Montana considers a bill that allows teaching of “scientific facts” but not “scientific theories”

February 9, 2023 • 12:10 pm

Reader Barry sent me a link to an article in BoingBoing reporting briefly that a freshman state Senator in Montana, Dan Emrich, has introduced a bill that would ban the teaching of “scientific theories” in secondary schools and allow only the teaching of “scientific fact”.  According to the article, the object of this bill is the “theory” of evolution, and since he doesn’t see evolution as a fact, then bye-bye Darwin. You can click below to see the short bill, and I’ve put the relevant bits of the bill below the screenshot (bolding is mine):

WHEREAS, the purpose of K-12 education is to educate children in the facts of our world to better prepare them for their future and further education in their chosen field of study, and to that end children must know the difference between scientific fact and scientific theory; and

WHEREAS, a scientific fact is observable and repeatable, and if it does not meet these criteria, it is a  theory that is defined as speculation and is for higher education to explore, debate, and test to ultimately reach  a scientific conclusion of fact or fiction.

They later clarify: “As used in this section, ‘scientific fact’ means an indisputable and repeatable observation of a natural phenomenon.”


NEW SECTION. Section 1. Requirements for science instruction in schools.

(1) Science 18 instruction may not include subject matter that is not scientific fact.

(2) The board of public education may not include in content area standards any standard 20 requiring curriculum or instruction in a scientific topic that is not scientific fact.

(3) The superintendent of public instruction shall ensure that any science curriculum guides 22 developed by the office of public instruction include only scientific fact.

(4) (a) The trustees of a school district shall ensure that science curriculum and instructional 24 materials, including textbooks, used in the district include only scientific fact.

Why are they doing this? Apparently  because Emrich is after the “theory” of evolution and this is his way of banning it from being taught. (This won’t fly, of course; it’s hopelessly confused.) And I can tell without looking that Emrich is a Republican. From BoingBoing:

Montana Public Radio reports that more than 20 people testified against the bill to voice their concern “that it could keep teachers from including gravitational theory, evolution and cell theory in curriculum.”

In his testimony, Emrich “If we operate on the assumption that a theory is fact, unfortunately, it leads us to asking questions that may be potentially based on false assumptions,” Emrich said.

We know what Emrich is up to. He wants to ban the teaching of the theory of evolution, which is a well-substantiated explanation based on a large body of factual evidence, not assumptions. His dangerous and misguided bill creates a false dichotomy between science and scientific theories, and undermines the principles of academic freedom and the separation of church and state.

This plays on the public confusion, promulgated decades ago by Ronald Reagan, who said this in 1980 (my emphasis):

I have a great many questions about it. It is a theory, it is a scientific theory only. And in recent years it has been challenged in the world of science and is not believed in the scientific community to be as infallible as it once was. I think that recent discoveries down through the years have pointed up great flaws in it.”

That’s all bullpucky, of course, especially the claim that evolution is becoming less accepted in the scientific community. My book Why Evolution is True dispels that claim, but it also shows that yes, evolution is a scientific theory, but it is also a scientific fact. Organisms evolved, they did so slowly rather than instantaneously (except for polyploid or hybrid species), lineages split over time, producing new species who evolved further, creating a branching evolutionary tree showing that any two living species have a common ancestor, and that the remarkable “adaptations” or organisms evolved via natural selection. (There are also other ways of evolving, like genetic drift, but they don’t produce adaptations). All five of these bits of evolutionary theory are also facts, supported by mountains of evidence.

I would reproduce my discussion of why evolution is both a fact and a theory from the book, but you can read it from pp. 14-19 and it’s too long to put here. (You do have the book, don’t you?)

Alternatively, you can read Steve Gould’s well known essay on this issue, Evolution as fact and theory“, online for free.  Here’s the bit that most of us know, written with Gould’s characteristic flair:

The basic attack of modern creationists falls apart on two general counts before we even reach the supposed factual details of their assault against evolution. First, they play upon a vernacular misunderstanding of the word “theory” to convey the false impression that we evolutionists are covering up the rotten core of our edifice. Second, they misuse a popular philosophy of science to argue that they are behaving scientifically in attacking evolution. Yet the same philosophy demonstrates that their own belief is not science, and that “scientific creationism” is a meaningless and self-contradictory phrase, an example of what Orwell called “newspeak.”

In the American vernacular, “theory” often means “imperfect fact”—part of a hierarchy of confidence running downhill from fact to theory to hypothesis to guess. Thus creationists can (and do) argue: evolution is “only” a theory, and intense debate now rages about many aspects of the theory. If evolution is less than a fact, and scientists can’t even make up their minds about the theory, then what confidence can we have in it? Indeed, President Reagan echoed this argument before an evangelical group in Dallas when he said (in what I devoutly hope was campaign rhetoric): “Well, it is a theory. It is a scientific theory only, and it has in recent years been challenged in the world of science—that is, not believed in the scientific community to be as infallible as it once was.”

Well, evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein’s theory of gravitation replaced Newton’s, but apples did not suspend themselves in mid-air, pending the outcome. And humans evolved from apelike ancestors whether they did so by Darwin’s proposed mechanism or by some other, yet to be discovered.

Moreover, “fact” does not mean “absolute certainty.” The final proofs of logic and mathematics flow deductively from stated premises and achieve certainty only because they are not about the empirical world. Evolutionists make no claim for perpetual truth, though creationists often do (and then attack us for a style of argument that they themselves favor). In science, “fact” can only mean “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.” I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.

This bill will not pass, not only because it would prohibit the teaching of atomic theory, germ theory, and the theory of gravity (what Emrich is saying, falsely, is that “theory” = “speculation”), but also because many “facts” of history itself are not established with 100% certainty. It’s best to regard all truths as provisional, but some, like evolution, are sufficiently established that you’d be safe betting your life savings on them.

I’ll finish here by letting you read once again part of Clarence Darrow’s stirring defense of evolution against ignoramuses like Emrich. This, which still applies to people like Emrich, is nearly a century old, and was thundered out by Darrow in 1925 during second day of the Scopes trial:

 If today you can take a thing like evolution and make it a crime to teach it in the public school, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools, and the next year you can make it a crime to teach it to the hustings or in the church. At the next session you may ban books and the newspapers. Soon you may set Catholic against Protestant and Protestant against Protestant, and try to foist your own religion upon the minds of men. If you can do one you can do the other. Ignorance and fanaticism is ever busy and needs feeding. Always it is feeding and gloating for more. Today it is the public school teachers, tomorrow the private. The next day the preachers and the lectures, the magazines, the books, the newspapers. After while, your honor, it is the setting of man against man and creed against creed until with flying banners and beating drums we are marching backward to the glorious ages of the sixteenth century when bigots lighted fagots to burn the men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind.

Ignorance and fanaticism are still at play, as you can see in this bill.

31 thoughts on “Montana considers a bill that allows teaching of “scientific facts” but not “scientific theories”

  1. Here is a definition of scientific theory from the Oxford English Dictionary: “Theory, Sense 1: A scheme or system of ideas or statements held as an explanation or account of a group of facts or phenomena; a hypothesis that has been confirmed or established by observation or experiment, and is propounded or accepted as accounting for the known facts; a statement of what are held to be the general laws, principles, or causes of something known or observed.”

  2. Many people don’t understand that evolution is both a fact (descent with modification) and a theory (body of knowledge and explanation relating to the processes by which evolution takes place). Unfortunately, the vernacular meaning of “theory” leaves lots of room for politicians and other self-serving people and institutions to exploit the term for their own purposes. This is clearly one example. We need to do better at explaining the meaning of “theory” in science but, ironically, one of the goals of the aforementioned self-serving is to make the teaching of science more difficult. It’s exasperating.

    1. Maybe we should say they go together – there can’t be a theory without observation/evidence/data, and where there is observation, theory should be forthcoming.

      I mean everyone can read Sherlock Holmes to get this idea.

      1. If I remember rightly, Watson is shocked at Holmes’s scientific ignorance in A Study in Scarlet –

        His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

        “You appear to be astonished,” he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.”

        “To forget it!”

        “You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

        “But the Solar System!” I protested.

        “What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently; “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

        1. Indeed, I read that a few weeks ago!

          It gives interest to the character of Holmes. He is flawed – without flaws, we wouldn’t be taking about him now. I think it illustrates how he keeps his mind stocked as an attic with only a limited number of tools, so they are immediately ready. So, he admits ignorance ..?… of the solar system – because his focus is that of solving the hardest problems of crime…. and I see now you wrote that “attic”/”tools” quote!

        2. I forgot to add :

          there’s also the quote about how it is a capital mistake to theorize before one has all the facts.

        3. If memory serves me, Holmes played the violin. Perhaps he would allow that the relaxation he got from that made at least a pennyworth of difference in his abilityu to focus on and make the critical deduction in the case at hand.

      2. I add :

        String theory is famous as a theory in need of observation – but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any rational basis for the theory.

  3. His timing is strategic. Regardless how moronic his proposed bill, he’s unlikely to get the mocking headlines so richly deserved. He’s still in line behind Santos, Boebert, and Taylor-Green in Republican laughingstocks. The insipid gentleman’s stupidity will likely fly under the national radar…and that’s a shame.

  4. I don’t follow creationist shenanigans all that closely, but bills like this are pretty common. This person is proposing this bill just to say s(he) proposed the bill, as doing so is a form of virtue signaling to their constituents.

  5. The bizarre idea that the theory of evolution is not scientific because we cannot get a fish to evolve into a giraffe in the laboratory over the weekend shows that these faith-motivated politicians are not simply ignorant of scientific realities, but don’t even understand what “repeatable” means. By their standards, we should not teach children that they came from their parents; for unless we get said parents to have sex under controlled conditions and manage to get exactly the same child as before, then the idea that mom and dad begat little Bobby is “just a theory”.

    1. … for unless we get said parents to have sex under controlled conditions and manage to get exactly the same child as before, then the idea that mom and dad begat little Bobby is “just a theory”.

      I doubt this crowd is keen on teaching sex ed in schools either.

  6. Montana’s tax-payer money hard at work. That Chinese balloon that recently graced Montana’s skies was displaying the properties of a theory or two.

    Thanks for the Gould and Darrow excerpts. It’s been a while since I’ve read either, and it was a nice refresher.

  7. So, neither should we teach the Atomic Theory, the Wave Theory of Light, the Theory of Plate Tectonics, the Germ Theory of Disease, the Theory of Gravitation (Newton and Einstein) etc?

  8. ” (You do have the book, don’t you?)”.
    Yes, hardcover, but a 4th printing, as far as I can tell, so not a collector’s item. If I ever get back to Chicago to visit my brother, perhaps we can arrange to get it signed.

    1. Just as a complete aside, if your HB edition has a separate dust cover, in good condition, maybe a couple of postage stamps, a couple of sticky address labels and a large envelope could get that signed?

  9. It’s a great weakness of the US Constitution that state legislatures are even in a position to consider such bills. The amount of time and energy that has been wasted processing such legislative garbage since the US began is incalculable.

  10. It’s high time that the ‘theory’ aspect of evolution should be put to bed!!! I would suggest that a prominent scientific body/organisation should come out and finally declare that it can no longer be considered a ‘theory’ but a fact based upon overwhelming evidence from widely differing sources. What is so irritating is that these suggestions turn up from creationist loons who are not only scientifically illiterate, but place their faith in ancient myths for which there is NO evidential truth whatsoever.

  11. This is just completely asinine. No discussions of the aether theory of light in the lead up to explaining the Michelson Morley experiment? A ban on mentioning the Bohr model of the atom? No mentions of string theory in AP Physics? Is the Ideal Gas Law out since it doesn’t conform to actual observations of real gases? There’re a whole lot of non-controversial lessons that intentionally cover incorrect or speculative ideas that this law would suppress if it actually passed. What does he think a science education is supposed to be, anyway? Rote memorization of facts?

  12. ‘Moreover, “fact” does not mean “absolute certainty.” The final proofs of logic and mathematics flow deductively from stated premises and achieve certainty only because they are not about the empirical world.’

    I am somewhat confused by this second statement, which I perhaps do not understand. Pure math and logic do indeed work like that. But from a scientist’s point of view, math is only useful in that it is about the empirical world. Second quantization in quantum field theory is a mathematical operation, but is only useful as an explanation of how fields interact and give rise to particles. This is very much about the empirical world. ‘Course, lots of mathematicians might disagree with that statement. 😉

  13. but also because many “facts” of history itself are not established with 100% certainty.

    And the poster child to bring up on that topic (which would deeply hurt the bill’s proponents and supporters to have debated in public, with lots of association of their names with the question) would be the very uncertain historical existence (or not) of Jesus.
    In public discussion with these idiots, a starting gambit of a kick in the crotch while wearing crampons can save hours of gibberish exchange.

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