Archive for December 31st, 2007

Has it hit you where you live yet?

Monday, December 31st, 2007

The battle over evolution continues at a fierce pace, as we discover in the Palm Beach Post today. Three new counties are now added to our watchlist: St Lucie, Palm Beach, and Martin. However, we need to keep our eyes on the ball. The real fight that we must concentrate our energy on is at the state level.

There are a number of good quotes in that story, though:

The current standards, which are used as the basis for school curricula and standardized testing, refer only to biological “changes over time.”

That’s not enough, said Mary Jane Tappen, executive director of the state Office of Mathematics and Science.

“If you look in any biology textbook, you’ll see a chapter or more on the theory of evolution,” Tappen said. “There is a disconnect here. If we really want to be clear, the accurate terminology should be part of our standards.”

[Middle School science teacher Gerard] O’Donnell said evolution is essential to many aspects of what he teaches and he never has heard a complaint from a parent.

” ‘Why does mom have brown hair and I have blond hair?’ ” O’Donnell said. ” ‘Why does a giraffe have a long neck?’ “These are questions that are begging to have answers for.”

“There has been the growing realization that our Florida graduates are not competing with students in just … Atlanta or New York,” said Jim Warford, executive director of the Florida Association of School Administrators and former state public schools chancellor. “They’re competing with students around the world.”

The decisions about what is good science should be left to the scientific community, Warford said.

Intelligent design has not gone through the rigorous testing and scientific criticism to warrant time in science classrooms, he [Wesley Elsberry, a marine biologist and Michigan State University researcher studying the evolution of intelligent behavior] said.

“This is not something that is accountable,” Elsberry said. “Our students, in their limited time in a science class, they need to receive the information that has received scrutiny through the scientific process.”

On that news story page is a sidebar on the left that says “Know your theories” and goes on to very briefly describe evolution and intelligent design. That prompted me to write the following e-mail to the story author:

Mr. Jordan,

First of all, I want to express my gratitude for the work you put into today’s story “Evolution furor flares on Florida science proposals.” It’s obvious that you and Niels Heimeriks put a lot of time and effort into the story. It’s great to see where various education decision makers stand on this issue, and all the people you interviewed added quite a bit of depth to the piece.

However, there is one issue in the story that is important to address. There is an error in fact in the story, specifically in the sidebar that briefly explains evolution and intelligent design. The word theory has a definition in science that is far removed from the word’s commonly used meaning. Most people use the word theory to refer to their best guess or idea. Someone might have a theory as what horse is going to win a race. However, in science a theory means something much more concrete. A theory is an explanation for a set of facts, observations, and evidence. That theory undergoes rigorous testing and experimentation. Once it withstands the test of time and testing, it accumulates the weight of the consensus of the scientific community. Essentially, a scientific theory is the furthest thing from a guess, idea, or hunch.

Evolution is a scientific theory. I welcome you to call Dr. Elsberry again in order to discuss this point. Even though he is no longer living in Florida, he still has ties here and he is an active member of my organization, Florida Citizens for Science, via e-mails and phone calls. On the other hand, intelligent design is not a scientific theory. It’s not even a viable hypothesis. It has virtually zero acceptance or even interest in the scientific community, let alone a consensus, especially among scientists who use knowledge of evolution in their day-to-day work. Beside Dr. Elsberry, I also invite you to call up any major university here in Florida and discuss the matter with working scientists in their life sciences departments. Furthermore, I’m sure biotech companies like Scripps also would have scientists working there who work with an understanding of evolution every day.

The reason I am devoting so much of this letter to the definition of theory and what is and isn’t a theory is that such confusion over the term fuels the fire in this public and political debate. There is no debate in the scientific community over the viability of evolutionary theory. But there is a huge debate in the public and political spheres. A lot of it has to do with lack of scientific knowledge among citizens and decision makers. To call evolution “just a theory” is a gross mischaracterization of science. And to elevate intelligent design to the same theory status of evolution is quite simply an error in fact.

This is not my personal opinion, and I encourage you to verify what I have written here by talking to those who would know: the scientists. I believe that a correction needs to be printed to clarify this important matter.

If there is anything else my organization or I can do for you, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Brandon Haught
Florida Citizens for Science
Board Member / Communication Director

[post edited to add the following]

I heard back from the reporter. He had spoken with his editor about my letter and decided that a correction was not in order. However, I agree with their reasoning, part of which was that a correction would barely be noticed. They instead suggested that I chop down my above e-mail into a 250-word letter to the editor. I have now done so and shipped it off just a few minutes ago. Furthermore, they suggested that I correspond with the newspaper’s ombudsman. I have also done that and will await a response.

Here is my shortened letter to the editor:

Re: “Evolution furor flares on Florida science proposals” Dec. 31, 2007. Mr. Jordan and Mr. Heimeriks did a wonderful job on this in-depth story.  However, there is an error in fact in the story, specifically in the sidebar that briefly explains evolution and intelligent design. The word theory has a definition in science that is far removed from its commonly used meaning. Most people use the word theory to refer to their best guess or idea. Someone might have a theory as what horse is going to win a race. However, in science a theory means something much more concrete. It’s an explanation for a set of facts, observations, and evidence. That theory undergoes rigorous testing and experimentation. Once it withstands the test of time and testing, it accumulates the weight of the consensus of the scientific community.

Evolution is a scientific theory. On the other hand, intelligent design is not a scientific theory. It’s not even a viable hypothesis. It has virtually zero acceptance or even interest in the scientific community, let alone a consensus. I invite you to call any major university here in Florida and discuss the matter with working scientists in the life sciences departments. Furthermore, biotech companies like Scripps also have working scientists whose work is based on an understanding of evolution every day.

To call evolution “just a theory” is a gross mischaracterization of science. And to elevate intelligent design to the same theory status of evolution is quite simply an error in fact.