Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Legislative Thinking

Florida State Rep. Marti Coley, who had been making noises about having the legislature add "theory" to every appearance of "evolution" in the state science standards has pronounced herself satisfied with the last minute change made by the Board of Education to call it the Scientific Theory of Evolution" (along with the "Scientific Theory of Atoms;" the "Scientific Theory of Electromagnetism;" the "Scientific Theory of the Big Bang;" and the "Scientific Theory of Plate Tectonics").

Doubtless she is playing to her constituency, especially when she said this to the board:

We're just asking that you use the word 'theory' in conjunction with the word 'evolution,' to acknowledge that there are many theories of the origin of life.
Sir Harold Kroto, the Francis Eppes Professor of Chemistry at Florida State University, a Nobel laureate and director of the Florida Center for Research in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, had a good explanation of Rep. Coley's misunderstanding (or misdirection) in this article in the Miami Herald entitled "Theory of Evolution is a ‘fact’":

Now comes word that some influential state lawmakers want to ensure that evolution in the new science standards has the word "theory" before it, as in "theory of evolution." These lawmakers want to stress that evolution is a theory, not a fact - and they are said to be considering asking the Legislature to force the State Board of Education to adopt the wording change if it doesn't do so on its own.

These lawmakers fail to appreciate that there are two types of theory - scientific theories and unscientific theories.

Scientific theories are those considered "true" or "facts" because they have been found experimentally to work and we know why they work. Unscientific theories, however, have been found wanting when similarly experimentally tested.
After giving Newton's Theory of Gravity, Maxwell's Theory of Electromagnetism and Einstein's Theory of Relativity as examples of "true" theories or "facts," Sir Harold continues:

The 1859 treatise by Charles Darwin, "The Origin of Species - By Means of Natural Selection," is arguably the most beautiful example of a "factual" or "true" scientific theory. It explained perfectly Darwin's meticulous, carefully documented, painstakingly detailed and accurately recorded observations. For the last 150 years, supporting evidence has flooded in from every branch of the sciences: paleontology, anthropology, physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, geology, etc. There are millions of pieces in the puzzle, and they all fit perfectly.
As to those "many theories of the origin of life" Rep. Coley is so interested in protecting, Sir Harold had a short but true description:

There are, of course, many theories that do not appear to work at all.
There is more to Sir Harold's article that is well worth reading. It is to be hoped that the designation of evolution under the rubric of "scientific theory," along with many other well-supported scientific propositions, and the thorough explanation the standards provide of what a "scientific theory" really is, will wind up conveying Sir Harold's distinction.

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