Jan 19 2009

Louisiana, We Have a Problem

In my recent post on the battle between science and creationism, I noted that the current strategy of the intelligent design (ID)/creationism movement is to push for academic freedom. They don’t really care about academic freedom, they just want to erode academic quality standards so as create a back door through which they can squeeze their religious beliefs into science classrooms. This strategy is playing out in Louisiana.

Last year Louisiana governor Bobby Jindahl signed into law an academic freedom bill that was part of this strategy. Now, just last week, the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education passed the Louisiana Science Education Ac. Casey Luskin, one of the worst apologists for anti-science over at the ID “think tank”, the Discovery Institute, characterized this bill as a “victory for Louisiana students and teachers.”  If Luskin in happy with this bill, we should be very worried.I don’t think anyone is actually fooled by what is going on. Just about every article I read about the topic characterized the bill as a “thinly veiled” attempt to get creationism into public schools. The bill ostensibly is designed to allow school teachers to use outside material to teach controversial topics in science class. The bill initially contained language specifically banning the teaching of ID or the teaching of religious belief as science. However, advocates of the law pressured the school board to remove these protections, and the law was passed on January 11th without them.

Of, the fallacy of the academic freedom justification for such education policy is that it deliberately confuses issues of quality standards with those of freedom. The reason for having a curriculum and approved teaching materials is so that a minimum standard of quality can be maintained. ID proponents attempt to justify the erosion of educational standards with two arguments – that the current standards are biased and they would rather have no standards than biased standards, and that teaching controversial ideas will improve critical thinking in students.

The first claim is simply a fabrication, and part of their overall strategy. ID proponents are attempting to characterize the methodological naturalism on which modern science is based as biased against them, because it does not allow them to say “and then a miracle happened” whenever it is convenient for them. They don’t want to play by the rules of science because they cannot succeed by those rules. They want to introduce theories, such as ID, that do not meet the minimum criteria for being scientific – specifically that a scientific theory must be testable.  So they whine that the rules are unfair, and have developed a great deal of propaganda designed to mislead the public about how science works.

It really does come down to that – science has discovered certain things about the world that doe not accord with their ideology. Therefore they seek to twist the process of science to their ends, even if that destroys the institutions of science altogether. When you change the rules of science, it isn’t science anymore.

The second argument – that children will learn critical thinking by hearing controversial issues, is a more complex question. I agree with this partly in theory, with some caveats. My personal experience is that I learned a great deal about science and critical thinking when I was high-school age by learning about and debunking creationism. This was almost entirely on my own time and driven by my personal interest. As a skeptic, I definitely believe that critical thinking is sharpened by learning about pseudoscience, and specifically how to tell the difference between science and pseudoscience.

Also – I do not agree with teaching students a sanitized version of science. All science is controversy, to an extent. Students should be taught the messy process of science, with all it’s uncertainty and missteps.

But doing this well is tricky, and here come the caveats. Teaching science (or any topic) also has to be age-appropriate. Grade school students are taught, as hey should be, a very simplified version of science and the findings of science. They should be pushed to the edge of their understanding, always peering at the next level of depth, but they need to be given material they can understand. For example, recently my 9 year-old daughter was taught in her science class that there are three states of matter. Actually, there are many more than that (5-8 or more, depending on what you count). I don’t think my daughter needed to hear about Bose-Einstein condensates, however. To test the waters I did tell her that there were more states of matter, and specifically mentioned plasma. It seemed to confuse her a bit, as she wanted to concentrate on learning the material presented in class. But I do think that perhaps it would be better to teach students at that level that there are three main (or classical) states of matter, but there are other more exotic states that they can learn about when they are older. That way they can focus on an appropriate level of detail, but they have a whiff that there is deeper knowledge to be had also.

The point of this tangent is that we have to be thoughtful in deciding how to present scientific material to students to optimize learning. They have to master the basics first, and then go deeper as their understanding matures. Part of this is exposing them to more controversy and uncertainty. ID proponents, howver, are not trying to optimize science education. They are trying to confuse students by creating uncertainty even where it does not exist.

Further, the context in which controveries are presented is very important. Creationism should not be presented to students as a viable scientific alternative to evolution. It isn’t, and therefore any such presentation will confuse students about the nature of science. However, at the high-school level it would be appropriate to teach students (and this is already done to some extent) about false ideas that were discarded in the past, and even modern pseudosciences and why they are not science. I don’t mind teaching students about creationism if it is used as an example of pseudoscience. But that is not the same thing as teaching them creationism as science.

And of course this abstract discussion about how science is best taught needs to be put in to the real world context of the creationism movement. In a perfect world perhaps we could be a bit more liberal with the standards. However, we live in a society with dedicated, active, and well-funded anti-scientific groups looking to exploit any opening to weaken science education and indocrinate students. Even though teaching about creationism may be a good learning experience for some student, I don’t trust every school district and every science teacher to respect the subtle distinction. In fact it is certain that such wiggle-room would be used by some to teach creationism as science.

That is what the academic freedom strategy is all about. Creationists and ID proponents (aka Cdesign proponentsists) are trying to find the most reasonable-sounding and legally viable arguments they can to crack open the door to the public schools – and then shove and much of their propaganda and anti-science through that crack as they can.

The DiscoTute, for example, has published a book called Explore Evolution. It is their alternative text chock full of nonsense and distortions. That book is a tangible manifestation of exactly what they want to shove through the cracks. We can now look for it to show up in Louisiana science classrooms.

The battle continues.

27 responses so far

27 thoughts on “Louisiana, We Have a Problem”

  1. superdave says:

    The example of your daughter’s experience with matter is a good one. I distinctly remember my confusion upon learning in in higher grades things that directly contradicted things I learned in lower grades. For example, I remember learning that electrons revolve around the nucleus, an idea that is correct only on the most simplified of scales. I was very confused when I learned in highschool that this idea is grossly wrong. I agree with you that simplification it is OK as long as you explain that it is a simplification.

    On the issue of Intelligent Design and Louisiana I hope that at the very least this provision only allows for supplementing materials and not outright replacements of them.

  2. HHC says:

    I had a Zoology professor at the University of Illinois ( A Democracy’s College) who could not resist talking about miracles in his course about ethology. He found it exciting to watch chick embryos divide and multiply.The fact that he could not explain why or at what instant they did mutiply was a miracle. It was interesting to watch him get excited about something. He usually was so matter of fact about his subject. I believe I watched a man share his passion with his class.

  3. cwfong says:

    I predict that the laws of unintended and unexpected consequences will end up biting the ID people in the proverbial ass that they wish to ride in on. The fact that you can’t mention religious views at all in most school except to affirm a God’s existence in a morning pledge will perhaps no longer be the case. Making religion a subject for rational criticism could be the silver or even golden lining here.

  4. While creationists’ attempts to shoehorn religious teachings into public school science curriculi are worthy of all-out battle in and of themselves, it is important to understand that this particular effort of theirs is just one aspect of their overall plan to establish an American theocracy, by using public schools to indoctrinate children who, of course, are future voters and parents. In their dreams they see success in public school grades K-12 as the preamble to doing the same in state colleges and universities, made possible with the support of the fully indoctrinated grade-schoolers.

    Note how their efforts in politics centers on local office, particularly school boards, county commisssions, and assorted local boards and panels.

    But be aware – they have a national plan on their shelf ready to go should they ever do well with the ID-as-science effort. If any such effort succeeds in a place like Louisiana, and is allowed to stand long term, the chance of a domino effect among other Bible Belt, Deep South states is a genuine threat.

  5. cgoodson says:

    As a former high school English teacher, I feel it necessary to add some context. First, I worry about the idea of “approved” materials anyway. One problem is that the textbooks (science included) are often horrible. They are oversimplfied, error-ridden and cater to the standards of big states like Texas and California. In reality, the best teachers bring in material that they find anywhere. News stories, blogs (like this one), web sites, books, video clips, in the hands of a talented teacher make instruction more accurate and more interesting for the student. The idea that we could create one “approved” text that is the only thing used is outdated and not based in the present reality.

    That’s why I agree that the trend in Louisana is a transparent ploy to get ID in schools. This is not designed to let teachers bring in their own material (that already happens). It’s designed to let knuckle-dragging mouth breathers on backwards school boards purchase ID texts without worrying about a challenge.

    The real way to fight this is to make sure we have teachers in science and other subjects who are academically rigorous and courageous enough to stand up to stupidity and say no. Unfortunately I personally know biology teachers who don’t believe in ID and sabotage their own classes. Until we win over the teachers, the rest is window dressing.

  6. Elwood says:

    I’m interested in the notion of tweens and teens choosing the ‘truths’ from different ‘alternatives’ taught under the guise of ‘academic freedom’. Too many air-quotes. I apologise.

    Will this freedom be extended to other, less controversial subjects?

  7. Watcher says:

    Because teens and tweens have such an amazing track record when it comes to choosing for themselves? If you were being sarcastic I apologize 🙂

    That being said, this has nothing to do with what the students want, it’s what a group of people want to help bolster the ranks, and if not that, at least lessen peoples trust in science. The thing is, it doesn’t do any good. People can talk all they want about not wanting to undermine science, instead only trying to enrich the conversation, but all it does is cast unnecessary doubt on a field that doesn’t deserve it.

    One thing I’d like to point out also in Steve’s post is the home enrichment factor. Science is only as good as the “teachers,” and that includes the parents. Taking an active roll in your child’s education (helping with homework, going to school board meetings, etc.) is a great way to look out for your child’s educational well being. In fact, one could argue that it is possibly the best thing you could do for them while they are under your care.

  8. John Pieret says:

    Creationists and ID proponents (aka Cdesign proponentsists) are trying to find the most reasonable-sounding and legally viable arguments they can to crack open the door to the public schools – and then shove and much of their propaganda and anti-science through that crack as they can.

    Why, that sounds like they are using … well … a Wedge.

  9. sonic says:

    Here is where to find a copy of the bill. It is an easy two-page read.
    It might not be a big problem.


    I quote from the bill-

    “C. A teacher shall teach the material presented in the standard textbook supplied by the school system and thereafter may use supplemental textbooks and other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner, as permitted by the city,
    parish, or other local public school board unless otherwise prohibited by the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.”

    I’m assuming that it is currently not OK to “use supplemental textbooks and other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner” in Lousiana. This seems a good thing to do and if it is currently legal, then I’m glad they have clarified this.

  10. eiskrystal says:

    It appears perfectly fair on the surface, i’m sure. However there is no controversy over evolution at that teaching level. The only ‘controversy’ is one manufactured by the ID’ers. Therefore teachers will HAVE to use the ID’ers books to “Teach the Controversy”.
    You have therefore not only continued the idea that there is an ID/Evolution controversy, you have severely confused a hell of a lot of Louisiana children about what science actually is.

    Also, a standard school science text book that probably has 2 pages on Evolution, if that….against a set of polished ID propaganda pieces that will no doubt already be in production.

    No, Louisiana is pretty screwed.

  11. DLC says:

    The more important section you missed:

    The State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, upon
    request of a city, parish, or other local public school board, shall allow and
    assist teachers, principals, and other school administrators to create and foster
    an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that promotes
    critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of
    scientific theories being studied including, but not limited to, evolution, the
    origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.

    Note the last three items mentioned.
    Including but not limited to.

  12. Clinton Huxley says:

    Well, that about wraps it up for science in Louisiana. Move along, folks, there is nothing to see here anymore….

  13. sonic – this bill has to be viewed in context. It is meant to provide cover for teachers who want to use the ID text Explore Evolution to teach students ID propaganda instead of science.

    Remember – they were pressured to specifically remove the caveat – you cannot use this provision to teach ID. That’s because they want to use this provision to teach ID.

  14. Clinton Huxley says:

    As everyone is well aware that ID is the Mini-Me to Creationism’s Dr Evil, would any school that actually allowed ID to be “taught” on it’s premises still not fall foul of the provisions re separation of church and state? Would such a school lay itself open to prosecution, despite this bill?

  15. medmonkey says:

    I remember my 3nd grade teacher telling me there was a relationship between a circle’s circumference and circumference, and that the relationship was 3. I remember being blown away by this fact, wondering how nature could be so ’round’ in its relationships. You can imagine my surprise when I learned in middle school that pi is, in fact, not 3 – scarred for life!

    Less scarring would have occurred if my teacher had simply stated that we were using 3 as an approximation of the actual, infinitely long number, which represents the true relationship.

    This is just an extrension of the states of matter comment and theories on how science education should be taught – with a whiff of the deeper knowledge to be had. I couldn’t agree more, and unfortunately my experiences later in high school (The International Baccalaureate Program) indicated to me that science teachers are not at all adept at instilling that sense of wonder & awe of the deeper levels of science in their students. Maybe if we crack open that union and start paying teachers a decent wage, we can finally get some competitive applicants in the public school system.

    Note: coming from Florida I am keenly aware of how a poor public school system can lead to a type of “herd-ignorance”. If enough people are ignorant on a certain issue, it can become society’s problem.

  16. Fifi says:

    medmonkey – Your teacher missed a perfectly good opportunity to blow some little minds wide open with the awesomeness of math, science and the cosmos! I distinctly remember when I learned about infinity (it blew my very little mind!). I was even more impressed that it had a symbol (a sideways 8) and that the universe was thought to be infinite.

    Science is much more exciting when it’s about possibilities and potentials than when it’s taught as “facts”. The teaching of science as “facts” – rather than as a process of exploration and experimentation (what kid doesn’t love exploring and experimenting? kids are PRIMED for these activities!) – also promotes the misunderstanding that “science knows it all” rather than promoting the idea that science is a body of knowledge that’s accummulated and discarded according to evidence that’s gathered through the scientific process. Science is often taught like a belief system with lone heroes/geniuses and not a process or collective body of knowledge created through the work and dilligence of a lot of people working together and testing each others ideas.

  17. Fifi says:

    Er, that should be a sideways “8” not an emoticon!

  18. Clifton: “As everyone is well aware that ID is the Mini-Me to Creationism’s Dr Evil, would any school that actually allowed ID to be “taught” on it’s premises still not fall foul of the provisions re separation of church and state? Would such a school lay itself open to prosecution, despite this bill?”

    The switch from the label ‘creationism’ to ‘intelligent design’ was predicated on the need to make it less obviously a religious idea, which wasn’t enjoying much success, and make it more sciency-sounding, which makes it easier to sell, because it’s easier to obfuscate the fact it’s merely creationism wearing a lab coat it has not earned.

    A court precedent has been established, in Kitzmiller v. Dover, decided against the creationist/ID case:


  19. Fifi says:

    medmonkey – That said, I’m sure there’d be all kinds of complaints from non-science literate parents about how their kids came home and freaked them out with existential questions about infinity! Dr Seuss’ Horton Hears A Who became one of my fave books due to my fascination with infinity and the worlds within worlds. (I refuse to see the movie because it would just make me sad to watch Jim Carey destroy yet another Seuss classic – no doubt going against Seuss’s intentions yet again by making what sounds like it’s more like Horton Hears A Woo. Bastard.)

  20. medmonkey says:

    Fifi – I couldn’t stand Carey in How The Grinch Stole Christmas, so I also boycotted Horton Hears A Who. I agree that kids are totally primed to enjoy science if presented in the right light. The wife of one of my professors (a medical ethicist) is attempting to start up a Camp Quest in south Florida to run for a week over winter break, 2009. I’m definitely going to be a camp counselor when it happens.

    Also, I kind of like the idea of kids going home and teaching their parents about science. Even if it’s just helping their kids with homework, the process requires parents, who haven’t thought about this sort of thing since high school, contemplate science! What could be better! And if they’re actually learning something about the scientific process, rather than just mindless facts, maybe they’ll be less inclined to buy into the political idea that ID has some place in schools’ curriculums.

  21. Fifi says:

    medmonkey – Perhaps I’m just generalizing my own experience growing up with science but scientific curiosity is almost innate in children who are intensely curious about the world and how things work (if it’s not oppressed out of them!). As for the parents, maybe it would help educate them too but that presupposes a parent who is capable of saying “I don’t know, let’s look it up and see if someone else knows” and is curious about the world and loves learning themselves.

  22. Watcher says:

    Parents don’t have to be interested themselves, I dont think. I do think that it is important to enrich your child in whatever they have a liking for. If that’s music, get them private lessons in their favorite intrument. Science questions, most rudimentary ones they come across in their everyday life anyways, can be answered online or through the public library. The way my father taught me things, by memorization, is a common way things are taught. “Here’s a fact, memorize it, we’ll test you on it exactly later,” type of approach. Although, it’s definitely not the best way to learn. They might get mad at you, but asking them guided questions in return is a great way to get them thinking through a problem. There isn’t a better feeling in the world than discovering how to solve a problem you’ve been facing. Positive reinforcement, critical thinking, and independence all in one.

  23. howe says:

    Before you get up in arms over this, you should probably know a bit more about the Louisiana politics and public school system. First, it was difficult for many teachers to bring outside “materials” of any type to present to a class, even though that has relaxed more in recent years, this does open up several doors in that sense. There is also a tremendous amount of bureaucracy to overcome in order to change even small things in a class (I know that some local school boards require teachers to write out and have approval for all lesson plans for the entire year by the beginning of August). So in some sense that may limit the fallout

    Second this will not make much of a difference in whether or not Creationism/ID will be taught in classrooms. It already is being taught in the classrooms of many of the teachers who lean that way ideologically. For example my brother was told by his teacher in fifth grade that the reason the dinosaurs went extinct was that Noah wouldn’t let them eat the other animals after they got off the ark, this was not some misunderstood joke or a nonsense answer, she actually believed this to be true. The local schools many times will turn a blind eye to this sort of thing until some parent gets upset, which seems to happen very rarely.

    I myself was lucky enough to have had very excellent science teachers for most of my schooling, but in the middle school (7th-8th grade) I attended the principle said a prayer every Monday and Friday morning over the intercom. This was not in the 40s or 50s this was in the early 90s. This only stopped after a parent threatened to sue, at which point a “student organization” began giving the morning prayer, which was somehow alright as long as they didn’t say “Jesus”.

    Now I love my home state very dearly but one thing that many people don’t realize is that in many ways it is two states. The southern portion where most of the population is heavily french and spanish influenced and very multicultural, most of the technological infrastructure is located, and protestants (especially fundamentalist) are the minority. And the northern portion which is primarily agrarian, with a large percentage of the population white and protestant, have more in common with Texas and Arkansas, and are firmly planted in the bible belt.

    This fact is very important in understanding Louisiana’s politics. Any politician in Louisiana has to play to both sides if he wants to get much of anything done, it’s a sad fact, but that is how it is. To further complicate things the overly complex state constitution all but spells out that if there is a budget shortfall that money should be taken from education. While this is a terrible thing, the one advantage of this is that state funds will not likely be used to purchase any Creationism/ID materials for classes.

    I’m not saying this to defend this bill, or the governor, but to say that those of us that are opposed to the slow creep of ID into our school systems should not view this as a loss or defeat. Instead we should see this as them coming more into the open. They have made themselves a larger and easier target. Most people are unaware of the way things have been in Louisiana and by doing this all they have really done is draw attention to themselves, but they have not succeeded in forcing any teachers who were not already in the ID camp to join them. In a way this may be a strategic victory for the pro-science camp since the many good teachers in the state now have their hands slightly less bound and the pro-ID teachers will be easier to find.

  24. sonic says:

    Dr N-
    I’ve looked into this book. From Kirkus review-


    “Still, in the end, it is Darwinism that raises the interesting questions, which is what good science is all about.
    Substantive food for thought about natural selection and universal common descent, and surprisingly rich for so concise a treatment.”

    (Kirkus can get things wrong- no doubt. But I see no reason to think this is the case here)

    As Howe points out- it might be more of a ‘freedom for teachers to teach’ act.

  25. Watcher says:

    “To further complicate things the overly complex state constitution all but spells out that if there is a budget shortfall that money should be taken from education.”

    I’ll never understand that. Why would you take something as important as that away from your children? Quite literally, they are the future. Any investment in the mental/physical health of our children is as good as investing money in our future. Education is arguably the most important aspect of our infrastructure ….

  26. HHC says:

    When the state takes away education and critical thinking, guess what Louisiana gets? A White Supremist victory for the sect of David Duke(KKK) in the primary election for the Louisianna House of Representatives in January 2009.

  27. Fifi says:

    It seems to me that what happens in the US is that “freedom” is so heavily associated with patriotism and branded as not being associated with personal or social responsibility, that it gets used as a buzzword and doublespeak by not only the ID promoters, but also the whole http://www.healthfreedom.org aimed at getting rid of regulations that protect consumers (libertarians also use “freedom” even though they believe in erecting walls at imaginary lines in the sand to control people’s activities and freedom of movement and also believe in dictating what a woman can do with her body).

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