Dispatches from the Creation Wars

New Michigan Science Bill

We have a new bill here in Michigan that contains language that sounds very objective and unconnected to ID, but that will obviously pave the way for the introduction of ID (or at least common ID arguments) into science classrooms. HB 5606 apparently replaces HB 5251, which was introduced last year. While the previous bill specifically mentioned evolution and global warming as theories about which “critical thinking” should be required, the new bill does not mention any particular theories. Here is the relevant text:

The course content expectations for science shall include using the scientific method to critically evaluate scientific theories and using relevant scientific data to assess the validity of those theories and formulate arguments for and against those theories.

This is part of a much longer bill that sets standards on what must be taught in every subject. This is a pretty broad statement. Do they really want students to formulate arguments for and against heliocentrism or the germ theory of disease? Of course not. This is aimed at evolution and everyone knows it. The Detroit Free Press even notes that one legislator who supports the bill, Rep. Moolenaar, acknowledges that it will lead to the teaching of ID at the whim of the local school board:

The wording for Palmer’s bill was taken from a bill by Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Midland. That bill would require a statewide high school curriculum to include a critical evaluation of the theories of evolution and global warming. Palmer’s bill, however, doesn’t mention evolution or intelligent design.

Moolenaar said Palmer’s does not require the teaching of intelligent design, but that such a decision would be up to local school boards. He said Darwin’s theory of evolution is under legitimate scrutiny, and that science students should know about the theory’s possible weaknesses. “A scientific controversy should be viewed in a teachable moment for a student to learn the scientific method,” he said.

But in fact, this will lead to the opposite result of what Palmer claims to want:

Palmer said his aim is to standardize what is taught in mandated courses. For example, it would require all world history classes to focus on cultures before 1600, starting with the Mesopotamian and Hebrew civilizations, designed to “acquaint pupils with the historical roots of the Western heritage.”

But with the broad wording of the science section of the bill, the opposite will result. Some teachers and school boards will certainly take this as permission to teach ID as a critique of evolution, or at least adopt ID arguments. Other teachers will likely go in the opposite direction and teach that ID is not a valid scientific critique of evolution because it requires supernatural causation and so forth. The result will inevitably be less standardization than we have now. If the bill should pass, the result will be some schools teaching ID and being challenged in court, as they were in Dover.

Comments

  1. #1 JohnMcKay
    January 28, 2006

    Moolenaar said Palmer’s does not require the teaching of intelligent design, but that such a decision would be up to local school boards.

    Palmer said his aim is to standardize what is taught in mandated courses.

    How does every school district in the state making its own decisions about what to teach lead to greater standardization?

  2. #2 anthoanres
    January 29, 2006

    I’m a Michigan resident, and I’ve been following a different aspect of this bill closely; basically, it is an attempt to require that certain classes be taken at all schools statewide. Previously, the requirement was for a certain number of science classes, which could be fulfilled in a variety of ways.

    I had not heard of this provision, so thank you very much! I will be following this closely and am going to make sure to talk it up with everyone I can!

  3. #3 Dave
    January 29, 2006

    I’m not sure I understand your point about heliocentrism. Of course no one doubts its veracity but how is it good, pedagogically, not to provide students with the reasons why heliocentrism works and geocentrism does not? Surely the evolution in thought from geocentrism to heliocentrism is relevant to an understanding of the scientific method.

  4. #4 eugene_X
    January 29, 2006

    ,,,all world history classes to focus on cultures before 1600, starting with the Mesopotamian and Hebrew civilizations…

    So, in addition to ID Creationism in science class, we are going to essentially study Bible stories in world history class as well…

    And since the focus is on cultures before 1600, that is, before the Enlightenment, students will be missing that important foundation of Western culture. As well as missing, oh, say, the history of the contemporary Middle East, where many of them will, no doubt, be deployed as soldiers a few years hence…

    Re Dave’s coment above, it is a good point of pedagogy to bring up heliocentrism, particularly in light of the religious opposition to it in the past, and it does bring up a great point of comparison with religious opposition to Evolution going on now. This is an opportunity a good science teacher would seize upon.

    But I think the poster’s point is that the purpose of the language in the bill is not to make such valid points about what is and is not science; it is clearly a Trojan horse designed for one purpose: to allow arguments against Evolution to be taught in Science class by Creationist-minded teachers, and to allow them to be angled in such a way as to discredit Evolution in the eyes of the students.

    The phrasing has the words “Discovery Institute Lawyers” written between the lines.

  5. #5 Andrew Reeves
    January 29, 2006

    Dave, Eugene,

    The problem, of course, with working through the heliocentric view of the solar system and showing why it is wrong requires a fair degree of math and physics, both of which are probably going to be beyond grade k-8 (or 9-12 for that matter) students.

    …particularly in light of the religious opposition to it in the past…

    Nitpick. Galileo’s problems were more due to the tricky political currents of early modern Italy than The Church Fighting Science. Copernicus, after all, was a good son of the Church for all of his life.

    I say this because far too often when people talk about the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, they’re actually talking about today. There is, for example, a horrible book out called The Politically Incorrect History of Islam (and the Crusades) which, though putatively talking about what is in the title, is actually talking about how the U.S. military should kill lots of Muslims. Likewise, when people say, “Yeah, well Islam preserved civilization when Christians were savages!” they are usually actually saying, “I oppose robust military action by the U.S. in the Middle East.”

    The same goes for people talking about Galileo. Galileo’s problems with the Jesuits are a fascinating story, but they are a story of Early Modern Europe. When you try to make the affair a parable about early twenty-first century American politics, you wind up understanding neither.

    Okay, done ranting.

  6. #6 Ed Brayton
    January 29, 2006

    Dave wrote:

    I’m not sure I understand your point about heliocentrism. Of course no one doubts its veracity but how is it good, pedagogically, not to provide students with the reasons why heliocentrism works and geocentrism does not? Surely the evolution in thought from geocentrism to heliocentrism is relevant to an understanding of the scientific method.

    This is certainly true as a historical point, but that’s not what I was referring to. The text of the bill actually expects students to “formulate arguments for and against” scientific theories. Now this isn’t a problem with almost any theory other than evolution. The chances of finding a teacher who thinks the kinetic theory of gasses or the theory of relativity is wrong are slim. But a sizable portion of science teachers are creationists in one form or another and this bill gives them permission, essentially, to make arguments against evolution and teach them to kids. And the standard creationist arguments, while wrong, have a strong appeal to the badly educated because they can be stated in such simple form and it requires far more detail to debunk them.

  7. #7 RBH
    January 29, 2006

    There were hints in the last Ohio State Board of Education meeting that the “critically analyze” language would be used to teach crap in other areas of science. Deborah Owens-Fink, one of the two primary ID pushers on the Board, specifically mentioned global warming as a candidate. Read the Wedge document again:

    Governing Goals

    * To defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural and political legacies.

    * To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and hurnan beings are created by God.

  8. #8 Dave S.
    January 29, 2006

    Ed -

    I think you have hit the problem on the head. What this Bill would allow is for teachers/school boards to essentially use their own discretion to determine what is and what is not well-supported, accepted science. Many teachers are themselves well educated and quite capable of making this distinction, but unfortunately many others would not recognize a the difference between a genuine scientific controversy verses a social one if they were slapped in the face it. And frankly, as in the case of ID or other forms of creationism, they wouldn’t much care. As for school boards, the sorry experience in Dover should be illustrative.

    The El Tejon case is a good example of what happens when a board/teacher totally out of their element thinks they have the green-light to present the “controversy”.

    This language merely invites more of the same in Michigan. That’s hardly a recipe for good science education and consistant standards.

    As for mentioning the fact that the state would not require ID teaching, I think that is quite irrelevant. Allowing school boards or teachers to “opt out” of endorsing religious notions like ID does not relieve those that do not of their Constitutional responsibilities.

  9. #9 Ed Darrell
    January 29, 2006

    Here’s the slogan we need to repeat: Teach the facts first. Teach the facts first.

    Once the kids have the facts, they can discuss differing views on them — and in fact, that’s exactly what current books do. One may check the Advanced Placement Biology texts, and one will see that there are more controversies discussed — but the kids are expected to really learn the facts first, before attempting to form opinions.

    The litmus test is this: Will the new language encourage kids to get the basics first, or is the new language intended instead to frustrate the teaching of the basics?

    You’ll also see the sponsors of these bills discussing what they think the criticisms of evolution theory are — but they won’t come close to the mark. Here are a few of the real controversies from my lay perspective (some are pretty well settled, really); note in each case that one must understand how evolution works in order to discuss intelligently:

    1. Does evolution proceed at predictable rates?
    2. Does evolution proceed at different rates at different times?
    3. Does evolution occur to smaller family groups within populations, or only to larger populations; how big a population is required to say that evolution occurs?
    4. Can we improve our predictions of the evolution of pathogens, such as influenza viruses, to the extent that we can prevent pandemics?
    5. How does the rapid evolution of HIV in its victims affect the possibility of a vaccine, and how does it affect treatment and possibilities of cure?
    6. Should we regulate pesticides in order to prevent insects, weeds and microbes from evolving into forms resistant to the pesticides? Who should do this regulating, if so?
    7. What is the effect of prions on evolution, if any; does the interspecies effect of prions suggest we need to worry about other pathogens jumping species?
    8. Is it ethical to allow the patenting of living things, such as the e. coli modified to produce human insulin? Is it ethical to use bovine insulin to treat human diabetes in the light of bovine spongiform encephalathy? (spelling?).
    9. Is it ethical to confuse people about how evolution works in world where treating our major diseases and much of our food supply rely on the application of evolution theory?

    I suggest that Michiganders find a legislator, quick, who will amend that bill to require the teaching of real evolutionary controversy. It will probably kill the bill outright — but if it doesn’t, at least some real learning could take place.

    By the way, Randolph Nesse is a professor at the University of Michigan (http://www-personal.umich.edu/~nesse/). He’s one of the principal exponents of evolutionary medicine. It would be completely irresponsible for the Michigan legislature to pass any bill on evolution without having Nesse add what should be studied in evolutionary medicine. It would be akin to passing a bill requiring kids to study the biology, ecology and economic effects of lions and tigers in Detroit, without consulting the Detroit Zoo, the Detroit Tigers or the Detroit Lions.

  10. #10 ZacharySmith
    January 30, 2006

    The hypocrisy of this kind of legislation is infuriating. It’s proposed under the guise of encouraging “critical thinking”, yet nowhere else is critical thinking encouarged.

    How about critical thinking in a comparative religion class, to “critically evaluate” the claims of each religion? I don’t think that would fly very far. Or how about critically evaluating US governemnt policy (both today and in the past) in a government or civics class? Or critical evaluation in math class (e.g, who says you can’t square the circle?).

    If they want to encourage critical thinking how about mandating covering it a logic class or something to that effect? No, critical thinking is the last thing they want taught. Because then the students, teachers and school boards (the ones who aren’t already of the fundie persuasion, anyway) could see through the politics – and that would be the death of ID.