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.”

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