Let’s talk about theories

Joe Wolf, president of Florida Citizens for Science, had heard that the Department of Education was shopping around the idea of inserting the word “theory” in the new draft of the state science standards wherever evolution is mentioned. I believe that they also said that they would apply “theory” to other applicable areas of the standards, such as gravity and plate tectonics, I think.

FCS is solidly against that idea. We’ve consulted with our membership and other sources with experience in this issue, and sliding in the word “theory” to appease some of the anti-science folks is the wrong thing to do. The anti-science crowd wants to turn the word into a scarlet letter for evolution. They are famous for shouting “It’s only a theory” as loud as they can, completely bulldozing the fact that a theory in science is not a guess or hunch. The word “theory” is then seen in a negative light in the public eye. So, if theory is pasted into the science standards, the anti-science crowd can crow about their victory. They will have forced the DoE to admit that evolution is somehow not on solid ground. Never mind that just the opposite is true. The public relations battle is won at that point. It doesn’t end there, though. Essentially, the word then becomes the thin edge of a wedge. Once they have labeled evolution as “only a theory,” they then have the opening to demand “other theories” be taught. That other theory, which is not a scientific theory by any stretch of the imagination, would be intelligent design. The wedge is driven deeper and deeper as intelligent design pulls its creationism origins into the science classroom with it.

However, Joe and I were thrown a curveball this afternoon. We both got calls from reporters saying that the DoE wasn’t just suggesting that “theory” be added, but rather two words would be used: “scientific theory.” Before giving our statements to the media, Joe and I consulted a bit and felt that such a move could blunt the “just a theory” wedge. So, we both told the reporters that it’s an idea we could live with.

I explained to the St. Petersburg Times that first and foremost FCS is all about the teachers and students in science classrooms across the state. If something helps the teachers raise science understanding among the next generation, then we are all for it. The new draft of the state science standards is one such helpful tool. Evolution’s place in those standards is also a great tool for use in the biology (and elementary school) classroom.

I said that the DoE should be praised for working so hard on finding a way to get the science standards approved with all science concepts within intact. The DoE heard the potential problems concerning just inserting the word “theory” load and clear. So, in an effort to overcome obstacles, “scientific theory” was proposed as a way to make sure that the “only a theory” and “teach other theories” strategies could be stopped in their tracks.

Then I said that inserting “scientific theory” could make the standards kinda cumbersome. It’s a waste of ink, really. A point that I tried to hammer home was that it’s important that students get a firm understanding of basic science. They need to know the nature of science. They need to know what a hypothesis is and how to properly test it. They need to know what a theory in science is. These concepts need to be firmly in place before students move on to chemistry or astronomy or biology. Then, when they encounter various theories in science there is no heartburn over what is being learned. If science is being taught properly, the theory of evolution will be no different than any other science theory encountered. Having “scientific theory” repeated over and over in the science standards shouldn’t be necessary.

But all of that happens in the schools, not in the adult world. Here in the adult world — ruled by uniformed opinion, strong passions, opinion polls, and the 6:00 news sound bite — we need to find a way to get sound science education past the scientifically illiterate (and some blatantly dishonest) gatekeepers. That’s why I praised the DoE. They’re trying to do that. They’re working hard on behalf of our teachers and students while navigating the maze of politics.

However, I do understand our fellow pro-science advocates. Many still vehemently distrust any attempts to change the science standards at this late stage. I’ve heard it said that the “scientific theory” idea wouldn’t help since the anti-science folks will just read that as “scientific guess” anyway. And no matter what happens, the if-you-give-a-mouse-a-cookie effect could still happen. Additionally, the whole mess over “theory” is but one battle in this senseless war. Some anti-science folks still want strengths and weaknesses of evolution taught, along with who knows how many other uninformed or malevolent anti-science rants there are out there.

So, you are going to soon read in the newspapers some quotes about all of this from Joe and I. As a matter of fact, Joe’s quote already appears online at the Florida Times-Union. Before you burn Joe or I at the stake, I wanted you to know what our thought process was while being questioned by deadline-driven reporters.

I look forward to reading your opinions in the comment thread. No, really, I do. Is adding “scientific theory” a good idea? Before burning up your keyboard, though, please read these other news reports here and here.

7 Responses to “Let’s talk about theories”

  1. Josh Krupinck Says:

    I think that if the standards are changed to say ‘the scientific theory” of evolution instead of simply evolution, it would be a great idea. This would probably win over much more support of the dim-witted anti-evolution crowd. They would likely consider it a victory because they still consider it just a theory. Science educators and advocates then have plenty of time to educate the public on the difference between a scientific theory and a theory ala Sherlock Holmes.

  2. S.Scott Says:

    I don’t see a problem with putting “Scientific Theory” in the standards as long as it is in front of ALL of the scientific theories, and not singled out (cell -atomic- relativity- gravity- evolution – etc…).

    There may also be a couple of added benefits. – It may just begin to educate the general public that the word theory is used differently by scientists. – Also, a teacher (if asked about “ID” etc…) can state that it is not a scientific theory and is not up for discussion in science class until it has evidence to back it up.

  3. Barry Golden Says:

    Adding the words “scientific theory” MAY be a viable option if and only if the writers and framers have a lengthy amount of time to appropriately examine and label the major ideas within their areas of expertise. As of right now, this has not happened. The writers only received the compromise version late Friday afternoon, with a request to respond by noon Monday. That is not enough time to tinker with major re-writes concerning where “scientific theory of” and “law of”, etc., are appropriate.

  4. Nick D Says:

    I would rather not give them the idea we were “conceding” … but I realize this is about making sure the kids get the proper education, and if they’re going to be taught evolutionary evidence, this is probably the best way to get it past all the opposition.

  5. James F Says:

    If any alteration of the text applies specifically to evolutionary biology and not to other scientific disciplines in the standards, it is a clear – and unconstitutional – attempt to specifically discredit evolution. I can’t put it as clearly or as eloquently as Prof. Ken Miller of Brown University, so I direct you here:

    http://www.millerandlevine.com/km/evol/globe.html

    The heart of what Prof. Miller says, with regard to the “evolution is a theory, not a fact” stickers placed in biology textbooks in Cobb County, Georgia in the ruling issued in Selman v. Cobb County School District in 2005, is:

    “The judge simply read the sticker and saw that it served no scientific or educational purpose. Once that was clear, he looked to the reasons for slapping it in the textbooks of thousands of students, and here the record was equally clear. The sticker was inserted to advance a particular set of religious beliefs — exactly the argument advanced by the parents of six students in the district who sued the Cobb County Board of Education to get the stickers removed.”

    and:

    “The sticker told students that there was just one subject in their textbooks that had to be approached with an open mind and critically considered. Apparently, we are certain of everything in biology except evolution. That is nonsense. What that sticker should have told students is what our textbook makes clear: Everything in science should be approached with critical thinking and an open mind.”

    So if the naysayers want to put in anything, I suggest Prof. Miller’s last sentence above. Don’t be tempted to win one battle and lose the war; there is no controversy in science or the law.

  6. Josh Krupinck Says:

    After thinking about it, I retract my first post. I think science supporters should hold their ground. The content of science standards should not be influenced by politics.

  7. Allan Greene Says:

    February 18, 2008: Evolution is BOTH a theory AND a fact. Intelligent design and creationism are NEITHER legimately a theory OR a fact. Neither one is TESTABLE. Evolution IS testable and has OVERWHELMINGLY PASSED ALL TESTS. A theory in science is that which better explains reality, while a fact is the reality explained. The late Stephen Jay Gould put it this way: he said, apples may begin rising tomorrow morning from the ground and re-attaching themselves to apple tree limbs, but the possibility is so remote as not to warrant being taught in physics classrooms. Ergo, gravity is BOTH a theory AND a fact. That’s why gravity IS taught — the THEORY of gravity is taught — in physics classrooms. Neither intelligent design nor creation are legitimately THEORIES in any scientific sense, because NEITHER IS TESTABLE. GRAVITY IS. SO IS EVOLUTION. Ditto for plate tectonics, for relativity, for many other theories. I happen to think that Marx’s concept in economics of the law of the declining rate of profits is in the science of economics a testable theory, and is therefore, legitimately at least, scientific in nature. I also happen to think Freud’s concept of personality dynamics is similarly testable in certain kinds of clinical settings, and is therefore testable, and therefore, scientific in the sense of what a scientific theory is. The late Karl Popper, a philosopher of science, disagreed. But the issue of TESTABILITY, at least, IS THE GOLD STANDARD, it seems to me, for what constitutes whether or not a theory is legitimately a scientific theory, and additionally, a scientific fact, or not. (The obvious controversy in Marx’s view is that the prediction of the declining rate of profit, which many non-Marxians have seen evidences of, in fact, yet such people are in no way Marxian — witness, for instance, Paul Erdman, economist, also interesting novelist, and, if my sense is right, probably a Republican — has a sense that capital does decline in value over time and profit over time declines, so in this sense, he, the Republican, and Marx, the socialist, hold a similar view — is, however, the socialist views Marx derived from this insight. Others who saw the declining profit rate did not do so. But people confuse Marx’s conclusion with his insight, not a good thing to do.) Gravity is both a theory and a fact. So is plate tectonics and sea-floor spreading. So is Einsteinian relativity, both the special and general theory. But these are also all FACTS. So the separation or dichotomy between theory and fact is false.–Allan Greene