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.