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Do You Know the Difference between Observation and Interpretation? Part 1

In science, it is important to distinguish between an observation and an interpretation. Observations are things we measure; while interpretations are the conclusions we derive from those observations. In well-designed experiments the resulting interpretations are the only possible explanations for the observations—but this is a rare occurrence. More often, alternate interpretations are possible.

Unfortunately, it is often the interpretation that gets reported in the review papers, the press, and the textbooks, while the observations may only be reported in the primary source. In cases where alternate interpretations are possible—or worse, where the observations do not actually support the vaunted interpretation—it may be necessary to examine the primary source (perhaps, even, the raw data) to determine which conclusions are justified and which are not.

To illustrate this point, let me examine an example from my own research.1 Most consider the existence of dark matter and dark energy to be scientific facts—but, in reality, this conclusion is just one of several possible interpretations based upon observations.

Do Dark Matter and Dark Energy Exist?

We have never directly observed dark matter; its existence is inferred from astronomical observation. Using the Doppler shift of light, we can very accurately measure the speed at which stars and gas clouds orbit their galactic centers. When we compare the measured velocity to the velocity calculated on the basis of the gravitational force provided by all visible mass (see here), we find that the measured velocity does not fall off rapidly with distance as predicted by our theory of gravity. Rather it remains flat at a high value out to great distances from the center of the galaxy. The accepted interpretation for this observation is that, in order to increase the gravitational force enough to keep the stars and gas in orbit around the galaxy, there must be dark matter providing additional mass that we cannot see.

However, dark matter is not the only interpretation that can explain why galaxies have flat rotation curves. It could be that our understanding of gravity is incomplete. By slightly modifying the gravitational force equation, Modified Newtonian Dynamics(MoND) can fit the galactic rotation curves without the need for dark matter. But MoND is an empirical law, not a theory—it does not explain galactic rotation curves unless there is a theory of gravity from which the MoND equation can be derived. (Similarly, Kepler’s laws fit planetary motion, but the basis for them was not understood until Isaac Newton came up with the theory of universal gravitation.)

Several such theories have been proposed, but my favorite postulates the existence of gravitational dipoles that modify gravity with gravitational vacuum polarization.2 This is my favorite theory, not only because I have proposed3 research (still unfunded) to test the underlying assumption behind this theory (specifically, that antimatter and matter repel each other gravitationally), but also because it would solve two other big mysteries in physics: missing antimatter in the universe and Type Ia supernova data.4(It could solve the latter mystery without the need for a cosmological constant or dark energy.5)

Adjusting Arguments and Beliefs

Scientists like to think that their beliefs are entirely empirical, based only upon observation. To a certain extent, this is true. For example, before the Type Ia supernova data were published, almost all physicists and astronomers believed that the cosmological constant Λ must be exactly 0 since the universe is expanding and the natural value for Λ is enormous (10120 larger than the observed value). However, after seeing the new observations, researchers now believe Λ must be non-zero, though tiny. If confronted with a verified measurement that matter and antimatter repel each other gravitationally, most of these same scientists would change their beliefs yet again.

On a personal note, and to provide additional insight into scientists’ research, RTB scholar and UCLA researcher Jeff Zweerink is working on an experiment that is attempting to observe dark matter interactions. One might think that Jeff and I would consider ourselves rivals since I’m proposing an experiment that could show that dark matter need not exist. On the contrary, we consider ourselves colleagues. Essentially, we are both trying to explain the same observation; we are just approaching the problem in different ways. Either of us would be delighted if the other succeeded because then we would know the explanation and would gain additional insight into how God created the universe. Even if we have to forfeit apologetics arguments based upon whichever explanation proves incorrect, apologetics arguments founded on the other explanation would be strengthened as a result of the new observation.

The main point here for apologists is the importance of recognizing that when a new scientific result appears to conflict with our Christian worldview, the result reported is usually one interpretation of the data. And while this particular interpretation may clash with our worldview, it is likely that there are other possible interpretations of the relevant observations that will not cause conflict.

If you are a regular reader of Today’s New Reason to Believe,  you will recognize that many of the articles address the question of how to interpret a new scientific result in light of the Christian worldview. The facts are the observations (when properly measured), and observations generally can be interpreted in a number of different ways. When a scientific result seems to contradict the Christian worldview, ask what observations form the basis for this result, and what alternate interpretations are possible.

Part 2 will explore an example from biology that demonstrates how we might interpret scientific observations through a Christian lens, even if the results are widely reported to support naturalism.

blog__inline-do-you-know-the-difference-between-observation-and-interpretation-part-2Dr. Thomas Phillips, PhD

Dr. Thomas Phillips received his PhD in particle physics from Harvard University in 1986, and recently retired from the faculty at Duke University to work as an entrepreneur. He is also currently a research professor of physics at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

  1. Thomas J. Phillips, “Antimatter: Out of Darkness,” Nature Physics, published electronically June 22, 2014, doi:10.1038/nphys3011.
  2. Dragan Slavkov Hajdukovic, “Is Dark Matter an Illusion Created by the Gravitational Polarization of the Quantum Vacuum?” Astrophysics and Space Science 334 (August 2011): 215.
  3. A. D. Cronin et al., “Letter of Intent: Antimatter Gravity Experiment (AGE) at Fermilab,” (working paper, March 2009),
  4. J. Guy et al., “The Supernova Legacy Survey 3-year Sample: Type Ia Supernovae Photometric Distances and Cosmological Constraints,” Astronomy & Astrophysics 523 (November–Decemeber 2010): A7.
  5. A. Benoit-Lévy and G. Chardin, “Introducing the Dirac-Milne Universe,” Astronomy & Astrophysics 537 (January 2012): A78.