Wednesday, February 20, 2008

It’s Only a Theory

Following up from this post two weeks ago, the Florida Board of Education will now allow the public schools to teach evolution.

For the first time ever, evolution is to be taught clearly and explicitly in Florida classrooms now that the state Board of Education approved a batch of new science standards Tuesday that mention the ”E” word.

But there’s a catch: The subject will be taught as ”the scientific theory of evolution.”

As originally proposed, the science standards, updated for the first time since 1996, didn’t call evolution a ”theory” when they were drafted and reviewed by a panel of experts last year. Following numerous public complaints, though, the state Department of Education suggested the wording change to clearly label every scientific law and theory — not just about evolution — as such.

The seven-member board adopted the alternate proposal, and therefore the standards, by a 4-3 vote.

Religious advocates wanted more.

They proposed a so-called ”academic freedom” amendment to counter what they say is the ”dogmatic” tone of the standards that call evolution ”the fundamental concept underlying all of biology.” The amendment would have given teachers explicit permission ”to engage students in a critical analysis of that evidence.”

I know the Religious Right thinks they won some sort of victory by qualifying “evolution” by making it the object of a prepositional phrase, but in reality, scientists are not uncomfortable attaching “theory” to it, because that’s what it is. The religious advocates think the word “theory” leaves open the door for doubt, but, to quote the immortal Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Scientists are very careful to describe what the word theory means.

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 necessarily 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, and general relativity.

(The fundies, on the other hand, would have you believe it’s intelligent falling.)

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. This usage of theory leads to the common incorrect statement “It’s not a fact, it’s only a theory.” True descriptions of reality are more reflectively understood as statements which would be true independently of what people think about them. In this usage, the word is synonymous with hypothesis.

The evangelicals say they only want to open the discussion in classrooms to the possibilities of other explanations for the origins of life on earth, but what they’re really trying to do is to sneak their religious mythology into the public schools.

Of course, that’s only a theory.