Our state science standards are being patched up right now, and while they’re mostly just fine, one sneaky provision is still on the books.
“The student will be able to explain how scientific and technological innovations as well as new evidence can challenge portions of or entire accepted theories and models including but not limited to cell theory, atomic theory, theory of evolution, plate tectonic theory, germ theory of disease and big bang theory.”
It’s the old ‘teach the controversy’ argument. While it seems innocuous, and we actually should teach kids how to address established theories critically, it’s really just a backdoor for teachers who sympathize with creationism to smuggle in instruction in intelligent design creationism. It’s also more difficult than it sounds. Even this article, which is sympathetic to good science education, gets the idea wrong. Here’s an example given of a ‘challenge’ to evolutionary theory.
The National Geographic article reports that the fossil, called Ardi, challenges portions of the theory of evolution that say the missing link between humans and apes would look something like a chimpanzee. For example, Ardi is changing our way of thinking about how hominids moved about. Its big toe splays out from the foot to better to grasp tree limbs. However, its foot contains an extra bone that keeps the toe rigid to help the hominid walk bipedally on the ground. The extra bone is not found in the lineages of chimps and gorillas. Also, the upper pelvis is “positioned so that Ardi could walk on two legs without lurching from side to side like a chimp,” researchers say, while the lower pelvis was built like an ape’s to accommodate huge hind limb muscles used in climbing.
No, no, no, no, no. There is absolutely nothing in the discovery of Ardipithecus that challenges any portion of the theory of evolution. It’s an observation of a historical quirk, a detail of the pattern of changes in one lineage. It’s the equivalent of finding an apple tree, watching the fruit fall, and noticing that one apple bounced left, and another bounced to the right — if you’re really, really interested in the distribution of apple bounces (in the way we’re personally interested in human evolution), it may be interesting…but it does not in any way challenge Newton’s laws of gravity.
See the problem? A lot of people misunderstand the concept of a theory; we’re going to get a crop of teachers who don’t know what they’re talking about who will intentionally try to sow doubt in students’ minds by putting forward claims that miscellaneous facts challenge evolutionary theory when they do no such thing.
The only way this standard could be at all useful is if the teacher actually understands deeply that the theories listed can not be currently challenged, except by inventing weird science-fictional ideas that are unsupported by evidence…like intelligent design creationism. I can think of observations that would contradict evolution, easy, but guess what? There are no alternatives, and the creationists certainly have not provided any evidence against evolution.