Another couple of journalists who don't understand basic science

by JS O’Brien

Yesterday, I wrote about a Florida columnist who’s so poorly educated and ill-read that she could neither construct a cogent argument nor recognize a ridiculous misstatement about Newton’s second law of thermodynamics that would be obvious to my middle-schooler.   Today, I find this report from Reuters that completely misses the story, and for the same reason:  a fundamental misunderstanding of science and the most basic scientific terminology.

The real story here is that those in favor of teaching evolution won an even bigger victory than they could have hoped for, and they won it because their opponents also don’t understand scientific basics.

The great State of Florida has finally decided to revise language in its biology classrooms that banned the word “evolution” in favor of a mealy-mouthed “changes over time.”  After all, it is the 19th 20th 21st century, right?  Biblical creationists and their crypto-brethren adherents to intelligent design, sensing that the dreaded “e” word was about to snake its way into the sacred textbooks, clamored to soften the blow, insisting that said word be introduced as “the scientific theory of evolution.”  Florida’s State Board of Education voted 4-3 to accept the phrase, seemingly handing a victory to the religionists.

But not so fast.  The religionists think they won because they don’t understand the word “theory.”  They think (as I was taught in elementary school) that “theory” means “guess.”  And that is what it means in sloppy, common use.  Its precise, scientific meaning, however, is quite the opposite.  In science, a theory is a grand thing that explains a number of phenomena within a comprehensive framework.  For instance, the Theory of Gravity explains part of all of the motion of bodies in orbit, acceleration of bodies in relative motion to each other, how stars create fusion energy, and why bodies are torn apart in proximity to black holes.  Moreover, theories, because they predict so many things, undergo the most rigorous experimental testing imaginable.  A single conflicting datum, unexplained, can utterly destroy a theory.  Theories that have withstood the test of time, then, are virtually bulletproof.  They have often been expanded or given a more limited scope, in the way the Theory of Relativity limited Newton’s laws of motion to slow speeds, but they are rarely, and maybe never, completely overturned.

The new wording makes it extremely likely that Florida biology classrooms will spend a great deal of time exploring the word “theory” and what it really means.  That is not good news for the creationists.  The number of data now supporting the Theory of Evolution is staggering.  Any multi-day exploration of the evidence is likely to make at least some of their children rethink the literal interpretation of the biblical creation story.

Now, to the Reuters coverage.

The Reuters headline writer says “Florida will teach evolution, but only as a theory” (emphasis mine).  Clearly, the headline writer also has no idea what a theory is.  Michael Peltier, the writer, has this to say:

The panel includes the word “evolution” in state science standards for the first time, but it is relegated to a place among a host of ideas, including Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. By contrast Isaac Newton’s law of gravity is taught as undisputed fact.

“Relegated” to a place including the Theory of Relativity???!!! That’s like a musician’s being relegated to Carnegie Hall, or an actor’s relegation to the Royal Shakespeare Company! I can only hope I’m so relegated one day.  As for “Newton’s law of gravity” being taught as “undisputed fact,” I would say that is true only in bad classrooms. Science has no undisputed facts. There are simply things that are so probable that they are treated as facts, and if they are undisputed at this time, then it is because no one has produced credible evidence to reduce their probabilities.

When are publishers and/or editors going to insist that their writers have at least rudimentary knowledge of science?  Math?  Anything at all?

8 replies »

  1. Thanks Jeff. Man, as long as you keep dropping by just to say “great post,” you’re my best buddy.


    Perhaps, Wiki should be read more often, of course always being careful because it is not the best of sources available.

    Will I be thinking of the Public School System in Florida when I am there in April? Perhaps.

    I do like how you pounced on the word Theory…but I am not sure the average person looks at it the way you have described. I do not ever remember examining the word Theory in Biology classes with the Tutor.

    Thank you for your explanation of Scientific Theory.

  3. Elaine:

    I live in Florida, and cringe whenever I think about our messed up public schools. Our local high school has a 35% dropout rate. However, the school baseball team is pretty good so their priorities must be right………


  4. Jeff:

    The comprehensive system (our version of your public school system) is not terribly successful either. In fact the worst thing that this country ever did was rid itself of most of its Grammar Schools. It was these Grammar Schools that proved a route out of poverty for kids.

    You are lucky to live in Florida…and I look forward to being there – as well as cruising to Mexico, Haiti, Jamaica and Grand Cayman. I hope the locals are friendly.


  5. Elaine:

    That sounds likea fabulous trip. The locals are pretty friendly, but sinch this is high season, things are pretty crowded. You’ll experience a lot of traffic, restaurant waits, and crowded beaches. However, you’ll have a great time. Florida is a pretty mellow place, despite the crowds. The locals are mellow….it’s the tourists and snowbirds who have issues. If you’re departing on your cruise from Miami, be sure to stop by the Versailles restaurant in Little Havana…..some of the best Cuban food around. Cuban food is addicting:)