Saturday, March 28, 2009

Sorting out the mess at Texas school board meeting

I find it quite depressing to write posts on creationist battles in the US school boards. It is bizarre that in a first world country we are fighting fourth-world battles (yes - the fourth-world is only 6000 years old). Heck - even textbooks in Pakistan present evolution as a fact of science (to be fair - there is no mention of human evolution there). So here you go with the Texas School Board meeting. On Thursday it seemed that some sanity had prevailed and the new creationist strengths & weaknesses trope was successfully nixed from the curriculum. Sure enough, the NYT (and others) reported on the partial victory for science. However, the final vote was on Friday and then amendments started to show up. The verdict on the final result: depends on your state of initial pessimism. Over at Thought from Kansas, Josh takes some positives:
Texas has new science standards. Those standards are better than the old ones, but those old standards really did suck.
So, when I say these are better, it's not high praise. And these standards are deeply compromised at every level from the decent standards offered by the writing committees. Those committees had awful starting material, and did a lot to improve them, but the draft standards weren't world-class to start with, and the compromise we saw today made them much worse.
And here is the actual language that is being used:

The compromise on strengths and weaknesses was ambiguous in its merits at best. And this is far from the best. There's nothing inherently evil about:

in all fields of science, analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning and experimental and observational testing, including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific experiments so as to encourage critical thinking by students.
But there's nothing good about it, either. It opens up doors that don't help kids and don't help teachers. Combined with bad amendments added to the standards, we're set up for an awful fight over textbooks in a few years. Those amendments add creationist rhetoric about "sudden appearance" and stasis in the fossil record, about the complexity of the cell, and about the origins of information in complex molecules. That's the wedge, and creationists on the board will swing a mallet at them when textbook adoption comes up.
However, Texas Freedom Network puts it more bluntly: Science takes a hit in Texas and released this statement:

The word “weaknesses” no longer appears in the science standards. But the document still has plenty of potential footholds for creationist attacks on evolution to make their way into Texas classrooms.

Through a series of contradictory and convoluted amendments, the board crafted a road map that creationists will use to pressure publishers into putting phony arguments attacking established science into textbooks.

We appreciate that the politicians on the board seek compromise, but don’t agree that compromises can be made on established mainstream science or on honest education policy.

What’s truly unfortunate is that we now have to revisit this entire debate in two years when new science textbooks are adopted. Perhaps the Texas legislature can do something to prevent that.

But, wait. Evolution was not the only target. The language regarding global warming has also been modified (BTW, what's up with this creationist-anti-global warming alliance? Do the crazies have to accept ALL crazy ideas at the same time??):

It also watered down a section on global warming in the standards for the environmental systems high school course.

The environmental systems curriculum standards drafted by a writing team in December had included the following standard:

(9)(G) discuss the positive and negative influence of commonly held ethical beliefs on scientific practices such as methods used to increase food production or the existence of global warming

The measure was changed to read: “analyze how ethical beliefs can be used to influence scientific practices such as methods of increasing food production.” Then the board added the following standard: “Analyze and evaluate different views on the existence of global warming.” As with evolution, there is consensus in the mainstream science community on the existence of global warming. The debate revolves around the mechanisms causing it.

In case you are wondering that the language in these standards is not all that bad - remember, there are lot of code-words being used to get the creationist worldviews in science class rooms. Lets get back to the issue of evolution. The board chairman, Don McLeroy, is against evolution. Below is a video of him on Friday morning going after evolution. Now note, how he first sounds reasonable about the fossil record and what it implies for species. He even has platitudes for those who are defending evolution. Then he uses Stephen Jay Gould and the debate over the pacing of evolution to conclude that fossil record actually provides evidence against evolution. Huh!!? Yes, Gould must be turning in his grave. But then Don goes on to say: "I disagree with these experts. Somebody’s gotta stand up to experts that are… I don’t know why they’re doing it. They’re wonderful people". And, yes, our dentist chairman (hmm..yes, he is a dentist) is starting up a revolution against experts in biology (finally!) - and will lead us for 40 days into this wonderful desert of ignorance. Here is the video for your own pleasure (courtesy of Texas Freedom Network - who did a fantastic job covering the meeting):

For more, check out Thoughts from Kansas, Texas Freedom Network, and the NCSE website. My barometer to evaluate all this mess comes from Bill Dembski. He considers the Texas Board decision as a good news. This then must be bad news for science.


Atif Khan said...

Seems like human kind is still evolving.

Robin Lloyd said...

I hear there are some U.S. teachers of astrophysics/cosmology who are being pressured not to teach the age of the universe and big bang, b'c that is in conflict with creationist time.

Salman Hameed said...


Yes, astronomy has also been a target (it was more explicitly included in one of the failed amendments). But I think Young Earth Creationism is more crazy and has a less emotional component than issues of biology - and so that may have a much harder time sneaking into classrooms. But, then a few years back I also thought that Ken Ham is sooo obviously crazy, that no one will take his Creation museum seriously. Sigh!

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