Has it hit you where you live yet?

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.

13 Responses to “Has it hit you where you live yet?”

  1. Jonathan Smith Says:

    Brandon,you certainly “hit the nail on the head” with the
    misconception held by most people on what a scientific
    theory consists of.
    The word theory has a number of distinct meanings.
    In science, a theory is a mathematical or logical explanation, or a testable model of the manner of interaction of a set of natural phenomena, capable of predicting future occurrences or observations of the same kind, and capable of being tested through experiment or otherwise falsified through empirical observation. It follows from this that for scientists “theory” and “fact” do not STAND IN OPPOSITION. For example, it is a fact that an apple dropped on earth has been observed to fall towards the center of the planet, and the theories commonly used to describe and explain this behaviour are Newton’s THEORY of universal gravitation.

    In common usage, the word theory is often used to signify a conjecture, an opinion, or a speculation. In this usage, a theory is not necessarily based on facts; in other words, it is not required to be consistent with true descriptions of reality,ID would fall into this catagory.

  2. Ted Powell Says:

    It used to be that when people used the word “theory” in the sense that is common today, as in, “Well, that’s the theory,” their intent was irony/sarcasm.
    With some people, sarcasm can only be used safely if followed by, “NOT!”
    (Why is there no Preview button?)

  3. Monado Says:

    Congratulations on taking the time to set the record straight. I often short-form it by telling people that in science, “theory” means “explanation” or well-tested explanation, e.g. the theory of gravity. We don’t expect to float away some day because gravity is “just a theory.”

  4. C. David Parsons Says:

    In 1981, the State of Arkansas passed a law (Act 590) requiring a balanced treatment of creation science with evolution science in the public classrooms. The A.C.L.U., “American Civil Liberties Union,” a prominent camaraderie that has successfully obstructed the cause of Christians on several fronts, filed litigation in the Federal District Court to prevent its implementation. The merits of the suit-called “Scopes II”-were not singularly a constitutional issue per se and were reduced to two major confrontations: (1) is creation science really science; that is, established on an accountable scientific basis; or (2) is it merely religious fundamentalism supported only by the histories preserved in the Bible and faith by its advocates in said testimonies?

    The balanced treatment issue was resolved by the court’s redefining of the accepted usage of science, originally defined as “the state or fact of knowing; knowledge.”

    Science is currently held to be “the systematized observation, identification, description, and experimental investigation of phenomena.” To the basic sense was applied the court’s ruling of a more comprehensive language.

    The following assertion incorporates a reasonable exhibition of the determination and attitude of the court: science is that which scientists are generally associated with and perform. Simply stated, the criteria by which knowledge may be chalked up as science incorporates one or more of the listed factors:

    1. Science is spearheaded by renown scientists.

    2. Science is performed in accepted scientific laboratories.

    3. Science is funded by governments, colleges, and universities.

    4. Science is taught in public classrooms.

    5. Science is published in scientific papers and journals.

    6. Science is routinely presented in the media, to include televised nature documentaries.

    7. Science is any other entity that draws from the basic philosophies and presuppositions espoused by the expressed units.

    The aforementioned entities represent a shutout; the court’s criteria leave little latitude for divine intervention or the miraculous and, hence, any creationist views on the origins of man and the universe. The ruling of the court was summary: since creation science is neither associated with nor performed by court-accepted scientific entities, creation science is not science but religion and religion, as determined by the Supreme Court, may not be taught in the public schools.

    A subsequent balanced treatment act from the State of Louisiana was heard by the Supreme Court in 1987. Justice William Brennan, in the majority opinion, concluded that creation science is “religion” and religion, as ruled, may not be instructed in the public classrooms. The barring of creation science, however, is not irreconcilable. The high court left open the possibility that any views on origins, be it creation or otherwise, may be taught if established on sound scientific principles. Therefore, if creation science (Intelligent Design) were founded on a scientific basis, drawing from a continuum of defensible, established truths, it would be justly qualified as science and science may be taught in the public classrooms.

    Although evolutionists seized the moment, finding favor with a sympathetic judiciary, the battle for the minds and souls of the innocents in the classrooms is far from conclusive. Fielding the issue once again, the definition of science, “that which scientists are generally associated with and perform,” is re-evaluated in The Quest for Right, a series of 7 textbooks created for the public schools, so as to determine if said definition is arguably correspondent or else gravely overstated.

    Bear in mind that the backbone of obstructionism is not evolution per se, but “electronic interpretation,” the tenet that all physical, chemical, and biological processes result from a change in the electron structure of the atom which, in turn, may be deciphered through the orderly application of mathematics, as outlined in quantum mechanics. Again, the philosophy rejects any divine intervention. Therefore, let the philosophy of obstructionism be judged on these specifics: (1) “electron interpretation” and 2) “quantum mechanics.” Conversely, the view of Christians that God is both responsible for and rules all the phenomena of the universe will stand or fall when the facts are applied. The view, however, will not be tested by the definition of science, as before determined by the court, but by the weightier principle of verifiable truths.

    The Quest for Right has accomplished that which heretofore was thought impossible: to level the playing field between those who believe in creationism and those who preach evolution. You will not want to miss the adventure of a lifetime that awaits you in Volume 1 of The Quest for Right. I am the author, C. David Parsons. Visit the official website for additional information: http://questforright.com/

  5. Ryan Young Says:

    Your transitive factors for science fail the test. True science is maintained by the scientific method and the scientific community. It is not voted in. Political forces have no effect what is science. True scientific principles make accurate predictions in nature and I would hope any one writing a textbook for children would recognize that. The Quest for Right textbook series makes some serious claims about quantum and I hope you can back them up experimentally, otherwise you will receive no support from the scientific community.

  6. JLO Says:

    The Quest for Right sounds more like the quest for the right wing.

    The web site you referenced is deceptive. At first it portrays the image of a science based project but as you click to continue you find yourself in a clearly religious site – a site that seeks to undermine common scientific principles.

    Very sneaky, but to be sure, your only supporters will be the people who are already science deniers. Anyone who is interested in real science will not be fooled by these tricks.

    Case in point:

    The extensive work represents the ultimate marriage between an in-depth knowledge of biblical phenomena and natural and physical sciences. You will be awed by the events of the ‘first day’ as the Bible reveals how God created the earth from a watery nebula. You will be amazed at the description of the center of the earth and the source of gravity.

    Nope, not science. It’s a complete fraud.

  7. Christensen of Kansas Says:

    Just don’t start equate science with atheism, as per Dawkins or his hanger on PZ.

    Methodological Materialsim is not Philosophical Materialsim.

  8. Brian C. Says:

    I am the author, C. David Parsons. Visit the official website for additional information: http://questforright.com/

    Well done Mr. Parsons, you’ve single handedly reshaped the fields of cosmology, astronomy and biology. Wow. Crackpot or Genius?

    This is just a cynical attempt to milk the “not quite rubes” of fundamentalism. Intelligent enough to know their beliefs are absurd, but still eager to square them with reality, they will no doubt lap this stuff up. I know I would’ve.

  9. Brian C. Says:

    Holy Smokes!! Physics too!!! Parsons you are either a lone genius, squared or a kook. I’m tending towards kook.

    What is with all the cheesy, watchtower types? Not helping your cause.

  10. Chad Estep Says:

    Good luck trying to teach the public the difference between the general usage and scientific usage of “theory.” I tried to teach my mother the same thing over the course of two days while home for Christmas and the only thing I got out of it was a massive headache and four hours I can’t get back.

  11. JLO Says:

    Just don’t start equate science with atheism, as per Dawkins or his hanger on PZ.

    Methodological Materialsim is not Philosophical Materialsim.

    Your ignorance is shouting so loudly that I can’t hear what you’re saying.

  12. Lane Taylor Says:

    Hey look, it’s chistensen.

    I think he eventually got himself banned at the KCFS forums for trolling there.

    Well done on the letter. Our local races here in KS haven’t really started heatin gup yet (actually, no one has officially filed in any local or state school board races that I’m aware of).

    But you can be sure we at KCFS will be doing our best to keep an eye on things and educate the public.

    Cheers,
    Lane, VP, KCFS.

  13. Florida Citizens for Science » Blog Archive » Those not in favor of good science education, raise your hand. Says:

    […] St. Lucie County: school board members Carol Hilson and John Carvelli either want intelligent design taught or wouldn’t object to it being taught if the community wanted it. Reported in the Palm Beach Post Dec. 31. (Contact information on both here.) […]