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.”
BE IT ENACTED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF MONTANA:
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.