Mar 23 2009

Academic Freedom in Texas

Texas remains a battleground state in the clash between creationists and scientists over science education standards. This week the Texas Board of Education will vote on whether or not to replace the “strengths and weaknesses” language that existed in the state’s science standards for the last 20 years, but was removed this Winter by a narrow 1-vote margin.

The battle represents the latest strategy of creationists to either hamper the teaching of evolution or introduce creationist ideas into the science classroom under the banner of “academic freedom.” The basic concept is that teachers, students, and school systems should have the academic freedom to: teach both the strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories, use outside (unapproved) material in teaching their classes, and believe whatever they wish without penalty.

Academic Freedom

The academic freedom strategy is getting some traction. Americans are generally for freedom, and the bills and language used to promote their agenda with “academic freedom” may appear innocuous on the surface. This strategy is specifically designed to skirt the constitutional barriers to teaching creationism in public schools, and has yet to be tested on constitutional grounds.

The claims of creationists (and for practical purposes I will use the term “creationist” to refer to anyone denying evolution to a significant degree, from young-earth creationists to intelligent design proponents who accept common descent) is that “Darwinists” are dogmatic, they wish to censor critical discussion of evolution and shield it from criticism. They are, of course, completely wrong.

There are two major flaws with the academic freedom claim. The first is that it ignores the need for quality control in academia. School systems at every level have the right and responsibility to ensure quality education. This means that the teaching of science should acurately reflect the consensus of scientific opinion, should be based upon legitimate scientific methods, evidence, and thinking, and should teach how to think scientifically and critically. Schools have a right to demand that teachers teach approved curricula and that they do not teach their personal beliefs as science.

The second major flaw in the academic freedom concept is that it is unnecessary. It is already part of teaching science to teach the strengths and weakness of theories, reflect genuine controversies, and discuss alternative theories when legitimate ones exist. Science educators do not want to pretend that controversies do not exist, or to shield evolution or any other theory from legitimate criticism. That is a completely false charge – and it is the major premise of the academic freedom movement.

Promoters of academic freedom tend to be creationists who want to introduce false criticisms and controversies into science classroom – arguments that have not passed scientific muster or have been long rejected on logical or factual grounds. Having lost the scientific battle they wish to change the venue to the political arena and use politics to have their bad arguments introduced into science class. Their agenda is entirely transparent.

Christian’s Bill

Representative Wayne Christian has introduced bill HB 4224 in Texas, which will do two things. It will replace the “strengths and weaknesses” language in the Texas science standards, and Christian also decided to up the ante a bit. He also would include language that protects students and teachers who profess belief that is not in accord with accepted science.

Here is the specific change to the “strengths and weaknesses” language that was made a few months ago:

Old Language: “Analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information…”

New Language: “Analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing.”

Creationists argue that the new language would enforce teaching only the positives of evolution and would ban teaching any weaknesses. That is absurd, and reflects a misunderstanding of science. “Analyze and evaluate” requires addressing any evidence for or against a theory, and also any competing theories. What creationists don’t get is that there are no legitimate alternatives to evolution, and the arguments they put forward as weaknesses are psudoscientific rubbish.

However, they make the same claim back at scientists, saying that the “strengths and weaknesses” language, that has been in the Texas science standards for 20 years, has not resulted in the introduction of religious beliefs into the science classroom or hurt science education. I do not know of any data from Texas itself, but surveys show that as many as 25% of high school science teachers devote class time to teaching creationism. Only 40% think that creationism has no place in science class – which means that perhaps the number would be as high as 60% if science standards and the law did not prohibit it. In other words – standards matter.

The second proposition of the bill – protecting students and teachers from being penalized for their beliefs – is a more complex issue. It all depends on how such a provision is construed and enforced. Christian claims that:

“They can be lazy if they want to . . . but teachers are still in charge of the grading system,”

That is cold comfort if teachers are also protected, meaning that teachers could decide that if a student gives a creationist answer on a test they may be graded as correct. Steven Schafersman, president of Texas Citizens for Science says:

“Students could claim they believe anything they wanted in anything in science and if that’s what they say, the teacher would be forced to give that student an A. That’s how bad this bill is written.”

I have not seen the language of the bill itself (if anyone can find a link to the text, please put it in the comments). The details matter, in my opinion. I think such a provision is unnecessary, like the strengths and weaknesses language, and so such a bill would either be redundant or harmful, but not helpful.

I do think that students should be graded on what they know, not what they believe. So, for example, they should be required to demonstrate that they understand the course material on evolution. They do not have to state, however, that they in fact “believe” in evolution. But this is the way science class works now. I don’t remember ever being quizzed as to my beliefs.

Schafersman’s fear, shared by many scientists, is that the language will be applied in such a way that a student could give the answer “Godidit” to any science question and the teacher would be forced to give them an A. Or, a teacher could teach their personal religious beliefs as science and be protected from any mechanism of quality control. If the law does not do this – then what does it do? Why is it necessary?

There have been individual science teachers (at the college level, I am not aware of any at the high school level) who used “belief” as a measure of understanding – if a student truly understands the science then they will accept the conclusions, they argue. The consensus, however, appears to be against these few exceptions. I think the scientific and educational communities should be clear on this point – teachers impart knowledge and understanding, they don’t demand belief.


Clearly we are seeing the battleground on evolution and creationism over the next decade or so – “academic freedom” and its many incarnations. Once again the creationists are using false arguments to push their transparently religious agenda. Our job is to point this out clearly to the public, while highlighting the risks to quality science education.

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