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Faith and science work best apart
By Liam Julian, Special to the Times
Published February 25, 2008
Months of often nasty disagreement peaked last week when the state Board of Education decided by a 4-3 vote to accept the newly revised science standards that introduce "the scientific theory of evolution" into Florida's K-12 curriculum.
The "scientific theory of" material was added in order to mollify Darwin detractors who believe either that evolution is unproven, that it is not the only possible scientific explanation for life as we know it, or that it's generally a bunch of hogwash.
Of course, the scientific community does not believe evolution to be hogwash. In fact, scientists are remarkably united - as they are about, say, cell theory or the theory of plate tectonics - that evolution's merits are solid and provable.
The organization where I work, the Thomas Fordham Foundation, conducted a review in 2005 of Florida's old science standards and found them to be lousy; we bestowed upon them a scarlet F. The standards deserved that failing grade for sundry reasons, but Paul Gross, a respected scientist and the lead author of our report, noted that their omission of evolution alone warranted the ignominious mark.
That's because evolution undergirds biology. And because we evaluated science standards, we thought it proper to evaluate the documents' scientific merit.
Note that we did not peer into the philosophical, epistemological or religious facets of Florida's science standards. Such considerations were outside the scope of our review.
And such considerations should have also fallen outside the scope of Florida's review of its newly revised science standards, which were made public in October 2007 for citizens to read, judge and comment on.
But the comment forum quickly grew contentious. The fights weren't over the science standards themselves, but over ulterior subjects - philosophy, religion, etc. - that are not even tangential to what is taught in ninth-grade biology. When board member Donna Calloway told a newspaper that she wouldn't vote for the new standards because they excluded "other theories of the origin of life," the battles heated.
Lost in all this was the difference between faith and science. Each can illumine the human experience, and they interact best when separated and respected. Neither side in Florida's evolution disagreement realized this, and it's therefore likely that the evolution controversy will continue.
Let's first dispense with the thought that adolescents should debate the merits of evolution in their science classes. This is silliness, akin to asking them to hash out the germ theory or the atomic theory. Until Florida's students are taught the basics of science, it's folly to demand they critically evaluate its finer points.
Certainly evolution has gaps (many scientific theories do). This is not justification for dumping the concept altogether, though, especially not in favor of an idea like intelligent design, which is not scientifically testable and therefore unscientific. If we followed such logic, scientific progress on all fronts would come to a decisive halt as scientists tossed out entire houses because of minor kinks in the guest bathrooms' plumbing.
But beyond that: Why try to pass off intelligent design as science, anyway? A better idea is to simply allow intelligent design and its ilk to remain philosophical ideas and allow evolution to remain a scientific one.
This works both ways. Those who support Florida's revised science standards should be careful to keep evolution in its realm - the scientific - and not heap upon it purposes for which it is unsuited.
Richard Dawkins, Oxford scientist and author of The God Delusion, makes the mistake of using evolution as a weapon against faith. He has written that, because of Darwin, religion "is now completely superseded by science."
His claim would shock many, including Pope Benedict XVI, who has said that "there is much scientific proof in the theory of evolution" but who also warns against converting evolution into "a universal theory concerning all reality." Pope John Paul II also believed that science and faith do best when they seek together to understand each other's competencies and limitations.
This has not occurred in Florida's debate over science standards. Instead of approaching faith and science as natural complements - each of which can clarify areas where the other is murky - the state has been embroiled in unhelpful rhetoric.
We can hope the Board of Education's uneasy compromise vote will stave off further disagreement. Absent a more sophisticated conversation about the realms of religion and science, though, it may well not.
Liam Julian, a St. Petersburg native, is associate writer and editor of the Thomas Fordham Foundation and a research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution.