Wednesday, November 17, 2004

The "theory" of evolution

Recently, James and I engaged in a discussion about the Biblical literalists down in Georgia have been inappropriately involving themselves in science education. We talked because I was trying to figure out how to diplomatically disagree with a friend on a mailing list about the issue. Her point of view was that the scientific community had not backed up the evolution theory. She doesn't want her children being taught that it is a fact that the world is millions of years old because it goes against her beliefs and because it is not a fact, it's "just" a theory.

James has an interesting entry called Devolution on the issue. I thought I might expand upon his offering by talking a bit about where my brief list discussion led. Here is my response to the points mentioned above:

Discalimer: I realize this is a sensitive topic and am not trying to offend. Also note that I am a religious person and do believe in the Old Testament. I just don't see it as a literal document. That's not meant to sway anyone, just to point out that I am a man of faith and science.

There are a couple of issues here. The first is the use of a disclaimer on a text book. Regardless of the phrasing, singling out evolution as a topic to be questioned does a number of things. It suggests that evolution is somehow less valid than other scientific theories and thus in need of special consideration. And even without the religious language, it is clear that the alternative consideration is meant to be creationism. Thus far, creationism still falls in the realm of religion. This has no place on a science textbook.

The second issue is the use of the word "theory". There are different definitions of theory depending on context. There is a colloquial definition and a scientific definition. Colloquially, a theory is a hunch or a guess. As in, "I have a theory about who really shot Kennedy". This type of theory is based on information at hand and instinct and may have minimal factual basis. According to the National Academy of Sciences, a theory is "a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses." In science, a colloquial theory is a hypothesis. So, given that context, evolution is being presented as a theory.

There are many things taught as "fact" in science that are theories. The theory of relativity is a good example. Heck, there are entire college courses taught about theories. Take theoretical physics for example. Scientific theories are backed by experimental data and well regarded fact.

Science education should cover critical thinking and generally accepted scientific beliefs. The public school system is not a place for fringe science. It is also not a place for cutting edge science. These sorts of things should be addressed as elective studies in higher education.

Her response dealt more with her beliefs than with the issue of religious groups dictating or modifying scientific education. She has two main issues, which I can understand, even though I disagree with them. Her basic belief is that the Bible is the inerrant word of G-d. Therefore, if the Bible says that the Earth is only 6000 years old, that's how old it is. According to her belief, death is a consequence of sin. According to evolution, death was around long before the first man ever committed the first sin. So, teaching evoltuion causes contradictions that she has to address with her children.

There weren't many other messages in the thread. I think I closed it off by steering back to the original topic, which was "should there be warning stickers on science texts". I explained that we weren't trying to convince her that her beliefs were wrong, but that I still stood by my statements that personal religious views should not be used to influence education. I don't want to force you to change your beliefs. But I do want you to understand that faith cannot dictate science any more than science can dictate faith.