Science, students get narrow victory

A Times Editorial
Published February 20, 2008

Science won a narrow victory Tuesday before the Florida Board of Education that is a significant - though all too tentative - step forward.

On the positive side, new science standards will finally spell out that students will be taught about evolution as the basis of modern biology and be expected to understand it as one of science's "big ideas." On the down side, the board approved the standards on a 4-3 vote only after adding unnecessary language to describe evolution as a "scientific theory" in an attempt to appease opponents.

Evolution, of course, is a scientific theory, just as there is the scientific theory of gravitation. But the board adopted the additional wording as a kind of fudge to cobble together a majority vote.

The board's compromise adds the term "scientific theory" not just to evolution but to other areas of science, including the theories of atoms, cells and electromagnetism. This was done for one purpose: to allow the confusion over the term "theory" to cloud the legitimacy of evolution as the only accepted scientific explanation for life's origins. The scientific theory of plate tectonics doesn't inspire the same religiously grounded backlash.

Scientific theory is not a guess or a mere hypothesis. It is a framework that explains observable facts. In biology, evolution is the unifying theory that continues to be reinforced and verified by ever more sophisticated research. There is no credible alternative scientific theory. Other options, such as intelligent design or creationism, are a matter of personal beliefs or religious teachings. They could be discussed in an appropriate educational setting, but they do not belong in a science curriculum.

Fortunately, the detail work on the science standards will now fall to a 68-member committee composed primarily of scientists and science teachers. A majority of that group signed a letter last week that declared "there is no longer any valid scientific criticism of the theory of evolution."

Of course, Tuesday's vote by the Board of Education will not end the noisy public debate over evolution that the scientific community resolved long ago. Some legislators and religious conservatives will not accept the decision and can be expected to continue to fight before local school boards or in the courts. But that would be counterproductive, and it would not help Florida students gain the scientific knowledge that is essential to compete in a sophisticated, global economy.

It should not have been this difficult and the wording could have been more direct, but the Board of Education generally reached the appropriate conclusion. It established the groundwork for science standards that will be more specific than the old ones and provide clearer direction for science teachers. Anything less would have been an embarrassing rejection of commonly accepted scientific theory.