Wednesday, February 20, 2008

"Merely a theory"

Florida education officials show they are uninformed about what "theory" means in science.

"Florida will teach evolution but only as theory":
TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - Florida education officials voted on Tuesday to add evolution to required course work in public schools but only after a last-minute change depicting Charles Darwin's seminal work as merely a theory.

Bending to pressure from religious conservatives, the State Board of Education on a 4-3 vote included the "theory" language as part of a retooling of the state's science standards for public school education.

The compromise would require teaching that Darwin's proposal -- that natural selection has driven the evolution of many species from a few common ancestors over billions of years -- has yet to be conclusively proven.
That some scientific claim is "just a theory," and therefore may be dismissed, is an accusation that actually makes no sense. It's really "just a theory" that gravity holds us on the earth with a force equal to the inverse of the square of our distance from the planet, but does anyone care to jump off the Empire State Building tomorrow because, hey, gravity is "just a theory?" Our understanding of how wings keep airplanes up is just a theoretical understanding, but millions of people per month literally bet their lives that the theory is correct.

Theory is to science as money is to finance. Theory is to science as scales are to music. Theory is to science as yard lines are to football games.

A theory is how scientists express the interpreted results of many observations carried out over a long time. A theory is how scientists make sense of their collective experience. The formulation and reformulation of theory is, I think, grounded in the deep human need to establish meaning. Because we exist in nature, we are compelled at a most fundamental level to explore what nature means. Science is a very powerful and reliable way we do that. Science, and scientifically-based meaning, can no more exist apart from theory than Barry Bonds' home run record could exist apart from baseball.

The source of contention, of course, is that conservative Christians object that evolution is not "proven" and therefore mustn't be taught as such.
During more than two hours of testimony, scientists and religious representatives argued over whether teaching that humans evolved from a single-celled species over hundreds of millions of years should be taken as gospel.
Ironic that, eh: should evolution be "taken as gospel." Heh!

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