(blogs.sun) The good news is, Florida, for the first time in its history, will feature the word “evolution” in its state science standards. The b
February 22, 2008

(blogs.sun) The good news is, Florida, for the first time in its history, will feature the word “evolution” in its state science standards. The bad news is, the reality-based community in the state had to make a compromise in order to get the word in there.

Florida’s State Board of Education has voted to use the term “scientific theory of evolution” in new science standards, the first time the word “evolution” has been included.

Florida’s current standards require the teaching of evolution using code words like “change over time.”

Adding the term “scientific theory” before the term “evolution” was a modified proposal at least one board member called a compromise, not standards proposed originally to the committee. The option to include “scientific theory” was made late last week.

The board narrowly passed the proposed change, voting 4-3, after more than an hour of public comment and additional discussion by the board.

Religious fundamentalists, not surprisingly, wanted to keep the “e” word out altogether, but were willing to accept the compromise, because it emphasized the word “theory.”

It reminds me of one of my biggest creationist pet peeves: they have no idea what a scientific “theory” is.

Given how much they use the word, one would like to think they could have looked it up by now.

This is going back a ways, but James Q. Wilson had a good piece on the subject a few years ago.

People use “theory” when they mean a guess, a faith or an idea. A theory in this sense does not state a testable relationship between two or more things. It is a belief that may be true, but its truth cannot be tested by scientific inquiry. One such theory is that God exists and intervenes in human life in ways that affect the outcome of human life. God may well exist, and He may well help people overcome problems or even (if we believe certain athletes) determine the outcome of a game. But that theory cannot be tested. There is no way anyone has found that we can prove empirically that God exists or that His action has affected some human life. If such a test could be found, the scientist who executed it would overnight become a hero.

Evolution is a theory in the scientific sense. It has been tested repeatedly by examining the remains of now-extinct creatures to see how one species has emerged to replace another. Even today we can see some kinds of evolution at work, as when scholars watch how birds on the Galapagos Islands adapt their beak size from generation to generation to the food supplies they encounter.

Watch any conflict over evolution and, within minutes, you’ll hear a creationist insist that students should be exposed to competing “theories” and that the “theory of evolution” is no better than any other “theory.” The idea is to suggest that if the science were absolutely true, it’d be called the “fact of evolution.”

It’s maddening, and yet, the reality-based crowd has to keep dealing with it. The National Academy of Sciences, one of the world’s most respected institutions of scientific and engineering research, took this on a few years ago.

Scientists most often use the word “fact” to describe an observation. But scientists can also use fact to mean something that has been tested or observed so many times that there is no longer a compelling reason to keep testing or looking for examples. The occurrence of evolution in this sense is a fact. Scientists no longer question whether descent with modification occurred because the evidence supporting the idea is so strong.

Gravity is a theory; just like electromagnetism, plate tectonics, and general relativity. For Florida to go out of its way to label the bedrock of modern biology as the “scientific theory of evolution” is actually quite accurate. But for creationists to consider the phrase a compromise that helps their side is nothing short of amusing.

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