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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

A weekend interview with ...

23

February

Labov ... Dr. Jay B. Labov, a senior adviser for education and communications for the National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council. He also oversees the National Academies' activities to improve the teaching of evolution in public schools. Labov spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about Florida's new science standards.

Generally, relating to Florida's new standards, how do you view them?

Well, it's a good thing, first of all, that they're actually acknowledging evolution and including the word in the standards. And I also think it's good news that the standards explicitly state, and the board adopted the idea, that evolution is one of the big ideas in science and one of the underlying principles of biology.

So the words 'scientific theory' don't bother you?

It is a scientific theory. I notice they also put those words in front of other things such as the scientific theory of cells, which is also true. So I think it may have been an attempt to try to mollify some people who think that theory is something less than how scientists think about it. Theory is the highest level of evidence and explanation in the scientific world. But the fact that they also included that next to the scientific theory of cells, for instance, or atoms, suggests that theory is at a high level. So if evolution is equal to those theories, or vice versa, I would say that's probably reasonable.

But we also know that evolution is a fact. In our book Science, Evolution and Creationism, if you look on page 11 you'll see a whole box that asks the question 'Is evolution a theory or a fact?' And it points out why it's both.

I have seen a lot of people commenting in different places that evolution is not a theory, it's the theory. And so they kind of take issue with the way the State Board of Education wiggled around it. I was wondering what you think about that.

I didn't realize the word 'a' or 'the.' It is the scientific theory or explanation that is accepted by the overwhelming majority of the scientific community. It has evidence from many, many different disciplines, it is one of the most robust theories in its ability to explain and predict in all of science. ... It's also been shown over the course of years, and as new disciplines have come on line, such as molecular biology, that's only served to reinforce and build upon what we already have known about the theory of evolution for a long time.

So why has this not become the law of evolution, for instance?

Part of this is semantics. Laws are something that show predictable relationships. So for example, when I drop something it will fall in the same way, and we can predict what the relationship will be with the size of the body that's attracting it. The size of the planet, for example.

A theory is an explanation that takes into account all the various hypotheses that have been accumulated and provides the best explanation at the time. Theories can always be modified. Any scientific theory can be modified. Newton's theory of gravitation, of course, was modified after we started thinking about quantum mechanics and Einstein's ideas. And so any theory in science is modifiable. But it is probably essentially the best explanation we have at this point and it's unlikely to be changed much.

Then how do we make this work with the idea that others wanted to have the academic freedom to explore other ideas related to evolution?

Well, let's put it this way. When people are saying this is a problem with fairness, let's really think about what fairness means here. Think about, for example, the theory of plate tectonics, which is now the accepted idea about how the earth is put together and how the crust is moving around. A hundred years ago, 75 years ago, that wasn't accepted at all. It was a different idea. So what happened was that people came up with this idea, they began to collect data, they tested the idea, they published, there was peer review. There was comment, there was back and forth. Other people began to publish and do experiments and confirm the idea of plate tectonics. And finally the whole idea became so overwhelming that it was impossible to accept the old ways of thinking about things. So the evidence is what's important here in getting new ideas accepted. And finally, after these new ideas were accepted by the scientific community as the best explanation we have now, and it supplanted the other ones, then it was taught in science education in the public schools.

What the folks with Intelligent Design are trying to do is completely circumvent that. What they say is they have a new idea, let's teach it in schools, rather than going out and doing the hard work that's required in science to convince the scientific community that a new idea is better than the old one. And at this point, there is no evidence that we can see. Nothing has been published in peer reviewed journals. They haven't done the hard work. If we're talking about fairness, that's not really fair to try to get to the head of the line.

So it's kind of along the same lines as the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

Of course, that was done tongue in cheek. But the point they were trying to make is, my idea is just as good as yours if we're going to go that route. But that's not the way science works. ...

Is there any difference, really, between using the word 'evolution' and just using the phrase 'theories of change' or something like that, whatever they were using before?

What was happening before, a number of states have done that. Biological change over time, for example, or theories of change. And I think what that does is it just simply avoids acknowledging that what we're really talking about is evolution. And evolution is the big idea when it comes to trying to understand what is going on with respect to the biodiversity of the world.

[Last modified: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 9:35am]

    

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