In South Carolina, the newspaper The State reports that South Carolina’s newly proposed science standards won’t require evolution to be taught as dogmatic fact:
A proposed change to the state’s science standard for teaching evolution — OK’d by education leaders Tuesday and sent to two South Carolina education boards for a final approval — will not allow a teacher to lecture on creationism, said state Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville.
Instead, it asks teachers and students to treat evolution as a theory — tested through experiments and subject to change as science develops.
This is exactly how science education should work. Public schools shouldn’t be promoting religious viewpoints like creationism in the science classroom. Instead they should allow students to consider biological evolution as a scientific theory open to questioning.
But what does it mean to call a scientific claim a “theory”? As I’ve explained before, a “theory” can mean a well-substantiated explanation, or it can mean an unsubstantiated hypothesis. In the standard scientific use of the term, calling something a “theory” doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s scientifically unestablished. The reporter may not grasp these nuances. He seems to equate “theory” with being scientifically dubious.
However you define the term, it’s good pedagogy to approach controversial scientific claims like biological evolution in a skeptical, scientific spirit. It’s fine to call biological evolution a “theory,” so long as you treat it in a scientific manner, where students are permitted to learn that new evidence arises that might challenge the “theory.” And that’s exactly what these new standards allow.
Neo-Darwinian evolution is an example of a “theory” that faces plenty of challenges. As we just saw in May, a group of distinguished, mainstream scientists are proposing what they call a “third way” as an alternative to the standard neo-Darwinian view taught in textbooks:
The vast majority of people believe that there are only two alternative ways to explain the origins of biological diversity. One way is Creationism that depends upon supernatural intervention by a divine Creator. The other way is Neo-Darwinism, which has elevated Natural Selection into a unique creative force that solves all the difficult evolutionary problems. Both views are inconsistent with significant bodies of empirical evidence and have evolved into hard-line ideologies. There is a need for a more open “third way” of discussing evolutionary change based on empirical observations.
In any case, with these changes, it looks like South Carolina is poised to adopt strong new science standards that will give students the intellectual tools to study and understand evolution.