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Interpreting evidence is not the same as observation (Talk.Origins)

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Response Article
This article (Interpreting evidence is not the same as observation (Talk.Origins)) is a response to a rebuttal of a creationist claim published by Talk.Origins Archive under the title Index to Creationist Claims.

Claim CA230:

Evidence for evolution has not been observed. Claims that it has confuse observation with interpretation. What is observed has to be interpreted to fit the hypotheses.

Source: Five major evolutionist misconceptions about evolution. by Wallace, Timothy. 2002

CreationWiki responds:

We recommend that you look at Timothy Wallace's article to see what he actually stated. It is in the first part entitled "Evolution has never been observed" where he deals with Isaak's statements on the issue.

In responding to this creationist claim, Talk.Origins says:

(Talk.Origins quotes in blue)

All observation requires interpretation. Even something as seemingly simple as seeing an object in front of you requires a great deal of interpretation to determine what it is, what properties it exhibits, how far away it is, and so forth (Sacks 1995).

It is true that all observation requires interpretation. This is true up to a point. But there is a difference in the interpretations one makes when they are looking at the sun in the sky to say "I observe the sun", or looking at the reactions of two different chemicals as they are mixed in a science experiment, and the interpretations one makes to say that because two sets of fossils are in different sorts of rock, that one must be about 100 million years older than the other. Nobody would argue with a person saying they can see the sky if they also can see the sky. This is what is known as direct observation. It is where events that happen occur in the presence of an observer. Although the author of Talk.Origins would try to emphasize some great effort in this, people do it on a daily basis without a second thought. It's that easy. It is what babies and toddlers do to learn more about the world they interact with. Although this observation does involve interpretation, it is quite low-level interpretation. It doesn't really require any philosophy or religion on its basic level. Using this form of observation, two people can see the same thing and come to basically the same conclusion. Two people can see fossils in a rock formation and that would be it. It is forever based on the now, the present.

But the sort of interpretation the writer is talking about is a higher level form, based more on philosophies and religious views. It is where you use the philosophical framework that you already have, be it evolutionism, naturalism, biblical theism, and derive a meaning that is not based so much on direct observation. Example: fossils in different rock layers. Direct observation doesn't tell you much. But to a person who believes in evolution, if he sees certain similarities he sees as progressional, he'll fit that evidence in with the philosophy he already has. He has no direct observation that these things lived at different times or different millenia. He only observes dead things in the soil, and then tries to fit it into a pre-existing philosophical framework, a mix of what he believes and what he has observed in the present. If the progression looks the wrong way, because of the ruling worldview in his head, he makes an excuse or simply overlooks it since the overall worldview is the controller.

It is in this higher level interpretation that there will be disagreements about conclusions because the starting points, the fundamental assumptions and the accuracy of other findings become all the more important and critical.

When we get into traces of a distant past we have never observed and no human has experienced and there is no documented history, it is beyond direct observation and thus becomes more based on a person's philosophy and religion.

Now the problem that creationists have with evolutionists is:

  • the philosophical/religious framework used to interpret evidences of things in a distant past that have not been directly observed, that being naturalism;
  • the purely naturalistic logic used to reach such conclusions, which can be far-fetched and based on extrapolations beyond reason and direct observation;
  • the fact that such philosophically biased interpretations about the unobserved past is taught as fact when there are other feasible interpretations around that are not based on that philosophy/religion.

The author then makes a grand over-exaggeration in order to pour ridicule on the creationist argument.

To dismiss absolutely everything we know because it is interpretation would be ludicrous.

Nobody claimed that we should dismiss every interpretation in the world whether using direct observation or other logical steps. But a creationist questions, and rightly so, the logic and foundational assumptions and sometimes even the high-level interpretations that the evolutionist comes with in order to give evidence for his theory. Being against evolution is not just a creationist enterprise. We don't have the monopoly on being critical of evolutionary interpretation of findings that do not only back up evolution but can be interpreted a number of ways. As a free-thinking human, we all have a right and responsibility to critically analyse theories that are not just of scientific import, but also religious, philosophical, and moral importance too.

Most of the evidence of evolution is not the sort about which interpretation is in question. The evidence consists of such things as the following:

This is the author's own subjective opinion. In fact, each piece of evidence he then cites means little unless you already have evolution in mind, and does not disprove the creation theory. The examples of evidence beyond interpretation he sites with a brief critique are as follows:

  • "certain trilobite species are found in certain geological formations". Translation: we see certain animals in certain layers of rock. But why? How did they get there? You need a philosophical framework and a lot more information to set this in to make any sense in history. Were they buried that way because of millions of years of evolution and soil deposition? Or were they buried that way because they lived in a certain ecosystem or environment that was catastrophically buried under sediment in a short space of time? So this is not beyond interpretation, or the interpretation can be questioned as to whether it just supports the theory that we are descended from ancient bacteria.
  • "many more varieties of marsupials are found in Australia than elsewhere". This point alone tells us nothing about how they got there in the first places. Both evolutionists and creationists have interpretations of this fact, both of which can be questioned, both of which may have holes, but both of which are interpretations of this observation, see Australian marsupials.
  • "bacteria in test tubes have been seen to change in certain ways over time". Again, this is an observation that means very little on its own. Can you guess what the bacteria changed into? If you guessed a human being, you would be incorrect. The bacteria changed into the same sort of bacteria with some minor alteration with most likely no new genetic information being added to the batch. The observation itself means little without some sort of interpretation as to why it changed and says little about how bacteria came to be in the first place. This is evidence for little to do with creation science or evolutionism.
  • "flies share some traits that other insects do not". This observation tells us very little except that flies are unique in some ways. That doesn't conclusively tell us whether they were created in a different way or if they evolved in a different ways. In fact, the statement tells us very little at all.

The author then goes on to tell us that there are "millions of other such facts". Seeing the lack of any leading facts in his examples, "leading" in the way as to lead us to evolution or creation, you can see the difference between what you observe and how you interpret it. You may observe one thing and be able to interpret it in more than one way.

So just to re-iterate, there is a difference between directly observing evidence (with the low-level interpretation inherent with it) and the way you interpret it to fit into pre-existing beliefs, ideas and theories.

However, a fact gets to be considered evidence for a theory if it fits that theory and does not fit or is not covered by competing theories... The millions of facts referred to above fit this criterion, so they qualify as evidence for evolution.

Earlier the author used the word "millions" as though there was a huge torrent, a vast multitude of facts that buried creation and spoke only of evolution. That is what is known as elephant hurling, described here by Jonathan Sarfati and Michael Matthews:

There is a debate tactic known as ‘elephant hurling’. This occurs when the critic throws summary arguments about complex issues to give the impression of weighty evidence, but with an unstated presumption that a large complex of underlying ideas is true, and failing to consider opposing data, usually because they have uncritically accepted the arguments from their own side. We should challenge elephant-hurlers to offer specifics and challenge the underlying assumptions. [1]

Talk.Origins here gives a classic example of this. The examples of evidence he gives are weak, and we should be careful about the other evidence he thinks he has, and the philosophical ideas and untestable assumptions he is using to glue it all together into his "coherent" system.

Creationists do look at the evidence that is said to be for evolution, and reasonably assess it with their own framework. They try their best to differentiate between what the evidence actually is and the interpretation of it. A lot of the time it is not so cut-and-dry for evolution as Talk.Origins tries to make it.

The interpretation on which creationism depends, in contrast, is based only on highly questionable and subjective ideas that do not fit together into a coherent whole.

It just needs one to check out creation science and the claims it makes in an open and relaxed way to see this statement for what it is: a bad interpretation of the facts based on the author's own highly questionable and subjective ideas, and his unswerving allegiance to naturalism and evolution.

1. Evolution is true science, not ‘just a theory’- Chapter 3 of Refuting Evolution 2 by Jonathan Sarfati with Michael Matthews.