Posted by: paulgarner | January 15, 2014

Well evidenced theories can be wrong; poorly evidenced theories can be right

There’s a fascinating article in this month’s Scientific American entitled ‘The case against Copernicus’ (Danielson and Graney 2014). Yes, you read that right. The case against Copernicus.

Actually the authors aren’t suggesting that Copernicus was wrong to challenge the geocentrism of his day, but they are arguing that those who resisted his conclusions at the time had reasonable grounds for doing so. The fact is that the observational evidence did not support Copernicus but instead favoured the modified geocentric model proposed by Tycho Brahe. According to the Scientific American article the Copernicans “were forced to appeal to divine omnipotence” to avoid having to “give up their theory in the face of seemingly incontrovertible physical evidence”. In fact, by 1600, 57 years after the publication of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus “no more than a dozen serious astronomers had given up belief in an unmoving earth.”

As I read the article, I was reminded of the can of worms that Todd Wood opened up back in 2009 when he wrote that the theory of evolution was well supported and not about to collapse. Many creationists reacted angrily to his blog post while many anti-creationists were jubilant; few took much notice of the follow-up posts that clarified Todd’s position and put it into context (all of which are now linked to at the bottom of the original post).

But Todd was right, of course. Evolution is a well supported and very successful scientific theory. It is not in crisis or on the verge of collapse. And the lesson we should draw from history is that this does not mean that the theory is true. In the mid sixteenth century the evidence clearly favoured Tycho Brahe’s geocentrism, but Copernicus turned out to be right and the geocentrists were wrong. Indeed, Todd himself referred to this historical example in his post on ‘The nature of evidence’.

So I would urge my fellow creationists not to be afraid to acknowledge the successes of evolutionary theory. We will get nowhere with a policy of denial. As Todd concluded:

“Whether or not a future Copernicus or Newton comes along to replace evolution with something better depends on us. If creationists content themselves with critiquing evolution, nothing will change (or if it does change, it will not be favorable to creationists). If instead creationists apply themselves to the development of new theories of creation, who knows what might happen?”


Danielson D. and Graney C.M. 2014. The case against Copernicus. Scientific American 310(1):62-67.



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