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Evolution/Creationism and the TSBE Update

Another hearing over how evolution should be taught in Texas public schools took place last week when the State Board of Education heard testimony from scientists and social conservatives alike on revising the science curriculum.

The hearing was another in a series of open forums leading up to the board’s vote on the science curriculum in March. At these meetings, the public is invited to address the board in person, and so far, supporters of good science have bettered the opposition in numbers and eloquence.

Since the board is not obligated to act according to the public testimony, however, it is still not clear if all the supporters for sound science education will sway the board away from pushing a creationist agenda when it adopts new statewide science standards.

To recap the issue, the debate centers on a passage in the current Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) guidelines for Earth and Space Science (ESS) that requires students to critique all scientific theories. Specifically, they are required to explore “the strengths and weaknesses” of each.

This standard, with the “the strengths and weaknesses” language, was originally passed to please religious conservatives. In Texas, religious conservatives are a very squeaky wheel, and they’ve had this bit of grease for nearly 20 years. The good news is, in practice teachers rarely pay attention to it.

But with seven of the 15 current state board members openly creationist, and with the TEKS guidelines coming up for a vote in 2009 and new textbook selection based on those new guidelines to follow, this issue can no longer simply be ignored by science teachers and citizens in favor of sound science education.

And with that in mind, a review panel assigned to revise the curriculum proposed dropping the words “the strengths and weaknesses” from the TEKS guidelines, urging students instead to “analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence”.

The concern of biologists and science teachers is that if the “the strengths and weaknesses” language remains in the TEKS guidelines, the board could then force textbook publishers to include what some conservative religious people see as weaknesses in Darwin’s theory. This ploy is a latter day scheme by creationists to sow doubt about science and support the Biblical version of creation. (For more information about what the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution are supposed to be, Google Ben Stein or the Discovery Institute. Or you can save time and just stare off into space. Both options are equally enlightening.)

At any rate, the board did amend the proposed TEKS guidelines last week in order to have a final draft ready for the March vote. And in what many are calling a victory for sound science, the the Texas State Board of Education approved a revision of the state’s science standards that lacks the controversial “strengths and weaknesses” language.

But not all of the board’s actions last week were met with such approval. Steven Schafersman of Texas Citizens for Science attended the hearing, and reports on the amendments made to the guidelines. He says that there were 13 proposed changes to the TEKS guidelines for ESS, and not all of them are so favorable to good science:

. . . all 13 of the proposed changes…are not needed and were proposed to weaken and damage the ESS TEKS. The reasons for the proposed changes were to “qualify” the ESS standards and add “humility and tentativeness” to them. These are not good scientific reasons to revise science standards, but just the opposite. The standards were written by Earth science professionals and experts, but [the board] took the advice of two non-Earth scientists to write [the] changes, Dr. Stephen Meyer of the Discovery Institute and Dr. Charles Garner of the Baylor University chemistry department. Neither of these two gentlemen is an “expert” in Earth and Space Science as claimed by [some members of the board], and Dr. Meyer is not a scientist at all. To the contrary, both have religious and pseudoscientific agendas that wish to promote Intelligent Design Creationism, a non-scientific doctrine, and their suggestions have that effect on the ESS curriculum . . .

And it appears Schafersman is right. Looking at each amended passage in the guidelines, one gets the impression that an agenda is still being pushed. Schafersman outlines some of the revisions as follows (the original standard is included first, followed by the revision).

Original:

(4) Earth in Space and Time. The student knows how Earth-based and space-based astronomical observations reveal the structure, scale, composition, origin, and history of the universe.

Revision:

(4) Earth in Space and Time. The student knows how Earth-based and space-based astronomical observations reveal differing theories about the structure, scale, composition, origin, and history of the universe.

This revision is very suspect, and as Schafersman points out, scientifically awkward and unacceptable. There is only one scientific theory of the structure, scale, composition, origin, and history of the universe. It’s called the Big Bang Theory. There are no “differing theories” and it is unscientific to claim otherwise. The purpose, it seems, is to suggest that there are alternative explanations for these phenomena, but the only alternative explanation ever proposed in this regard is not a scientific theory but a religious myth.

Original:

(5) Earth in Space and Time. The student knows that Earth’s place in the solar system is explained by the solar nebular accretionary disk model.

Revision:

(5) Earth in Space and Time. The student understands that Earth’s place in the solar system is explained bythe solar nebular accretionary disk model.

Here Schafersman points out that substituting “understands” for “knows” is a minor change. But the phrase “that the Earth’s place in the solar system is explained by” explains the context, and removing it weakens the guideline.

Original:

(5)(B) investigate sources of heat, including kinetic heat of impact accretion, gravitational compression, and radioactive decay, which allows protoplanet differentiation into layers;

Revision:

(5)(B) investigate sources of heat, including kinetic heat of impact accretion, gravitational compression, and radioactive decay, which are thought to allow protoplanet differentiation into layers;

Schafersman concedes this is yet another minor change, but maintains it also weakens the standard. He points out that scientists are very sure that Earth’s internal heat allowed protoplanet Earth to differentiate. In fact, there is no other known method, and none have been hypothesized, so it is silly and awkward to say that heat is “thought to allow” differentiation, but is not strictly scientifically inaccurate.

On the other hand, the word “allows” was correctly changed to “allow”, since it refers to “sources”, not “heat”. This mistake apparently escaped the grammar checkers in previous years.

Original:

(8)(A) evaluate a variety of fossil types, transitional fossils, fossil lineages, and significant fossil deposits with regard to their appearance, completeness, and rate and diversity of evolution;

Revision:

(8)(A) evaluate a variety of fossil types, proposed transitional fossils, fossil lineages, and significant fossil deposits with regard to their appearance, completeness, and rate and diversity of evolution and assess the arguments for and against universal common descent in light of this fossil evidence;

This change is by far the most unscientific revision. (Also, suspiciously, several important words were struck by the revision that were not announced to the public beforehand.)

First, transitional fossils are not “proposed”. There is no doubt about their existence; they exist in reality and are well-known by paleontologists, so insertion of the word “proposed” makes that part unscientific, since it suggests a false uncertainty.

Next, the phrase “with regard to their appearance, completeness, and rate of diversity of evolution” should not have been removed since it is essential to the purpose of the standard, which is to evaluate fossils and their evolution. The removal weakens the evolution content of the standards.

And finally, the phrase “and assess the arguments for and against universal common descent in light of this fossil evidence” is totally unscientific. There are no good arguments in modern science “against universal common descent”. It has been accepted by biologists for over 130 years, so the phrase is asking for something that authors and publishers cannot honestly supply. The added phrase supports an anti-evolution intent which is not scientific.

Schafersman says this change in particular will make the entire ESS standards an object of ridicule, since it will reveal that the science standards of Texas are subject to ideological revision by public officials who ignore the good advice of the expert scientists they themselves appointed to write science standards.

Hats off to Steven Schafersman for the report.

Stay tuned. There’s sure to be more to come as the Texas State Board of Education votes on new TEKS guidelines in March.

For more information on the Texas State Board of Education and the revised TEKS guidelines, refer to the Texas Citizens for Science website. You can also find good information at the National Center for Science Education website.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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12 Comments

  1. So, to sum up, the anti-science side has slipped in a bunch of weasel words and phrases. And I’ll bet they’re all “What?! We have no ulterior motives. We’re just clarifying.”

    They’re all good Christian folk who care about the well-being of their young’uns, I’m sure.

    Strike that. I meant to say: They’re all arguably good folk who presumably adhere to Christian principles and probably care about the children. In theory. But there are competing theories.

  2. What does the Texas State Attorney General think about separation of church and state? Could this person be an ally against creationists on the Board of Education? I can imagine that threat of a state investigation into the constitutionality of he BOE’s decision in this matter could induce the result we want.

  3. I, for one, am perfectly fine with teaching the flaws in the theory of evolution. Only then can we have full, scientific discourse.

    The flaws in the theory of macro evolution are as follows: Zero. Done.

    As this is the only honest answer, and teaching otherwise would be unethical, honest creationists everywhere should be pleased.

    Both of them,

    rod

  4. @jrpowell:

    Not sure. But . . . . “In March 2005, General Abbott personally appeared before the United States Supreme Court, where he successfully defended the constitutionality of the Ten Commandments display that adorns the Texas Capitol grounds. By convincing the nation’s highest court that the State’s monument was constitutional, General Abbott ensured that Texas will continue displaying the Ten Commandments for years to come.”

    He also supported a law that added the words “under god” to the Texas state pledge.

  5. “There is only one scientific theory of the structure, scale, composition, origin, and history of the universe. It’s called the Big Bang Theory. There are no “differing theories” and it is unscientific to claim otherwise. The purpose, it seems, is to suggest that there are alternative explanations for these phenomena, but the only alternative explanation ever proposed in this regard is not a scientific theory but a religious myth.”

    The only alternative theory _ever_ proposed is a religious myth? That’s a bit hard on the Steady State Theory. I’m not just joking – I think there’s a lot to be said for introducing now-abandoned scientific theories like Steady State as pedagogic tools, and it’s important to distinguish them from myths and guesswork.

  6. The big problem is that such verbiage permits the calculated undermining of the Scientific Method. No longer will accepted evidence be based on reproducible, controlled, independently verifiable hypothesis testing. It allows for the injection of opinion. The proposed changes are unscientific and distort the process of discovery, further eroding the US status in science and technology.

  7. No matter how many times I read something on this subject, I continue to be disgusted at the underhandedness of the creationists.

    There was a neat article in this month’s Scientific American about the creationists’ new methodologies, and how they’re hiding their crusade under the guise of academic freedom. Moving target and all…

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