Defend Science in Texas

I'm in Austin, preparing to watch the Texas Board of Education consider new science standards.

The old standards got an F from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning education think tank which reviewed the science standards in all 50 states in 2005. The reviewers found the standards confusing, often insultingly in their condescension toward students, and poorly drafted.

The reviewers did not object to the handling of evolution, writing:

Texas, a state which, like others, has recently had trouble with creationist attempts to delegitimize evolution, has, at the time of this writing, resisted them most honorably. Evolution figures in the life science standards in due proportion. The broad statements of concept are adequate. But rather than fleshing out the content, the Snapshots (as in high school biology) dissolve into superficiality. "Plan and implement an investigative procedure, such as researching the two species of squirrels found on opposite sides of the Grand Canyon or organisms unique to the Galapagos Islands, to research the results of natural selection on species. Ask questions, formulate a testable hypothesis, determine what data should be collected, make inferences from the data, and draw conclusions." This "researching" is more science process than science; large expanses of necessary content are missing. Grade: "F."

Unfortunately, a little bit slipped past Fordham, a line in the science standards which states that:

The student is expected to analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information.

This seemingly innocuous line was used to attack biology textbooks in 2003, since creationist board members were not satisfied that they presented any purported weaknesses of evolution. No other "scientific explanation" was subjected to similar scrutiny.

This time around, the expert committees who drafted the new standards have revised that language, replacing it with a requirement that:

The student is expected to analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing.

This, I hope it is obvious, more clearly gets at the meritorious aspects of the old language without opening doors for creationist confusion. At hearings in November, a majority of people spoke in favor of the new language.

Pressed for examples of the "weaknesses" the Board would like to see, there was much hemming and hawing, on which more later.

The chief proponents of this language include "Texans for Better Science Education," formerly known as the Greater Houston Creation Association, the San Antonio Bible Based Sciences Association, and the Discovery Institute. The interest of GHCA and the SABBSA in the language is obvious, as they think evolution leads people away from Jesus. In an op-ed for the San Antonio Express-News, Scott Lane of SABBSA responded to requests for a clearer picture of these weaknesses:

SABBSA would be very happy to oblige and provide scientific evidence of weaknesses in evolution and for creation. We stand ready to go to any venue you invite us to, and can present several hours of scientific evidence which supports creation. Included in these will be the fact that evolution violates the 1st and 2nd Laws of Thermodynamics, as well as the Law of Biogenesis. We can show you creation evidence in the fields of microbiology, genetics, probability, biochemistry, biology, geology and physics which support creation and undermine evolution.

Needless to say, these supposed weaknesses are all debunked in the Index of Creationist Claims, and do not belong in any classroom.

The interest of Disco. in that language is a bit more complex. After all, they insist that they accept evolution. But they also sell a book (erroneously promoted as a textbook) which claims to present the evidence for and against "Neo-Darwinism," whatever that might be. Speaking of the old Texas standard, Disco. DJ Casey Luskin has stated that Explore Evolution "would be very well-suited to be used in this kind of a standard."

And here's where things get ugly. Explore Evolution co-author and Disco. veep Stephen Meyer was asked to review the new science standards, and predictably weighed in in favor of that "strengths and weaknesses" language, language his employee admits would favor the book Meyer wrote, and gets royalties from.

This conflict of interest is troubling. Meyer and his EE co-author Ralph Seelke (also a Disco. fellow) were asked to review the standards and make recommendations. Predictably, they encouraged harmful changes to the standards, including retention of the confusing and misleading "strengths and weaknesses" language. They were joined by avowed creationist Charles Garner, and opposed by three highly qualified experts.

In Texas, politics is a contact sport. I expect lots of machinations to cut off debate, and have already seen moves to limit the time available for public comment. I'll be at the building from 8 am until noon. The Board has pledged to cut off testimony after 4 hours, at which point they will let their 6 experts speak. Then the tightly divided Board will move on.

I still hope all the witnesses will be allowed to speak, and that open discussion of this subject will not be arbitrarily limited. I also hope that experts, including people who helped draft these new standards, will not be prevented from testifying simply because they spoke in November. But these are only a few of the ways we expect the Board, which has 7 conservative creationist members out of 15, to maneuver to cut off testimony and to bias their sample of testimony.

Anyone who can be at the TEA offices tomorrow morning should show up early. And don't forget:


So dress accordingly.

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