Field of Science

Misunderstanding science in Louisiana

In a recent hearing on science education, Louisiana state Sen. Mike Walsworth was questioning a science teacher about the teaching of evolution. He asked if there was an experiment that would prove the theory of evolution “without a shadow of a doubt.” 
How do you answer such a moronic, ignorant question?  TPP would be tempted to respond, “Wow, I don’t know how to respond to someone who understands so little about science that  they would ask that question.”  Actually, the Senator probably knew the answer, and this is the sort of gotcha question lawyers like to use, so attempting to answer it is playing his game, and he’s picking on a high school teacher not an evolutionary biologist.  You’d be tempted to say, “Senator, given that more than enough evidence exists to convince virtually all biologists of the factual nature of evolution, and yet you remain unconvinced, clearly one experiment of any kind, on any subject with any result isn’t going to convince you of anything.”  And when the teacher told the Senator of Richard Linski’s quite amazing experiment in bacterial evolution, a good example for a single experiment, the Senator asks if any of the bacteria evolved into a person.  Yes, and they became a state legislator.  Any biologist who claimed or suggested such a thing would be a certified loonie, so again the Senator is playing games to try to get a proponent of evolution to admit that the experiment didn’t show bacteria could evolve into people even though the theory of evolution never would predict such an event.  What the experiment does show amply is that natural selection can generate surprising amounts of genetic modifications in a very short period of time.  What evolution does say is that much, much earlier in Earth history both humans and bacteria shared a common ancestor. 
It would probably be useless to try to explain to this fellow that science doesn’t try to prove anything; science falsifies the alternatives.  Over 150 years ago Darwin said that evolution was descent with modification and he proposed that natural selection, differential reproduction of genetic variants, was the mechanism by which this modification occurred.  So ever since then, biologists of all sorts have been trying to falsify the idea of descent with modification, and they have failed.  Along the way a lot of hypotheses about specific descents have been falsified, but nothing has shaken this hypothesis at all.  And biologists have been examining natural selection in the lab and in the field such that now thousands of examples of how selection works are well documented, and not only that but biologists have found additional mechanisms that also generate modifications.  So Senator, once you know about all of this mountain of evidence, biologists are quite justified in saying that evolution is true “without a shadow of a doubt.” 
TPP will be in Louisiana this summer and we'll have a special symposium on evolution for people like the Senator where we'll ask the question, "Can people like this demonstrate any ability to learn science, and if they can't, can they just learn to leave the teaching of science to the people who can?"

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