Field of Science

The red swan hypothesis

Are there any red swans? Hypothesis: There exists a red swan. It is my secret scientific hypothesis. Now what to do?

I have been looking high and low. Zoos and parks, but so far I haven't found any. I have never heard mention of any red swans, but I still think it is a hypothesis worth investigating. Can you prove the hypothesis wrong? If I hypothesized that there are no black swans, then that would be easy to falsify. Indeed, it has. But it is pretty god damn hard to disprove my red swan hypothesis. There are many places to look, and perhaps the red swans are very small. Even if no one has ever seen a red swan, one could still be hiding somewhere - I think it would be a tiny Amazonian one, or one living on a tiny atoll somewhere far off in the pacific. I propose to investigate both, but even if they send teams of scientists there and nothing is found, red swans could be hiding elsewhere.

I may be crazy to insist on the possibility of red swans. But can you prove my hypothesis wrong? No, strictly speaking you cannot.

Another example: Can you prove that a brick will always fall to the ground when let go a meter above the surface of the Earth? Countless experiments have been done, and so far no suspension. How about death. That we all must die one day is often said to be the only thing we know. But how do we know? The answer is by induction. We have overwhelming empirical evidence that all bricks fall to the ground when let go, and that all humans must eventually die, but only because both have been observed a ridiculous number of times (and because we have good theories for both phenomena). In other words, as with most things we know about the natural world though induction, we feel pretty confident that they are true, even though when forced we must concede that we don't know for sure (i.e. 100 percent) that no bricks will hover, and no one will live forever. Such is science.

Same thing with my red swan hypothesis. That no one has ever seen a hint of a red swan is enough that we should give up the belief that one exists. Not knowing for sure is a fact of life. That I hypothesized the existence of a red swan because I have a religious belief that they one exists does not make the hypothesis unscientific. The motivation for the hypothesis is entirely besides the point. On the other hand, while I continue to have faith that a red swan is out there, I must admit that the hypothesis is dead in the scientific sense.

Therefore we do not teach children and high schoolers about red swans.

Similarly, the existence of irreducibly complex systems is too a scientific hypothesis, despite that people continue to claim that it is not. It can indeed be tested, just as much as my red swan hypothesis can be tested. And the fact that it was proposed by religious people with an agenda, that really makes no difference. Additionally, the fact that "intelligent design" directly (and shamelessly) replaced "creationism" in Of Pandas and People has no bearing on the its validity as a scientific hypothesis. Yet, this was one of the main points in the Dover trial that made Judge Jones rule that ID is not a scientific theory.

While I argue that irreducible complexity is a valid scientific hypothesis, time and again systems proposed to be irreducibly complex have been shown to have homologs, and that there is a way they could have evolved. Every proposed system - flagellum, eye, blood-clotting cascade, cell, mousetrap - have been shown not to be irreducibly complex. As a result the hypothesis that such a system exist has been proven unworthy of merit. As far as we can tell, evolution does not have a problem evolving any of these systems.

Intelligent Design and irreducible complexity should therefore not be taught to children and high schoolers.


  1. If only the religious where persuaded by reason and logic.

    Alas, they continue to demand special treatment for there beliefs.

    Therefore some religious will continue to mistreat children by letting ID poison biology-classes.

  2. Yes, Irreducible Complexity is a scientific hypotheses (unfounded as you say). But Intelligent design - the idea that if we find an irreducibly complex biological object, it was designed by an intelligent creator - is not scientific.

    You seem to equate the two here. So, IC should not be taught because there is no evidence for it (a la red swan; or green mammal) and ID should not be taught because it is religion and unscientific.

  3. Todd, why exactly is ID not scientific? It doesn't posit a supernatural being. It isn't even true that no more questions can be asked if such a designer were shown to exist.

  4. Bjorn - How could we test the hypothesis of an unknown, unspecified designer? Not being able to test the idea makes it non-scientific. There are no predictions being made.

  5. I just ended up here for where I keep "seeing" a red swan as a prompt of self awareness and was wondering about the symbolism of it. So far as I Google to seek external assistance that may prompt more insight this is the first result that actually mentions a red swan. I wonder why your own fascination with the red swan and what it means to you.

  6. Carrie, the red swan is merely an example of something that doesn't exist, yet could exist. It is derived from the black swan, which was thought not to exist until it was discovered in Australia. I could shift the goalpost a little and say that swans do actually have some red on the beaks, so red swans do exist.

    What does the red swan mean to you?


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