The Florida Board of Education has voted in favour of lying for Jesus

Thanks to religious dogmatism and sophistry, the biological fact of evolution will be taught as a theory in Florida public schools. While this is surely a step up from the old curriculum, which did not mention evolution at all, it is a clear demonstration of religious dogmatism polluting impartial scientific teaching. Read on for more on this, and on clarification of the fact versus theoretical status of evolution.

Today’s decision was a close one, with the “theory” side winning 4-3 over the fact side.

The Tallahassee Democrat provides a brief background of the teaching of evolution in Florida public schools:

The state adopted new science curriculum standards in response to poor showings on national science exams by state students and an economy dominated by high-tech jobs that take scientific knowledge. The state’s old standards didn’t mention evolution.

A panel of 68 experts, heavy with science teachers and scientists, drew up detailed, age-specific standards that described evolution as the basic “concept underlying all of biology.” The standards said evolution was supported by “multiple forms of scientific evidence.”

In a series of public hearings, several conservative religious leaders and parents objected to evolution being “the” accepted standard. The compromise language approved today cites “the scientific theory of evolution,” making it officially a theory rather than a settled fact.

Board member Roberto Martinez said members were caving in to pressure from fundamentalists who, however they phrased it, wanted to get “creationism” and “intelligent design” into the public schools. But board members Kathleen Shanahan and Linda Taylor said there were other theories – not just religious ones – that students should explore in addition to evolution.

Is Evolution a Theory or a Fact?

Here is how I addressed this question in an earlier post entitled Is evolution “just a theory”, a scientific theory, or a fact?:

There is a lot of misunderstanding when it comes to determining the status of evolution. We are all familiar with the lay, and often religion-motivated, misinterpretation of evolution being “just a theory”. This misrepresentation of the status of evolution is based on a confusion—a confusion which in many cases is deliberate—between the meaning of theory in the lay discourse versus scientific discourse. Another common area of misunderstanding is in addressing whether evolution is a scientific theory or a fact. Here’s the short answer: evolution is both a scientific theory and a fact.

I’m quickly going to comment on the irony of the “just a theory” argument. This argument gets its strength from the fact that many people do not know the difference between theory in lay discourse versus scientific discourse. Its power is based entirely on ignorance. As most of the people reading this blog probably already know, here’s the difference. A lay theory can be something that someone has just thought up; it can be deeply thought out or just pulled out of thin air. A scientific theory, on the other hand, is a carefully tested and evidentially supported means of explaining data. A theory is based on rigorous scientific testing of a hypothesis (which is the closest thing in science to a lay theory; though these hypotheses are generally more thoughtfully developed and evidentially-justified than most lay theories), intense peer review, and the constant possibility of disconfirmation.

The “just a theory” versus scientific theory is not the only area of misunderstanding. People, including many scientifically-oriented skeptics, frequently misappraise the status of evolution. Is it a theory or a fact? The answer is both. It is both because there are two dimensions to evolution: historicity and mechanism. Historically, evolution is a fact. The evidence for the idea that species evolved by way of gradual changes in population gene pools over time is so overwhelming that to not grant it the status of fact would simply be ludicrous. While it is true that we can’t truly know anything aside from each own personal existence, to the extent that we can we can know that other things we can know that evolution is a historic fact. The evidence from genetics, archaeology, comparative anatomy, embryology, and so forth preclude the possibility that a person can be knowledgeable of the relevant information, honest, rational and not believe in the factuality of evolution. These 4 factors simply cannot coincide. At least one of them has to be false.

The late eminent paleontologist Stephen J. Gould explains the issue as follows:

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 ape-like ancestors whether they did so by Darwin’s proposed mechanism or by some other yet to be discovered.

The theoretical area of evolution is with regard to the mechanisms by which the historically factual process of evolution occurred. While we know for certain that evolution did occur because we have the data—the data are the facts, we use scientific theory to explain the data. That’s what scientific theories do: explain data. When it comes to explaining the data, not only is evolutionary theory a theory, it cannot become a fact. Theories explain data. Facts are data. So it’s not like we call natural selection a theory of evolution because we simply do not have enough evidence to call it a fact yet. We call it a theory because it explains the data. It will never be a fact. Indeed, if fact was a latter rung on the ladder (hypothesis–> theory –> fact) we would have been calling natural selection a fact for a long time by now. Natural selection is not the only scientific theory of evolution. There are others such as genetic drift and punctuated equilibrium theory. Natural selection, however, is the only process by which complex functionality can evolve.

Hat Tip: This Busy Monster

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Comments
9 Responses to “The Florida Board of Education has voted in favour of lying for Jesus”
  1. According to Wikipedia evolution is both fact and theory “Evolution is often said to be both theory and fact. This statement, or something similar, is frequently seen in biological literature.[1][2][3][4][5][6][4][7][4][8][9][10] The point of this statement is to differentiate the concept of the “fact of evolution”, namely the observed changes in populations of organisms over time, with the “theory of evolution”, namely the current scientific explanation of how those changes came about.”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolution_as_theory_and_fact

  2. ronbrown says:

    Sandy: Exactly.

    The Florida Board has just decided to call the historicity of evolution a theory. They’re willfully confusing historicity with mechanism so as to manufacture and justify unjustified levels of doubt by virtue of the confusion of lay theory with scientific theory.

  3. Xander Legere says:

    No wonder they score so low on the National Science Exams.

  4. ronbrown says:

    I’ve read quotes by Creationists from down South (including one today by a Floridian Creationist mother of 3) saying that evolution is just a trick of Satan to lure people away from God. How do you reason with people who are taught from a young age that anyone that does anything (including trying to engage you in a reasonable argument, do research, etc.) to get you to evaluate the truth of your beliefs is being controlled by the ultimate universal evil, and that by buying into their reasoning one puts oneself on the path to Hell?

  5. Peter says:

    Your comments about evolution as a scientific theory are mostly true. The problem in this debate is that many “rational” scientific folks are taking heat from protestant creationists and not talking to Catholics, who accept various aspects of evolution. The wonderful thing about Christianity is that we believe in a transcendent God, who has provided us with the ability to use our reason in discovering the realities of the universe. The approach by the Catholic Church toward science has always been one of respect. The only time things have become tense is when scientists begin philosophizing about their findings, or entering into the realm of Theology.
    It is quite possible that man developed from a monkey; however, Man’s soul must have come from a non-physical source, for it is by nature spiritual. Now, what complicates the discussion here is that many evolutionists will deny the soul and present their view of man as merely material. This of course is unacceptable to not only Christians, but to many other religions in this world. If scientists act in an impartial way, basing their scientific theories on facts, then all is okay. However, there seems to be a disagreement over the nature of man between scientists. There are some who see man as simply material, even his intellect and will; even his seemingly spiritual side being a mix of some strange particles that have not even been proven to exist. If these scientists begin philosophizing and theologising (not a word) about man’s nature with a materialist view, then they better be equipped to deal with the philosophers and theologians, and not just denounce them as faith filled irrational nuts; for science is not the only realm of knowledge: Literature, Philosophy, Theology, The Fine Arts are all viable ways to learn.
    I hope this was clear. It is important to realize that many creationists, though their science is bad, are not so much concerned with the science as in defending that there actually was a Creation. However, this does not excuse their dismissal of rational discourse in the area of science. It is interesting to think about where that tiny speck of balled up energy came from before it exploded and started this universe.

  6. L. Ron Brown says:

    Peter:

    Greetings. Your comment is much appreciated. I’ve been busy with a number of personal interests lately and so have not done much on the blog of late. However, I do think that responding to your comment would be worthwhile and I think I should have time to do this in the next few days. Please drop a quick comment in so that I’ll know that if/when I respond in the next 1-3 days, you’ll see the reply.

    Best,

    Ron

  7. Peter says:

    Hi Ron,
    I will make sure to check out your reply. Thanks

  8. L. Ron Brown says:

    Peter:

    Hi. Hope you’re well. I’m gonna respond to some of your particular statements, which I’ll quote.

    “The only time things have become tense is when scientists begin philosophizing about their findings, or entering into the realm of Theology…..If these scientists begin philosophizing and theologising (not a word) about man’s nature with a materialist view, then they better be equipped to deal with the philosophers and theologians, and not just denounce them as faith filled irrational nuts”.

    My opinion here is that when discussing ideas, it should be the idea that matters not the speaker. So regardless of who makes moral claim X or scientific claim Y, the claim should be evaluated on how well it stands up to scrutiny, not based on the letters behind or in front of the speaker’s surname. That being said, however, I do think that it is reasonable for a person to show a bias in favour of trusting a scientist more than a non-scientist when discussing science, as the scientist can reasonably be expected to know more about something that he has studied rigorously. However, when it comes to having discussions with pertinence to policy and such, such bias should not be necessary as when important decisions need to be made, the decision makers will hopefully be taking more time and consulting more experts, thereby removing much of the need to use time-saving heuristics.

    I’d be a bit more wary, however, in applying a similarly favourable heuristic bias to the theologian in discussing theology. A few reasons: the strong connection between one’s sense of right and wrong, meaning, purpose, social relations, as well as personal investment when it comes to theology. When a scientist discusses a highly established theory like evolution, however, which has become strong within a culture that is second to no other in terms of how rigorously it defends intellectual rigor and honesty, I feel confident that I can trust him/her. However, if the scientist is discussing a more marginal view that has not yet gained traction – and particularly if they are one of the early proponents/developers of the view – then I would be similarly skeptical as there coculd quite easily be a conflict of interest here. And on the flipside, I’d be more trusting of a theologian discussing a more widely accepted aspect of their theology – e.g., the resurrection – as opposed to something more contentious.

    If you think I’ve been unfair here in anyway, we can discuss this – obviously.

    “Man’s soul must have come from a non-physical source, for it is by nature spiritual. Now, what complicates the discussion here is that many evolutionists will deny the soul and present their view of man as merely material.”

    I’ve written about this before. There are problems with the view as you’ve expressed it. Firstly, there absolutely cannot be a strict divide (or dualism) between the material/physical and the mental/spiritual. The reason being that the two clearly interact – the physical realm as we conceptualize it clearly affects the mental (e.g., it *hurts* when we get kicked) and the mental clearly affects the physical (e.g., beliefs and feelings affect behaviour). If the two were truly of fully distinct natures, how could they interact? How could a non-physical thought lead to the physical movement of matter? How could the physical movement of matter change our thoughts and feelings? The two domains must have at least one bridge of common ground in order for their interaction to exist, which it clearly does.

    We view the mental and the physical as being qualitatively different. However, the human mind makes categorical distinctions between all sorts of things which we have reason to believe are not discretely separated but exist rather on a monistic continuum. For example, consider the colour spectrum. We see different colours. As we move across the colour spectrum, we do not see a simple continuous change in perception. Rather, we see rather abrupt periods of perceptual transitions (the colour boundary regions – e.g., red to orange), which are surrounded by periods of more continuous perceptual transition (i.e., transition within colour regions – e.g., moving from lighter red to gradually darker red). While we perceive abrupt perceptual changes, when it comes to wavelength the change is non-abrupt but seemlessly continuous across the full range. Our minds seem to hallucinate abrupt changes. This has also been found in all other areas of perception. As one more example, consider speech perception. The sounds /p/ and /b/ (puh and buh) are adjacent phonemes on the phonetic spectrum. Like colour perception, there is a very sharp discontinuity in phonetic perception. A phonetician can vary the sound within phonetic ranges (e.g., within /b/) and there will be absolutely no change in what is perceived – it’s still just /b/. But all of a sudden, after many incremental changes in one sound direction that produced no heard difference, a further adjustment will produce a huge change and the person will report all of a sudden hearing /p/. Again, they are hallucinating a categorical distinction rather than what appears to be a non-categorical non-abrupt incremental change along a continuum that was no different than the one that preceded it that produced no difference in perceived sound.

    The human mind needs to do this sort of thing. It needs to cut the world into bounded regions. Why? Because the world of information, so far as we can tell, it is infinitely rich. However, our minds are not. Thus, our brains need to simplify what it processes in order for it to be able to handle any information. So we cut up the analog/continuous world into a digital world of discrete categories.

    Now consider again the mind-matter apparent discontinuity. We view them as being separate, but they cannot be fully separate. They have to share at least one common plain for interaction. Secondly, consider that the cognitive sciences show extremely persuasively that we do in fact cut the continuous world into discrete packets of information. It seems quite reasonable to suggest that our minds are doing to our conceptualization of the mental and physical essentially what it is doing when it distinguishes sharply between /p/ and /b/.

    I can readily agree with you that there is clearly something fundamentally different at the level of quality between matter and the mind. Even if cognitive neuroscientists were able to fully map out how a person’s brain is configured when he/she is feeling angry, there is a qualitative distinction between the configuration of that person’s neural networks and the emotional state that it corresponds to. Perhaps there is a monism (a one-ness), as the materialists believe, but it’s nature differs from how it is commonly interpreted. I would imagine that the building blocks of matter and consciousness are not matter as we conceive it, but the true atoms of the universe. The objective atoms. The atoms as they really are, before our brains cut them up into discrete hallucinated categories. Some configurations of these real atoms are generative of what we call mentality, others are not. Or perhaps all the atoms of the universe have a mental aspect to them. Who knows?

    Consider also the possibility of emergence. Perhaps what we call the world of the mental emerges from certain appropriate configurations of what we call the physical. Humans have already observed the emergence of qualitatively different products that were unexpected based on their ingredients. Consider economics. From a collection of individuals simply acting in accord with their own self-interest, patterns of supply and demand and cost and so on emerge, and emerge without any necessity of intention or awareness on the part of the people who comprise the community. I could also talk about abiogenesis – the emergence of living entities from non-living entities. Whether this occurred by way of path of naturalistic processes in which carbon-based amino acids gradually formed increasingly complex stable compounds, and then at some time in ways that I do not understand RNA was formed (which is genetic information that can produce proteins without needing proteins to do so, thereby avoiding a popular false chicken-egg problem of creationists), and then from RNA and their protein-containing cells eventually evolved the more complex DNA, or if God imbued the life-less physical with the qualities of life (whatever they are; scientists and philosophers still argue about what the definition of life is), it could be claimed that either life came from non-life or, in the latter case, life is claimed to have always existed in the universe and whose to say that it was rooted in this or that God, or some other entity which is radically different from God as humans have construed God.

    “for science is not the only realm of knowledge: Literature, Philosophy, Theology, The Fine Arts are all viable ways to learn.”

    I agree that science is not the only realm of knowledge. However, when it comes to studying the nature of the world out there, I don’t see any other viable alternatives. When we want to know the structure of the atom, of genes, the genetic and historical connections among species, the history of the universe, I do not any alternative to engaging in rigorous and honest surveying of the world through collaborative efforts of scientists, natural historians and so on. The work will be done by scientists conducting experiments, archaelogists digging thousands of feet into the earth, scholars engaging in broad meta-analyses of vast expanses of data and theory from various fields and so forth. But I hardly see how theology or any type of personal revelatory experience is going to have any meaningful contribution to make.

    “It is interesting to think about where that tiny speck of balled up energy came from before it exploded and started this universe.”

    I agree. Few things are more fascinating, IMO. As interesting as this sort of consideration undoubtedly is though, I just wish people would be more honest in their methods of inquiry and their assessments of their knowledge.

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