School officials willing to call evolution 'theory'

The offer is a nod to religious conservatives.

By Ron Matus, Times Staff Writer
Published February 16, 2008

Could two words make a difference in the evolution debate?

In response to mounting criticism from religious conservatives, Florida education officials offered Friday to add the words "scientific theory" to the description of evolution in the state's proposed new science standards.

"That's not a compromise at all," department spokeswoman Jennifer Fennell said. "We're bringing forth the best options that are still scientifically accurate."

The proposed standards describe evolution as "the fundamental concept underlying all of biology" - a description that scientists consider accurate but critics say is dogmatic.

The Board of Education is set to vote on the standards Tuesday.

Fennell said the department ran the proposed wording change by some members of the committee that drafted the standards last year and "the consensus is, it's scientifically accurate."

If the board approves, similar language would be added to the standards wherever it is appropriate, not just the sections covering evolution, she said.

Some supporters said the change was acceptable, because it makes a distinction between "theory," which in layman's terms can mean a simple hunch, and a "scientific theory," which refers to a logical, consistent explanation that's backed by evidence.

"If that's what it's going to take to get the information to the teachers and students in the classrooms, then let's go for it," said Brandon Haught, a spokesman for Florida Citizens for Science.

One board member, though, called the change unnecessary, and one opponent said it didn't go far enough.

"The standards were presented to us by experts," said board member Roberto Martinez of Miami. "I'm satisfied with them as presented."

"Scientific theory will be a step in the right direction," Francis Grubbs, a curriculum specialist working for the Christian Law Association, wrote in an e-mail. "But if that is all that is changed it probably is still questionable."

In a related development, Gov. Charlie Crist said Friday that the approach to teaching evolution outlined in the current standards - which don't mention the word "evolution" but refer to changes over time - is "just fine."

But he also said he was content to leave the decision up to the Board of Education.

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or 727 893-8873.