Trust Georgia to turn back time when even the developing nations are using science to surge ahead. Recently the Cobb County School System inserted disclaimers in biology textbooks stating that “Evolution is a theory, not a fact”. Although the statement sounds ludicrous, I cannot but wonder at the incongruity of rational thought here. The statement is now severely under the semantics microscope and even has scientists divided. A little bit of background, however makes things much clearer. The opposition to Darwin’s forward leap in understanding our origins stems from deep-rooted belief in Creationism propounded by conservative Christians. Although creationism has been repeatedly proven infactual, religious bigots insist on offering this “alternative view” to students. Only a minority still believes that evolution is “a scientific theory well-supported by evidence.” [via Washington Monthly]
Admittedly evolution is a theory but then it’s a rigorously tested theory and has withstood several attempts under the experimental axe to disprove it. By that logic, all facts in science are theories and cannot be proven beyond doubt. Even the observable facts are rendered fallible because of their dependence on our sensory perception. Ever heard of the maxim — do not always trust what you see? Karl Popper understood this fallacy and laid out this theory of falsifiability i.e. a theory can be valid only if it is falliable and stands on the assumption that it can be falsified (his take was replaced by a better Lakatosian theory but more on that sometime later). A statement that it may or may not rain today is not acceptable because it cannot be falsified and covers its bases. However, a theory is strengthened if it manages to weather attacks of trying to disprove it while holding on to its garb of falsifiability. If you do not believe in my theory, disprove it and propose a theory of your own — is the crux of the argument. Evolution similarly has withstood such tests of falsifiability and in fact, has been strengthened in recent times by examples of mutating bacteria. Thousands of archeological sites all over the world effectively delineate the path of evolution. But as Ross admits in an episode of Friends, there always exists a teeny-weeny possibility that it might be wrong. But in absence of opposing evidence, it is construed as fact by the scientific community.
Many such examples abound in the history of science. Gravitational theory, proposed by Newton also effectively is a theory but is not questioned by the same conservatives. The Church castigated Galileo for his claims that the heavenly bodies are not perfectly spherical objects. It doubted the capabilities of his newly-invented telescope but did not for a moment, stop to think for a moment that they might be wrong.
Let us not get caught up in semantics here. Admitted that evolution is a theory but for all practical purposes, it is a scientific fact in absence of a better explanatory theory. The basis for the Cobb County School Board of course is not dabbling in such subtle differences but rooted mainly in keeping children away for the theory of evolution. I hope they do not succeed in influencing young impressionable minds and keeping them away from rational thought. No wonder Georgia voted for Bush again. But in a country where 25% still believe this long-debunked theory [PDF link], I am suddenly seeing sense.