Calling evolution a 'theory' won't end debate

Calling evolution a 'theory' won't end debate
By JoŽlle Anne Moreno - South Florida Sun-Sentinel - 3/2/2008 - original
Florida's public school science standards have just been updated for the first time since 1996, and no one is happy.

Under the new standards, teachers will be required to introduce core concepts of evolution and natural selection starting in the sixth grade. High school students will study more complex aspects of evolutionary science starting in ninth grade. Although students will be told that evolution is "the fundamental concept underlying all of biology," they must also be told that evolution is a scientific theory.

No legitimate scientist can, or should, object to the classification of evolution as theory. Scientists understand that evolution is a theory because it is a unifying set of observations and measurements that have been tested repeatedly and accepted by the vast majority of the scientific community. Evolution, gravity and plate tectonics are all theories.

So why object to the new requirement that public school teachers label evolution as "theory"?

There are two reasons to oppose the new mandatory characterization of evolution as theory. The first is that non-scientists often use the word "theory" to describe assumptions based on limited information or knowledge, and public school classrooms are filled with kids, not scientists. Forcing this new theory label into the science curriculum is a transparent effort to confuse our children.

In 2005, when the Cobb County School District in Georgia tried to place stickers in all biology textbooks that said "evolution is a theory, not a fact," the federal court concluded that this statement "has the effect of implicitly bolstering alternative religious theories of origin by suggesting that evolution is a problematic theory even in the field of science." Florida's new standards serve similar religious objectives by undermining Darwin's explanations of natural phenomena, which have been supported by a century of empirical evidence.

To the extent this is a war of ideas fought with words, Florida has opened the classroom door for pseudoscientific ideology-based alternative theories for the origin of natural life, such as arguments based on irreducible complexity, creationism or "intelligent design."

The second reason to oppose the theory label is we should not teach our children that faith and reason are interchangeable. Recent polls reveal that approximately half of all Americans adults do not "believe" in evolution. When children are encouraged to discount evolution as "only" a theory, they learn to approach all science-based controversies, not with an appropriately healthy level of skepticism and critical thinking skills, but with the dangerous and profound misconception that belief and proof are interchangeable.

Technically, evolution is a theory and, for now, teachers will follow new Florida standards. But this debate is far from over.

School boards around the country should learn from Florida's example. Evolution is not dogma. It is, according to the late Stephen J. Gould, Harvard University's most prolific and influential evolutionary biologist and paleontologist, "one of the half dozen 'great ideas' developed by science."

Perhaps our public school teachers will accurately communicate that, to scientists, the word "theory" is not pejorative. But if they fail or refuse to do this, our children will suffer. Public schools cannot accommodate theistic, partisan and non-scientific objectives, unless we are willing to risk our commitment to the principle that church and state must remain separate and our opportunity to raise children trained to think, to think critically, and to think for themselves.

JoŽlle Anne Marino is professor of law at Florida International University.