We’re talking about the Minnesota Science Standards and we’re talking about nothing less than the Pope Mobile.

Consider the following statement currently part of the proposed Minnesota Science Standards:

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.

Think about this for a moment. The standard is asking that the basic, minimal level at which students should understand science in Middle School and High School … not AP or accelerated … includes the challenge of widely held dogma such as Newtonian Physics, the Periodic Table, and Evolution via Natural Selection. The students are expected to balance, in their introduction to basic science, the idea that cells are what scientists say they are and the idea that cell theory may be wrong. They are expected to compare a basic model of the atom with what … stuff they may think of that is different from the Standard Model in Physics?

Absurd. But of course, it all makes sense if you realize what the purpose of this paragraph really is.

I’ve been talking to Steven Newton over at the National Center for Science Education, and he points out that this wording has all the earmarks of the kind of science standard that can lead to trouble. According to Newton, “This standard may open a loophole for creationist teachers to introduce anti-evolution material into their classrooms.” And I think he’s right.

Newton also feels that teachers who are themselves creationists, and a very large percentage of them, sadly, are essentially being given permission by this wording to introduce a hefty dose of creationism in their classroom. The standards offer no guidelines for implementing this wording that may safeguard against this sort of thing.

Also, notice the explicit mention of evolution as a key theory to spend a little time in class discrediting. Newton told me “…putting evolution in the middle of a list is a creationist tactic similar to last-minute amendments to legislative bills; the additions get carried along for the ride.” Again, I think he’s right on the money.

I asked Steven to suggest alternative wording and this is what he gave me:

“The student should understand that science involves a culture of skepticism and criticism, and that even the most famous and influential scientist must prove his or her new ideas, over and over again, to a hostile and critical audience of his or her peers. Very rarely a new scientific theory displaces long-held scientific views, in a process historian of science Thomas Kuhn called “paradigm shifts.” Examples of this include the Copernican revolution (1543), the Newtonian revolution (1687), Einstein’s theory of relativity (1905), and Wegener’s theory of plate tectonics (1915).”

… although he quickly added that this entire paragraph could just be deleted as well.

For the next couple of days, you can still comment on the standards. See this for details.


  1. #1 tom
    September 23, 2008

    Right on greg. Keep up the good work.

  2. #2 Joe
    September 23, 2008

    Agree that this is a backdoor to challenge the “theory” of evolution and introduce theology into science class. Scientific theories (i.e., ideas that can be falsified) are always open to critical inspection. That’s the difference between science and superstition (i.e., religion). Obviously the people that wrote these new standards in MN do not understand the first thing about how science works. Thus they should not be involved in writing any kind of educational standards.

  3. #3 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    September 23, 2008

    John C West of The Discovery Institute made the bold claim that the 2004 version of the Standards left open to the schools the teaching of alternate theories in an interview with the Salt Lake City Tribune. This was in response to Chris Buttars’ Divine Design being laughed out of the Utah House in 2006. I can’t find the link to the story, but when I asked West about it last fall, he was sticking by his story.

    This paragraph needs to go. It will make Minnesota look foolish.

  4. #4 Crudely Wrott
    September 24, 2008

    It is a cruelty beyond measure to tell children to aim high while at the same time lowering the target.

  5. #5 Notagod
    September 24, 2008

    The Utah Devine Design bill passed in the Senate and was expected to pass in the House. The Governor seemed to be leaning towards signing it. When the bill was in the Senate the fiscal opinion was that there would be no additional cost to implementing the bill, that is, among other possible cost, that if the bill was challenged legally it would prevail thus the legal costs would not be paid by the state. A fiscal note was added to the bill during the time of the second reading of the bill, after it had passed out of the House (education?) committee. I suspect the fiscal note might have expressed potential legal costs. While I agree that the Utah bill was laughable, it was close to being passed into law. It would’ve been better if more people had expressed their dissatisfaction with the proposal early in the process, as Utah is still getting laughed at for attempting to enact the silliness.


  6. #6 Dr. Kate
    September 24, 2008

    I work for an educational content developer (we’re the ones who write the textbooks/lab manuals/teacher guides/test items…please don’t shoot me…) and a large portion of our business is centered around creating standards-based products for various states. I’m sad to say that this type of statement is not at all uncommon (although there are fewer and fewer states that actually include statements that open the door to god in the classroom). In my experience, state science standards are, on average, poorly written (truly, some of them contain incomplete sentences), illogical, and (in many cases) meaningless. At the very least, many of them are completely unreasonable. (E.g., expecting 9th graders to be able to explain the evidence that all elements heavier than helium were produced in stars. Yes, you read it right. They don’t just have to know it, or understand that there IS evidence. They actually have to be able to EXPLAIN the evidence. r-process, anyone?…Or, my personal favorite: expecting 4th graders to know the principles of ergonomic design. I kid you not. It’s in the Pennsylvania state standards. Look it up if you don’t believe me!)

    After reviewing all the standards I’ve seen, I can conclude that most state science standards are written by either a) highly qualified experts in the field who nonetheless have no concept of the cognitive development of a 10-year-old; b) committees of management types with a cheat-sheet of education buzzwords and a couple of outdated textbooks; c) several monkeys with typewriters; or d) politicians. (Or some combination of the above.) No disrespect to those curriculum and standards developers who actually do have a clue and are committed to developing quality standards (I’m sure they exist somewhere).

  7. #7 Alex
    September 24, 2008

    Is it coincidence that all the theories apart from evolution are called “X theory”, but evolution is called, “theory of evolution”?

  8. #8 zayzayem
    September 24, 2008

    I actually like these standards.

    This is an important thing to be teaching children in introductory history-of-science style modules at a high school level.

    If students are unable to comprehend and explain **how** sci/tech innovation and new observations can challenge theories they won’t understand an important mechanism of how science actually works. This is encouraging scientific literacy. What can be wrong with that?

    It does NOT open the door to creationism. It actually fights against it. If high school students know the bar that new evidence needs to reach to pose a credible challenge to well accepted theories, they will see how much of a failure creationism really is. In addition it will remove “science is doctrine” arguments from the creationists ammunition stockpile.

    Go Minnesota!

  9. #9 locklin
    September 24, 2008

    It’s really a shame. On the face of it, these (critical thinking, scientific method) are principles that *should* be taught in the classroom. I think far too many people grow up thinking science is “that blue stuff in the beaker and magnets.”

    Consider the debate between scientists and creationists. Lay people are asked to “take our word for it” that creationism isn’t science. Science literate students can easily point out that creationists fail at every objective measure of science.

  10. #10 chris
    September 24, 2008

    I posted a couple of observations on your ealrier thread on this topic. A couple of things jumped out at me, including this paragraph. Overall, I think the standards are OK. The issue with this particular one is the inclusion of a list of theories to be falsified. As some have noted, that creates the possibility that a teacher might actually try to falsify one of them. I would expect a student by 9th grade to have a basic understanding of falsifiability, and some of the examples listed in your post could be used for that purpose, but I see no need to be specific at this point. It’s too dangerous.

  11. #11 Lorax
    September 24, 2008

    A bit of history is warranted here (btw I serve on the revision committee). That current standard was one of the assumptions we had to agree to include in order to serve on the committee. So, first of all no one on the committee had anything to do with it. That standard was created in response to the previous Cheri Yecki standards process where after much hard work, Cheri and her minions worked behind closed doors to remove evolution from the standards (without the committee’s knowledge). It took some last minute heroics to get the standards restored before public release. Of course never to be outdone by facts, the creationists wanted to impose a statement saying the evolution was just a theory and theories can be overturned and discarded yadda yadda yadda. The supporters of truth and honesty (ie not fundamentalists) then modified the statement to include germ theory, gravity, etc. to make the Yecki statement seem as stupid as it is.

    So feel free to rail against the standard and make sure you note why you dislike it, so it can be ridiculed appropriately, but also realize where this is coming from and where it isnt coming from.

  12. #12 Greg Laden
    September 24, 2008

    Lorax, thanks for your input, I was hoping you would jump in here.

    Also, keep in mind, where is this going to? What needs to be said and done to remove this ugly paragraph?

  13. #13 Lorax
    September 24, 2008

    Hi Greg,

    I recommend sending your blog post to the Dept. of Education. You can post a truncated response online. It would be great if Mike did this as well. There is a town hall meeting tomorrow in Roseville. Please come and speak up, its much stronger than the online feedback (IMO), also you could help balance out any creationists that show up. Of the online responses I’ve seen, a fair number of people are not too happy with the inclusion of evolution. Having some responses (online or in person) saying that the standards are good is extremely helpful, even if it is followed by a critique.

  14. #14 Vestlunder
    September 25, 2008

    Where in Roseville is the Townhall meeting? I don’t have MS Word on my Mac and cannot open state issued information.