Apr 02 2009

Texas Science Standards Update

Many science bloggers have been writing about the clash between creationists and scientists in forming the Texas state science standards for the next decade. Now that the votes have been cast and this phase of the conflict is over I wanted to give a  brief recap. Also, I interviewed Paul Murray from Texas Citizens for Science for the SGU last night (this episode will be up on Saturday) and he provided some keen insight.

To review, the fight was largely over whether or not to put the “strengths and weaknesses” language back into the standards that had been removed in January. This was voted down. But the young earth creationists on the board (there are 7 out of the 15 members, with at least 1 swing vote) managed to recover from that defeat by getting equivalent creationist code word put into the standards.

The new language that was put in includes that students must “analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations” based in part on “examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific experiments.” Language was also put in to specifically question the age of the universe, the nature of stasis and change in the fossil record, and the complexity of the cell and information in DNA.

Without context, such language may seem benign. What can be wrong with analysis and evaluation? Shouldn’t students be taught to question everything? Of course they should.

The scientific problem with this language is that it is meant to call into question scientific facts that are well established. It pretends as if there are viable alternatives to evolutionary theory or current calculations as to the age of the universe, when there isn’t.

But the real context, as Paul pointed out in our interview, has to do with science textbooks. Texas is an adoption state, which means that textbooks are purchased uniformly at the state level and then given to schools, making Texas one of the largest single school book purchasers. The textbook industry is therefore forced to cater to the Texas science standards, as any textbook sold in the state must conform to the standards.

The primary purpose of the creationist language inserted into the standard is as a setup to 2011 when the school board will select science textbooks for the schools. The language can then be used as an excuse to reject evolution friendly science textbooks and choose creationist friendly books. If successful, this strategy can effectively deprive a generation of Texas students (and even beyond Texas, as the industry will follow the Texas standards) of adequate education about evolution. That is precisely what happened after the Scopes trial spooked the textbook industry away from using the “E” word.

What this means is that the fight in Texas is not over. The creationists have essentially won this round, getting the language they wanted to be used in two years when textbooks are chosen. But the fight is not over. There is an election cycle in 2010. This means that Texas citizens, if they care about the quality of science education in their state, have the opportunity to affect the makeup of their school board.  The key will be in how the science standards are applied to textbook selection. The language is deliberately vague (to avoid any legal problems with the first amendment), so a pro-science school board could still choose good textbooks and be within the standards. While an anti-science school board packed with young earth creationists could exploit them to scuttle science education.

While the Discovery Institute ID goons are trying to sell this issue as one of academic freedom, it transparently is not. This is about quality standards.  Creationism is not good science – it’s not even science. Evolution and the age of the universe are well established science, and creationists object to these legitimate scientific conclusions based upon their religious beliefs. So they want to destroy the science standards that exclude their religious belief, and water down or remove from science those conclusions that conflict with their religion.

I think board Chair and young earth creationist Don McLeroy summed up the creationist position quite eloquently when he said: “Somebody has to stand up to these experts.”

14 responses so far

14 thoughts on “Texas Science Standards Update”

  1. tmac57 says:

    Thanks Dr Novella for keeping this issue out there, and we in Texas are grateful to Dr Eugenie Scott with National Center for Science Education (NCSE), for continuing to fight this creeping erosion of science here and nationwide.
    Also, residents of Florida need to be aware of this from NCSE:
    “Florida’s Senate Bill 2396, which would, if enacted, amend a section of Florida law to require “[a] thorough presentation and critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution,” was in the headlines after the Florida Academy of Sciences denounced it.”
    Although the Tampa Tribune (March 28, 2009) reported that the bill “apparently is going nowhere this year,” , the result in Texas
    shows that the ID/creationist movement is very committed to getting their way, and complacence on the public’s part who disagree with them ,can lead to a similar outcome.

  2. jacek says:

    I’m shaking my head in disbelief that 7 young earth creationists can get elected to a school board.
    It can’t be all that difficult to get elected to a school board; we need to stack the deck with rational folks.

  3. superdave says:

    What really needs to happen is to fully explain why evolution is so important to be taught. Years of relegating evolution to the last chapter of a textbook has reinforced the idea that it can be treated as supplemental material, when in reality it is the single most important concept in biology. The damage this causes is reinforcing a compartmentalized version of biology in which at both the level of the human body and the level of ecological systems, the interplay between different systems organisms and cells as well as their co development, is entirely lost. If evolution is introduced early on in a textbook, things just make so much more sense, the connections between how systems work together, why some systems seem needlessly complicated, just flow together. The former approach was the highschool approach I learned, while the latter was the approach used in my college textbook.

    The bottom line, not understanding evolution really hampers the ability to even understand biology and reduces it to memorization without deeper insight.

  4. Watcher says:

    Speed of light … Science
    Law of Gravity …. Science
    Earth revolves around sun … Science

    I still don’t understand how evolution through natural selection is not science when there is as much evidence for it as the three above! Quite literally, one must stick their metaphorical head into the metaphorical sand.

    This is scary:

    … and the complexity of the cell and information in DNA.

    How could they possibly make a case for this. I understand that creationists won’t believe despite an avalanche of evidence because one, they think it goes against Genesis, and two because it’s not an observable process like my three above examples, but cell complexity and the information in DNA is irrefutable and backed by decades of solid molecular work. But, if they were to ever cast doubt on DNA, it would knock out one five tenets of evolution through natural selection; traits must be heritable.

  5. Watcher – the point was to question the origin of complexity and information, not their existence. This is code for intelligent design.

  6. weing says:

    Along with the economic crisis, this makes me think that the dark ages are coming back or our society is evolving into a dead end. We can’t just hope that other societies will just stand by and let this opportunity to surpass us pass by.

  7. Watcher says:

    Ahh I understand now, that makes a bit more sense from their perspective. Otherwise, it would be like banging their head against a wall. Although that wouldn’t be a bad thing.

  8. CrookedTimber says:

    This result is disastrous all around and I feel especially empathetic for the good folks at NCSE. They work tirelessly to fight these battles and I frankly don’t know how Eugenie Scott keeps her patience. Videos from the hearing can be seen at: http://www.youtube.com/NatCen4ScienceEd

    It looks like Texas may be the first of many as well; there is word of similar shenanigans in Florida and Nebraska. It is embarrassing how much better organized the creationist camp is than us. It seems as though they began to stack the school boards long ago. Everyone should consider getting involved.

  9. rmgw says:

    “Texas is an adoption state, which means that textbooks are purchased uniformly at the state level and then given to schools, making Texas one of the largest single school book purchasers. The textbook industry is therefore forced to cater to the Texas science standards, as any textbook sold in the state must conform to the standards.”

    “Forced”? on pain of what? losing money? Shouldn’t publishers be taking a bit of responsibility in these issues?

  10. rmgw – I am not defending the textbook industry. I have very little respect for that industry and much criticism.

    But – they do have to cater to certain state’s standards – if they want to sell books to that state. They really do have no choice. Since they are businesses that exist to make money, it is assumed that they want to sell their product.

    Where they do have a choice is in what they produce for sale to other states. They generally will fit the text to the standards of the large adoption states, then sell that version to every state. So textbooks sold in CT are slaves to the Texas standards. Sometimes they do have to make special editions for specific states, but they try to minimize this.

    I am not saying they should have 50 versions of each textbook. But they don’t have to cater to the lowest common denominator either.

    And anyway, the far bigger problem with textbooks is just their quality, the issue of standards aside. But don’t get me started.

  11. bigjohn756 says:

    WOW!! I was amazed to find this interview on my local East Texas TV news station:


  12. eiskrystal says:

    If Texas is ever going to stand a chance of a good education then it needs to lose this idiotic title of ‘state that defines the science schoolbooks’. Until that happens Texas is going to continue being a battleground of crazy vs reality. This is not good for anybody, least of all Texas.

  13. Phil Considine says:

    One fundamental basis of science is to question accepted truths so as to understand them or prove they are false and thereby advance the standing of science and man. There can be no belief in science there can only be understanding.

    The fundamental tragedy of creationism is that truths are accepted as self evident and evidence is arranged or manufactured to support those truths that are convenient to their beliefs. There is no understanding just acceptance and surrender.

    In science that is fraud.

    It is not free speech it is the denial of the truth.

    It is not science that is being taught but the same lies that produced the inquisition, witch burning and ultimately Hitler and Stalin.

    Any Texan who professes to be free should demand scientific proof before subjecting his sons and daughters to cant dressed as science.

    Where that proof is lacking they must demand retraction or admit that they are not truly free.

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