theory”, but many people use this argument to deny theories like evolution and the Big Bang.
Evolution and the Big Bang obviously have something in common. They can test your religious beliefs. I can definitely appreciate it if you do not want to compare God to absurd hypotheses such as the pen vacuum hypothesis. The funny thing is that even Charles Darwin believed in God. He developed the theory of natural selection, which is the main driving force behind evolution. Without Darwin, we would not have today’s theory of evolution. Darwin was well aware of how controversial evolution would be for some religious people, which was probably part of the reason why he actually delayed publishing his work. However, his book subtly says that evolution does not contradict God. He never stopped believing in God and he never stopped practicing religion. In fact, it is actually incredibly easy to believe in both God and evolution. You obviously cannot take the creation story in the Bible too literally, but I am willing to bet that you do not take every word of the Bible literally. At some point, someone decided that creation was one of the foundations of faith, but it does not have to be. You can easily believe that God created a world where things like the Big Bang and evolution could take place. Darwin certainly believed in this version of creation.
The difference between religion and the pen vacuum hypothesis is that religion does not always stand against science. If the pen vacuum hypothesis were true, then the theory of gravity would completely fall apart. However, religion is a much vaguer concept that means different things to different people. Therefore, many different types of religion do not contradict science in any way. People have decided to create a false dichotomy between science and religion and, as a result, many scientific theories are not taken seriously. However, you cannot just dismiss a scientific theory without evidence against it. You can poke holes in it and force scientists to alter a theory. You can develop a new theory that seems to make better predictions about natural phenomena. You can argue that some of the scientists behind the development of a theory harbored certain biases. The scientific world is definitely open to debate. You just need evidence. After all, the scientists are going to be coming to the debate with piles and piles of data and evidence. If you are under the illusion that a scientist will not have the data, then you really have not spoken to enough scientists.