Amateur lawmakers still don’t understand what science is

Montana’s State Senate Education Committee is considering a bill that’s not only written by people who don’t know what a scientific theory is, but want to redefine the word. SB 235 would make it illegal for science classes in public schools to teach any “theory,” limiting them to only “scientific fact.”

In casual speech, people may refer to their conjecture or speculation as a theory, but the scientific method defines it as an explanation of a natural phenomenon that is:

  • Falsifiable—If there’s no way to prove it wrong, it’s not a scientific theory
  • Repeatable—Different people must be able to get the same results when repeating experiments
  • Predictive—It must be able to accurately predict what will happen under the same conditions in the future
  • Peer-Reviewed—A proper scientific theory has to be released to the scientific community at large so that they have an opportunity to check it and verify—or falsify—it
Watch the full video below for context.

If this bill moves before the whole Senate, it will potentially cripple K-12 science education in the state. And in this era of financial struggles in education, imagine the cost of rewriting every science book to remove all reference to the theory of gravity, cell theory, atomic theory, germ theory, relativity, evolution, climate change, and all of the other theories that make up our understanding of how the world works.

That short-term cost is completely dwarfed by the long-term cost of raising a generation of anti-vaccers, climate change deniers, and scientific illiterates.

I sent the following letter to Montana’s Senate Education Committee:

Montana’s prosperity—our country’s prosperity—depends on well-educated citizens. SB 235 would deal a crippling blow to science educators, encourage the spread of misinformation and pseudo-science, and hamper our children’s ability to learn critical thinking skills.

The bill goes wrong from the very beginning by attempting to redefine what the words fact and theory mean in the context of science.

Scientific theories are not speculation, nor are they alternatives to facts. Theories explain facts. The process starts with a falsifiable hypothesis (informed conjecture). The hypothesis is then rigorously tested and the results analyzed. If the results are repeatable and consistent, it undergoes peer review where the entire scientific community has a chance to check it and prove it wrong. Only when it passes all these milestones can it be called a theory.

Science is not a collection of facts. Science is a set of methods for determining how and why the world works. Science education teaches our children how to analyze what they hear and determine whether it’s true.

Misguided legislation like SB 235 hurts Montana and puts our children at a disadvantage in a world that needs for analytical thinking!

Please vote against SB 235.

The contact form allows only 1,250 characters, and I’m guessing that the majority of committee members will look only at aggregated totals: how many for, how many against. The response to a bill like this should be, of course, to send Senators Emrich, Hinebauch, and McGillvray through a 4th grade science class to learn what words like hypothesis, theory, law, axiom, and fact actually mean in the scientific process. Failing that, it would mean letters far more than a couple of hundred words (1,250 characters), and they’d have to actually read them.

Here, for your reading “pleasure,” is the full text of the bill itself:

Watch the full video from which I extracted the Tyson quote above. It’s less than 5 minutes long, and gives an excellent perspective on what science denial is costing us.