Pageant Theory Becomes Law?

Posted on July 29, 2011


Maybe I should apologize for being too tough on the Miss USA contestants last month [read post]. None of them seemed to understand what a scientific theory was, but it may not be their fault. Apparently science education materials sometimes get it wrong and kids can be misled.

My wife and I just bought a science workbook for homeschooling our daughter, and it contained a botched explanation of a scientific theory and incorrectly stated that a theory can become a law. This was the on the first page of the workbook. The description of the scientific method concluded with this incorrect statement:

“Theories that last for many, many years-and are never proven wrong-become scientific laws.”

What?!? There’s a flow chart below it offering a graphical misunderstanding, as well, just to make sure that the kid doesn’t accidentally get it right.

Incorrect Definition of Theory flowchart

Incorrect description followed by an incorrect flowchart

Then the worksheet begins with this question:

Multiple choice

The first question in the workbook

It’s multiple choice, and none of the answers make sense, but the answer key says it’s C: law. What’s going on with science education in America?

The workbook boasts that it’s aligned to NSTA science standards, so I went to the NSTA website to check it out. They used the right definition. Here are quotes from an article called “Myths in Science” which seeks to correct some common misunderstandings:

“Laws and theories are distinct types of knowledge and therefore, laws do not become theories nor do theories become laws. A law is used to describe a phenomenon or pattern in nature. Laws hold true under most conditions, but can be modified or discredited. A theory is used to explain a phenomenon. Theories pertain to complex events that were initiated many years in the past, occur over long periods of time, relate to very small entities, or exist at great distances from us. In addition, theories combine many facts, concepts, and laws to form scientific understandings. A good example of this is the law of conservation of mass in chemistry and the atomic theory used to explain it.”

My wife and I also found other articles on the site that drove home the point that theories are made of laws, facts, observations, and explanations – but they do not graduation into laws (or facts). This comes into the evolution debate because the word “theory” is often used to cast doubt on evolution. There have been several recent court battles concerning whether or not stickers should be applied onto biology textbooks that explain evolution is “a theory, not a fact”. Here’s an example from a recent case in Georgia:

“Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things.”

A school district attorney supporting that evolution disclaimer said “This sticker was an effort to get past that conflict and to teach good science.” [news story]

Sorry, but if you incorrectly use the word theory on your sticker, you’re off to a bad start. Apparently, lawyers, school administrators, school boards, teachers, publishers, and so many reporters and commentators haven’t really grasped the scientific method and have added to the confusion.  Sorry, Miss USA contestants, it’s not your fault.  It’s the system.