It might not make sense to some to discuss the advantages & disadvantages of the scientific theories of plate tectonics & gravity, but politicians in Kentucky, Louisiana, Texas, and South Dakota might consider it an important pedagogical strategy. Here is how legislators in Kentucky put it in an Act relating to science education and intellectual freedom
- Teachers, principals, and other school administrators are encouraged to create and foster an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that promotes critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of scientific theories being studied.
- After a teacher has taught the content related to scientific theories contained in textbooks and instructional materials included on the approved lists required under KRS 156.433 and 156.435, a teacher may use, as permitted by the local school board, other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner, including but not limited to the study of evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.
- This section shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion.
You’ll notice the Act did not include the theories of plate tectonics or gravity, but did expect teachers, after they have taught evolution, global warming, or human cloning, to stop, and have a little discussion of the pro’s and con’s, the advantages and disadvantages of these theories.
Further if you examine the “act” or “bills” from different states, they use the same language, and couch their demands in encouraging teachers to teach critical thinking. But in reality it is simply another way for the same group that tried to insist that “intelligent design” is science, and should be taught along with evolution. The case against intelligent design was decided in the Dover, PA case ruled on by Judge John Jones in December 2005. In the verdict, the Judge ruled that ID is not science, therefore is out of science class to preserve separation of church and state, among other things. Now, proponents of teaching advantages and disadvantages of a science theory are trying to come in the back door by insisting that “both” sides of a theory be discussed.
The problem is that scientific ideas do not necessarily have two sides. Yet you would believe by watching the media that all things have two sides. With the use of split screen technology, the media presents to the public a “balanced” treatment of the issue. In his recent book on climate change, Stephen H. Schneider, the tactic of “balanced treatment” actually becomes the tactic of “persistent distortion.” He puts it this way:
One of the key reasons for distortion in the media reports on climate change is perceived need for “balance” in journalism (substitute science teaching for journalism, and you have the logic behind these efforts to discuss pro’s and con’s of a theory). In reporting political, legal, or other advocacy-dominated stories, it is appropriate for journalists to report both sides of an issue. Got the democratic view? Better get the Republican.
In science, the situation is radically different. There are rarely just two polar-opposite sides, but rather a spectrum of potential outcomes, which are often accompanied by a history of scientific assessment of the relative-credibility of each possibility.
Schneider addresses the issue and problem with the pro/con approach to a scientific idea, especially one like climate change (or evolution or human cloning). And in his statement he is showing us how this approach to exploring scientific ideas leaves us with nothing more than two sides squaring off against each other:
Being stereotyped as the “pro” advocate (advantages of—name your theory) versus the “con” advocate as far as action on climate change is concerned is not a quick ticket to a healthy scientific reputation as an objective interpreter of the science—particularly for a controversial science like climate change, which rarely one-sided. In actuality, it encourages personal attacks and distortions. This all part of the problem I call, somewhat whimsically, “mediarology.”
Scientific theories are abstract and conceptual, and to this end they are never right or wrong. Instead, they are supported or challenged by observations in the real world. The American Association for the Advancement of Science advances our understanding of scientific theories when they say:
A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment. Such fact-supported theories are not “guesses” but reliable accounts of the real world. The theory of biological evolution is more than “just a theory.” It is as factual an explanation of the universe as the atomic theory of matter or the germ theory of disease. Our understanding of gravity is still a work in progress. But the phenomenon of gravity, like evolution, is an accepted fact.
In a climate of polarization and partisanship, the school science curriculum could become the playing field of the same group that advocated equal time for creation science, and the inclusion of intelligent design in science teaching. As Leslie Kaufman suggests in a New York Times article, “Darwin foes add warming to target.” In the article Kaufman points out that:
Critics of the teaching of evolution in the nation’s classrooms are gaining ground in some states by linking the issue to global warming, arguing that dissenting views on both scientific subjects should be taught in public schools.
To be true to the suggestion of exploring the advantages and disadvantages of scientific theories, what would be the pro- and con- sides of the following scientific theories?
- Astronomy: Big Bang Theory
- Biology: Cell theory — Evolution — Germ theory
- Chemistry: Atomic theory — Kinetic theory of gases
- Climatology: Theory of Global Climate Change (due to anthropogenic activity)
- Engineering: Circuit theory — Control theory — Signal theory — Systems theory
- Geology: Plate tectonics
- Physics: Acoustic theory — Antenna theory — BCS theory — Landau theory — M-theory — Perturbation theory — Theory of relativity — Quantum field theory — Scattering theory — String theory
- Planetary science: Giant impact theory