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Do You Know the Difference between Observation and Interpretation? Part 2

The most common definition of science requires researchers to assume naturalism, meaning that supernatural interpretations of data are excluded by assumption. So, even when the true explanation of an observation—such as the origin of the universe, the origin of life, and the origin of species—is supernatural, scientists will necessarily arrive at the wrong interpretation. Many people remain unaware that supernatural explanations—which fit the observations better than the naturalistic ones—have been excluded by assumption. This makes it important for us to be able to distinguish between observation and interpretation, and to supply the correct interpretation when the naturalistic interpretation is incorrect.

In part 1 of this series, we looked at an example from astrophysics of a widely held scientific belief (dark matter and dark energy must exist) that turns out to be an interpretation based upon an observation (that galaxies have flat rotation curves). In part 2, we’ll look at an example from biology where an alternate interpretation based upon a biblical worldview fits the observations better than the prevailing scientific explanation.

Common Design vs. Common Descent

Within modern biology it is widely held that all living organisms share common ancestors. This idea is referred to as “common descent.” The observations that led to this interpretation include shared biochemistry (for example, all organisms use the same DNA code) and morphology (for example, similarities in body plans or body structures). While common descent does not necessarily rule out a Creator’s involvement, the observations are better explained via “common design,” the idea that God reused biological designs across multiple species.

We find examples of common design throughout manmade objects. For example, the air valves on the tires of my bicycle and my car are basically the same. When engineers come up with a good design, they will carry it or a similar design across many different applications. In other words, if the design works in multiple scenarios, then there’s no need to reinvent the wheel (or air valve).

Just as engineers reuse designs, it appears that God did the same. Consider, for example, the bone structure of the middle ear in mammals. Because this structure is so complicated, biologists hypothesized that it could have evolved only once and, therefore, all mammals with this structure must share a common ancestor. That is, until researchers discovered fossils that indicated “the configuration of the bones in all living mammals’ ears arose at least twice along independent evolutionary pathways.”1 Now the scientific interpretation is that this bone structure evolved more than once. A better interpretation is that God reused the design.

Once we recognize that the design interpretation is capable of explaining observations normally attributed to evolution, it is valid to ask which interpretation is a better fit to the observations. Here are just a few of the many Today’s New Reason to Believe articles that address this question:

Clearly we can relax the assumption of naturalism and allow a design interpretation if we find that it better fits the data. It is always important to find out what observations led to a certain explanation. In all likelihood, a design interpretation will fit the observations just as well as, if not better than, the naturalistic interpretation.2

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. Sid Perkins, “Groovy Bones: Mammalian Ear Structure Evolved More than Once,” Science News, published February 9, 2005, For the original study, see Thomas H. Rich, et al., “Independent Origins of Middle Ear Bones in Monotremes and Terians,” Science 307 (February 11, 2005): 910.
  2. However, not all observations turn out to be correct. This may sometimes be the reason an observation does not fit our worldview.