Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Texas Bored of Education decision too complex to result from chance

Guambat is back from his sakura sojourn and thought he'd see what the dinosaurs had been up to in Texas. Like the Texans at the Alamo, the body count for the creationists doesn't look too good, but they are making heroes out of the good fight. And, like Santa Ana, the darwinians look to be snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

In short, neither side seems much too pleased.

In what might be called one corner, the New York Times editorialized,
this was a struggle to insert into the state science standards various phrases and code words that may seem innocuous or meaningless at first glance but could open the door to doubts about evolution. In the most ballyhooed vote, those like us who support the teaching of sound science can claim a narrow victory.

But the margins on crucial amendments were disturbingly close, typically a single vote on a 15-member board, and compromise language left ample room for the struggle to continue.

At the end of a tense, confusing three-day meeting, Darwin’s critics claimed that this and other compromise language amounted to a huge victory that would still allow their critiques into textbooks and classrooms.

In what Guambat considers a surprise, the Associated Baptist Press moderated the rattle-snake round-up:
Both literal “young-Earth” creationism and its close relative, intelligent-design theory, have lost repeated battles in federal courts in recent years, with judges ruling that they are too tied to religious teachings and too removed from scientific consensus to pass constitutional muster. In response, many proponents of religious explanations for the origins of life have shifted tactics to a “teach the controversy” approach to teaching about evolution and other controversial scientific theories in public schools.

Creationism is the approach that asserts God created the Earth in ways literally consistent with the two creation stories found in the first two chapters of Genesis. Intelligent-design theory, meanwhile, does not necessitate belief in literal six-day creationism, but posits that life is too complex to have evolved merely by mutation and natural selection without the aid of some unseen intelligent force guiding the process.

Proponents of creationism and intelligent design in several states have, in recent years, attempted to force science teachers to offer evidence for and against major parts of evolutionary theory, despite the fact that the vast majority of the mainstream scientific community supports it. In fact, most scientific professional societies contend, evolution is not a “theory” as the term is used in non-scientific parlance. Rather, they note, Darwin’s observations have repeatedly been proven accurate, and evolutionary concepts underpin much of modern biology, chemistry and other scientific disciplines.

One of the compromise amendments requires that students learn how to “analyze, evaluate and critique scientific explanations in all fields of science.” That includes “examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations so as to encourage critical thinking by the student.”

Other amendments to the standards would require students know how to think critically about “sudden appearance, stasis, and the sequential nature of groups in the fossil record,” about theories on how the “complexity of the cell” evolved and about the emergence of primordial life from organic compounds.

“I think the big picture was they essentially adopted amendments ... that will allow creationists on the board to pressure publishers into putting phony challenges to evolution in their textbooks that are based on almost straight-up creationist arguments,” said Dan Quinn, communications director for the Texas Freedom Network, March 31. Quinn’s group has been leading Texas’ opposition to the slim minority of members on the board who are closely aligned with Religious Right groups.

Quinn said such doubts about the scientific consensus on evolution are “all straight out of the intelligent-design handbook,” because virtually all scientists except those advocating intelligent design say there is no serious scientific debate about evolution.

Quinn said the language therefore wasn’t compromise, but capitulation. “You’re dealing with people who want to dumb down science; you can’t compromise with that,” he said. “It’s sort of like saying, ‘I know that two plus two equals four; you believe that two plus two equals six.’ I’m not going to compromise and say, ‘Two plus two equals five; that’s just wrong.’”

Groups that support creationism and intelligent design, meanwhile, welcomed the compromise language.

“The new science standards mark a significant victory for scientists and educators in favor of teaching the scientific evidence for and against evolution,” said a statement from the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, the nation’s leading proponent of intelligent design.

“Contrary to the claims of the evolution lobby, absolutely nothing the [Texas Education] Board did promotes ‘creationism’ or religion in the classroom,” said John West, senior fellow at the institute. “Groups that assert otherwise are lying, plain and simple. Like the boy who cried ‘wolf,’ the Darwin only lobby always screams ‘creationism!’ anytime educators or policymakers try to ensure a fair presentation of the scientific evidence both for and against evolution. Let’s be absolutely clear: Under the new standards, students will be expected to analyze and evaluate the scientific evidence for evolution, not religion. Period.”

The Discovery Institute was clearly in the other corner and way out in front of this story in a full court of press.

Here's John West, again, in an editorial in the Washington Post:
The vote was a loss for defenders of evolution who had pushed the Board to strip the "analyze and evaluate" language from the evolution standards and gut the overall critical thinking standard.

Fortunately, the Texas Board of Education adopted a different approach in its new science standards, one that favors an open discussion of the scientific evidence.
The Wall Street Journal quoted West in its article on the outcome of the Boreds' decision:
The Texas Board of Education approved a science curriculum that opens the door for teachers and textbooks to raise doubts about evolution.

Critics of evolution said they were thrilled with Friday's move. "Texas has sent a clear message that evolution should be taught as a scientific theory open to critical scrutiny, not as a sacred dogma that can't be questioned," said Dr. John West, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, a Seattle think tank that argues an intelligent designer created life.
And West agreed to disagree with the article:
The key thing the Journal gets right is that the Board definitely opened the door to critically analyzing evolution in the classroom. Unfortunately, the article omits or mangles a lot of the details.
And lastly, for this post anyway, two other voices were heard, Charles Garner and David Klinghoffer. Charles Garner is a professor of chemistry living in Waco and was appointed by the Texas State Board of Education as an expert reviewer on state science standards. David Klinghoffer is a senior fellow at Discovery Institute and a columnist for the Jewish Forward [and you simply must read this invitation from him to "debate" creationism, and the response thereto].
When the dust settled, the resulting vote left Texas with the most advanced science standards on evolution of any state in the country.

The new science standards are about science, not religion.

Texas is now one of seven states with such educational requirements. Previously, state science standards there called on students to examine the "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories, including the theory of Darwinian evolution through natural selection. The new standards improve on the old by their greater clarity and specificity, detailing, for the first time, the main headings under which Darwinian theory most urgently needs critical scientific attention.

It is not a revolution but a solid, sober and welcome reworking of the standards. What's even more important is the impact this development will have far beyond Texas and its broad borders. It's sometimes said by revelers and gamblers that what happens in Las Vegas, stays in Las Vegas. That's not true of Texas. As one of the country's major consumers of textbooks, Texas powerfully influences the way educational texts for high school and other students are written. The same critical thinking on science that is being encouraged in that state will influence not only Texas students but students elsewhere in America.

Legislators outside the state are also taking careful note. On the same day that the final vote was held by the Texas board, news came from Florida of legislation being considered there that would require "a thorough presentation and critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution."

Clearly, a fire has been lit, small for now, but one that as it spreads, the Darwin lobby will have difficulty smothering entirely.

Away out West they have a name
for rain and wind and fire.
The rain is Tess,
The wind is Joe,
and they call the fire Messiah.
-- with apologies to Mariah, the wind


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