Evolution solution: transparent and wacky

Evolution solution: transparent and wacky
Paul R. Gross My View Tallahasseee.com - 2/25/2008 - original
Now that Florida's new K-12 science standards have been approved by a 4-3 Board of Education vote (only after evolution was designated "the scientific theory of"), there is some self-congratulation on both sides of the argument.

Floridians who care about the integrity of science education seem to be satisfied that the evolutionary core of modern biology (and geology) has been given, at last, an appropriate presence. They are relieved that this essential subject matter is no longer camouflaged or referred to in weasel words substituted for the awful "E-word." Florida flunked the last review and grading of its science standards, which I led in 2005, in part for its dishonest handling of evolution.

Those Floridians who dislike the idea of evolution, who would prefer that it not be taught at all (or, if taught, that all possible doubt be cast upon it) are also apparently pleased with the just-approved version of the standards. Through the compromise, they have accomplished a strange new form of qualification: "scientific theory of evolution," instead of "theory of evolution" or just "evolution" implying that there exist noteworthy "theories of evolution" that are other than scientific.

An alert reader immediately wonders, on first encountering this ostentatious prefix, to which nonscientific theories it refers. Moreover, the standards repeatedly propose that other ways of knowing ("art, philosophy, religion") are important. Presumably these other ways of knowing may be relevant to the question of evolution but are just not, for the moment, being mentioned in the standards. For the anti-evolutionists, that is at least something! To the nave or uncritical eye, it looks as though the scientific theory of evolution is not the only one, not the whole story perhaps.

But this gambit is both transparent and wacky: repetition of "scientific theory of" defaces these otherwise competent and potentially beneficial standards. "Scientific theory of," so highly visible in this document, has peculiar implications.

The standards refer persistently to the scientific theory of evolution, so should they not at least touch upon the implied nonscientific theories of evolution? Surely we should ask, "Are there any such theories?" No. Not for any serious scientific or any other educational purpose.

What then, pray, is the point of belaboring, with the pompous prefix "scientific theory of," the following: evolution, cells, geology, atoms? "The scientific theory of cells!" Is there any other kind of cell theory worthy of consideration? I know of none.

The compromise is a political sop to a large and concerned population of Florida voters who believe that, on the core issues of science, some other way of knowing (religion, perhaps; surely not art or philosophy) is equal or superior to science itself.

This may well be good or even great politics: compromise usually is. But it is not serious; and, so far as excellent science education is concerned, it is deceitful. In fact, it provides inside Florida's new standards a perfect counter-example to the intellectual integrity the standards themselves promote.

The disingenuousness of "scientific theory of" is clear, not just in connection with biology or evolution. In fact, it gets even sillier elsewhere. Look, for example, at fifth-grade physics: "Explore the scientific theory of atoms." Why not just call it atomic theory, as everybody else in the world does, and be done with it?

It looks like simple pretentiousness, but it isn't. It's that compromise: adding a few meaningless words as prefix to some of the "big ideas" of science to suggest that there are other big ideas on the same subject, perhaps equally worthy, that the science standards are not talking about. How's that for clarity, frankness, setting a standard for education?