Jul 26 2007

Texas Now Has a Creationist Heading the State Board of Education

Texas Governor Rick Perry has appointed outspoken creationist, Don McLeroy, to head the Texas State board of Education. Yikes!

One of the recurring themes of this blog is that science should never be subverted by ideology. Science needs to be open, honest, transparent, and driven by an uncompromising dedication to method. Science education should reflect this. Ideology places a preferred belief ahead of methodology, and therefore must pervert the scientific method, strain logic, and compromise honesty. Creationism is the poster-child of ideology perverting science.

It’s good to see the science blogger community jumping on this issue. Defcon appears to have broken the news. The Bad Astronomer correctly points out that Texas has a disproportionate effect on the school book industry, so this decision may have repercussions in every state, not just Texas. Pharyngula predicts the appointment will lead to some upcoming legal challenges, and he is probably right.

McLeroy is on record as being an outright evolution denier. He parrots all the tired and discredited clichés of organized evolution denial. In his letter he wrote in 2003 as a member of the State Board of Education, McLeroy demonstrates that he does not understand the methods of science, the application of logic, or the details of evolutionary science that he rejects. These are not qualities that qualify someone to head the Board of Education of an influential state.

Let me point out a few outrageously ignorant comments in his letter as examples:

In the notes section at the end of the letter he writes:

“My challenge to the evolution supporters is to not attack any group, not to argue against a bunch of straw men, but to respond to the questions raised in this analysis.

[6] The deductive logic of this statement follows: (1) a designer would not have made an eye with a blind spot, (2) the eye has a blind spot, therefore (3) “common descent” produced the eye. This is an invalid argument with an unknowable premise. (DBB 223)”

You will notice that he implies evolution supporters argue against straw men, and then in the next comment he lays out a blatant straw man. The presence of a blind spot is not the evidence for the evolution of the vertebrate eye. The evidence for common descent of the vertebrate eye comes mainly from anatomical and biochemical homology.

McLeroy also completely misses the actual point of the “blind spot” argument – showing he does not understand the logic of scientific validation. Biological evolution predicts what is called “suboptimality.” Since evolution is blind, unplanned, and must make use of what is at hand when demanded by unforeseen needs, the solutions that evolution stumbles upon should at times be suboptimal. When we find suboptimal anatomical designs in nature – like the blind spot of the eye – this confirms the suboptimality prediction of evolution.

This also brings up the question of what ID/creationism predicts. If anatomical structures were planned from the top down by an intelligent agent, we would not predict suboptimality. So every clear instance of suboptimality disconfirms the common sense prediction of creationism. Creationists typically escape from this logical trap by dismissing any example of suboptimality – saying that we do not understand biology well enough to designate any structure as suboptimal. Or they say that you cannot make predictions from creationism because that’s second-guessing God – this strategy, of course, makes creationism not a science by failing to meet the necessary criterion of making falsifiable predictions.

Here’s another gem:

“It works against physics and the 2nd law of thermodynamics. All things decay, rundown and increase in disorder ‘you can not simply dismiss the problem of …complexity of biological systems by a vague appeal to open-system, non-equilibrium thermodynamics. The mechanism responsible for the emergence and maintenance of coherent (organized) states must be defined’.”

Obviously McLeroy does not understand thermodynamics, or what it means for a system to be open. The sun gives life on earth a constant supply of energy with which to grow, reproduce, and evolve. The “mechanism responsible for the emergence and maintenance” of organized life is the utilization of an outside energy source. There is nothing “vague” about this.

In his letter McLeroy makes 117 numbered claims – everyone wrong or irrelevant. They are a laundry list of logical fallacies, taking quotes out of context, cherry picking evidence, factual errors, and repeated arguments that have been thoroughly discredited long ago. They are also familiar as standard creationist propaganda, giving the impression that McLeroy simply cut and paste his arguments without every really understanding them or investigating the counterarguments. As a work of scholarship the letter is an unmitigated failure, without redeeming value.

It is, however, a useful documentation of McLeroy’s gross academic incompetence and his willingness to subvert intellectual integrity for ideology. That such a person has been put in charge of the educational system of Texas is nothing less than a scandal.

Also, let’s not get so distracted by the stunning fact that McLeroy denies an entire field of science and forget to look at his broader educational philosophy. On his website he summarized his “clear thinking” about education, writing:

“Thus, the most amazing “orthodoxy” which dominates the educational establishment “leviathan” today is the slighting of “facts and knowledge” for emphasis on problem-solving and critical thinking. Problem solving and critical thinking are secondary skills. Before one can think and solve he must first have something to think about.”

Now, I am a big advocate of teaching facts, but facts are only useful when they are placed in a meaningful context. Dry facts are useless, just as empty theories are useless. Useful knowledge is an integration of facts and theories. In addition to this, however, it is important to teach students how to think, not just what to think. Critical thinking skills are basic and essential to education and to success in the real world.

McLeroy denegrates critical thinking as a “secondary skill.” By his writing it seems he would return to the days of mindless rote learning. If anything, our society is acutely lacking in critical thinking skills and they should be emphasized more in education, not less.

But I guess this should come as no surprise. McLeroy demonstrate no ability for critical thinking in his assessment of evolution and creationist nonsense. It is no wonder he places little value on critical thinking. Perhaps if students were even more gullible and unable to think critically they would more easily swallow creationist propaganda, or whatever other ideological nonsense McLeroy would like to feed them.

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