If one didn’t wish to do something productive with one’s life, creationists would be a perennial source of amusement. Florida creationists, in this particular case. A new set of science standards has just been approved by the Board of Education of the orange juice and hanging chads State, and both sides are claiming victory, according to an article in Science dated 4 March 2008. How can that be? The new standards refer to evolution as "the scientific theory of". If you look at it from the point of view of a scientist, that is (half) the way it should be: “evolution” is an ambiguous word, just like “gravity.” We have gravity, the fact (if you don’t believe me, try letting go of a hammer positioned vertically above your head and let me know what happens); then we have gravity, the theory (the current version, embedded in Einstein’s relativity, says that gravity is the degree of deformation of space-time caused by the presence of physical bodies). Similarly, we have the fact of evolution (as indicated by the fossil record, molecular phylogenetics, and all the rest), and a theory of evolution (currently known as the Modern Synthesis, a significant augmentation of Darwin’s original insight).

Creationists, however, are claiming victory because they take the new wording to finally acknowledge one of their endlessly repeated mantras: evolution is “just” a theory, not a fact. In so reasoning (pardon me the over generous use of the term), they miss several crucial points. First, as I explained above, there is a standard distinction in science between facts and theories, and evolution is not an exception. Second, to call scientific theories “just” theories, as if they were hunches, or personal opinions, seriously (possibly willfully) mischaracterizes what a scientific theory is. Evolution, gravity, and continental drift (as in “the theories of”) are complex sets of empirically testable statements, often formulated in rigorous mathematical fashion. They are most certainly not what biologists, physicists and geologists “come up with” on their way to the gym.

In its questionable wisdom, the Florida Board of Education decided to strike a compromise: the words “theory of” would be attached not just to evolution, but also to every other scientific concept, like photosynthesis. Textbooks are going to get a bit longer, more trees will be cut, but I guess it’s a small price to pay for peace between science and religion.

Except, of course, that there is no peace. While conservative FL legislator Marti Coley “applauded” the Board’s decision as “inclusive of a variety of viewpoints” (just as many as one can reasonably have about gravity), the Speaker of the State House of Representatives, Marco Rubio (predictably, a Republican), is not happy. Rubio wants to introduce -- oh novel idea -- a bill to mandate that science teachers can finally present to their pupils unspecified (so not to alert the Supreme Court) “criticisms of evolution.” Donna Callaway, of the infamous Intelligent Design “think tank” Discovery Institute, supports Rubio’s inane idea, commenting “people have asked me why I don’t question math concepts or grammar, I tell them, those things have nothing to do with life. Evolution is personal, and it affects our beliefs.” One ought to deduce from this that if grammar and math did affect her beliefs, Donna would question them. The logic is fascinating.

Be that as it may, there is more bad news for creationists, in Florida and elsewhere: a new study reported in Science magazine has updated the estimate for the age of the Grand Canyon. Alas, the update is not downwards (toward the 4,000 or so years ago that creationists calculate based on Biblical geology), but upwards: 17 million years. Of course, that’s just a theory.