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Mobile Register
November 15, 1995

By David Thomasson

Science seen through a glass darkly

Seeing a moral danger in high school students' taking their biology neat, Gov. Fob James and some of his supporters have devised an amazingly simple preventive: Paste a sticker inside each biology book warning students that the material on evolution contained therein is theory, not fact. To show how lightly one is permitted to treat theory, the governor put on some rib-scratching monkeyshines for the state Board of Education.

But just as flu shots don't prevent measles or diphtheria, neither will biology stickers warn students about all those other theories of evolution that are poured straight-up and served to them without disclaimer.

When students are introduced to astronomy, for instance, teachers unabashedly teach them about white dwarfs and red giants — stars in various stages of evolution. Even our own sun is evolving and will eventually swell up and incinerate the earth.

Turn to geology, and evolutionists' fingerprints are everywhere. The Rocky Mountains are monuments to the earth's evolution. The strata visible in the canyons of Arizona are rich textbooks on our evolving earth. That great hump in the eastern shoreline of South America was, eons ago, tucked snugly under the great hump on the western shore of Africa — according to the theory of continental drift, an evolutionary theory. The rumbling of earthquakes and the belching of volcanoes are merely symptoms of the earth's evolutionary dyspepsia.

What's interesting here is that those who want biological evolution labeled as "theory but not fact" are unconcerned that all this other evolution is being taught without so much as a by your leave. If you wonder why, the explanation is yet another evolutionary story. This one is about the evolution of science itself, and of popular understanding and acceptance of scientific theory.

Consider as an example the belief, now uncontroversial, that the earth's strata reflect millions of years of sedimentation. Geologists of 300 years ago believed nothing of the sort. Accepting the biblical account of creation as literally true, they calculated the earth's age to be roughly 6,000 years. Consequently, any acceptable geological theory had to fit that time frame. In 1695, for instance, a geologist named Woodward wrote that the whole earth had dissolved during the Great Flood and that "the entire mass of fossiliferous strata contained in the earth's crust had been deposited in a few months."

The history of science, like the earth's crust, is stratified. Each stratum is an evolutionary step in the general direction of progress. Laymen tend to lag behind scientists in recognizing and accepting this progress. But the record suggests that even biological evolution will someday be tolerated in Alabama as widely as astronomical and geological evolution are accepted today.

But acceptance follows understanding, which in turn is a product of education, and this brings us back to Fob James and the textbook stickers. The simplicity of this "solution" is matched only by the enormity of the error in what it tacitly assumes: that it is possible to put the facts in one basket, the theories in another, and thus keep one from getting entangled with the other.

This betrays a gross misunderstanding of the structure of scientific reasoning. Students who are taught this fact/theory dichotomy will go one of two ways: Those who cling to it will never achieve a mature understanding of the sciences they study; those who do gain such understanding must first unlearn that dichotomy and come to terms with the reality that, in science, the relation between facts and theories is as tricky as the relation between chickens and eggs.

The history of science is replete with the lesson that what even counts as fact is determined by the theoretical framework through which one sees the world. Theories, in turn, survive or die according to how well they succeed in making a set of facts intelligible. But there is no clean separation of fact and theory, and no fixed order of priority.

To illustrate, ancient astronomers believed that celestial bodies move in circular paths — what Aristotle called "perfect motion" — and that the earth stands motionless at the center. These "facts" were embedded in theories for more than a thousand years as astronomers sought to make sense of the motions of celestial bodies.

Around 1600, Johannes Kepler tackled the problem of planetary motion in general and of Mars in particular. Kepler had the rare sort of mind that could detach itself from theories and question the facts behind them. One of his great insights was to grasp that before he could understand the trajectory of Mars, he must first understand Earth's trajectory — an insight (following Copernicus) that rejected the "fact" of a stationary earth.

After "casting about to the very limits of my sanity," Kepler was forced by his calculations to reject as well the ancient "fact" of perfect circular motion. Today we take it as a plain fact that planetary orbits are elliptical, not circular. But that fact is no less the product of a theory (more precisely, of a law) than were the ancient "facts" of circular orbits around a stationary earth.

To study the history of science and appreciate the greatness of such achievements as Kepler's, one must appreciate the elusive relation between facts and theories. Stephen Toulmin, a philosopher of science, put it well:

There is only one way of seeing one's own spectacles clearly: that is, to take them off. It is impossible to focus both on them and through them at the same time. A similar difficulty attaches to the fundamental concepts of science. We see the world through them to such an extent that we forget what it would look like without them: Our very commitment to them tends to blind us to other possibilities. Yet a proper sense of the growth and development of our ideas will come only if we are prepared to unthink them.

That expresses the scientific spirit in which theories of biological evolution have been developing for more than a century. The observed facts of changing species are made intelligible by theory. But facts cannot be ginned from theories like seeds from cotton. Young minds struggling to understand are misled if they are taught to think so.

One of Gov. James' policy assistants recently outlined James' principles of government. "Finally," the assistant wrote, "Gov. James always asks: Is it in the children's best interest?"

That would be a good question to ask, seriously, about the biology stickers. But the spectacle of our governor making his case in a public forum by capering like an ape suggests that he is a man of remarkably unserious mind. It seems unlikely that he has begun to understand either the question or the implications of his answer to it.

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