[asa] Texas Science Education (NCSE)

From: Dick Fischer <dickfischer@verizon.net>
Date: Fri Jan 30 2009 - 14:55:06 EST

FYI from NCSE:
A victory for science education in Texas, although the battle is not yet
over. The latest antievolution textbook is royally panned in a top
scientific journal. Three journals are joining in the celebrations of
the Darwin anniversaries with special issues and features. And Darwin
Day continues to approach.
In a close vote on January 23, 2009, the Texas state board of education
approved a revision of the state's science standards lacking the
controversial "strengths and weaknesses" language, which in 2003 was
selectively applied by members of the board attempting to dilute the
treatment of evolution in the biology textbooks then under
consideration. The removal of the "strengths and weaknesses" language
represents a tremendous victory for science education in Texas, with the
Dallas Morning News (January 23, 2009) describing the failure of a
proposed amendment to reintroduce it as "a major defeat for social
conservatives." But the struggle is not over, for a number of
scientifically indefensible revisions to the biology and earth and space
science standards were adopted at the last minute. Defenders of the
integrity of science education in Texas plan to expose the flaws in
these revisions and hope for a reversal when the board takes its final
vote on the standards at its March 26-27, 2009, meeting.
The crucial vote not to restore the "strengths and weaknesses" language
took place on January 22, 2009, the second day of the board's meeting.
During the first day of the board's meeting, as NCSE previously
reported, dozens of witnesses expressed their views about the proposed
standards, including NCSE's executive director Eugenie C. Scott, who
urged the board to heed the advice of the scientific and educational
experts who revised the standards and decided to omit the "strengths and
weaknesses" language. Board members who opposed the amendment cited the
need to respect the work of the experts, according to the Morning News,
with Mary Helen Berlanga commenting, "We need to stay with our experts
and respect what they have requested us to do," and Geraldine Miller
similarly commenting, "We need to respect what our teachers have
recommended to us." Similarly, Rick Agosto was quoted in the San
Antonio Express-News (January 23, 2009) as saying, "I have to consider
the experts.
Members of the board who favored the amendment seemed, however, to
consider themselves to be experts. Ken Mercer -- who is on record as
claiming that evolution is falsified by the absence of any transitional
forms between cats and dogs -- was reported by the Express-News as
saying that he was not going to rubber-stamp the recommendations of the
experts who revised the standards. And he was also quoted by the
Morning News as complaining, "The other side has a history of fraud.
Those arguing against us have a bad history of lies." Steven
Schafersman of Texas Citizens for Science, who was blogging from the
meeting, reported that Mercer cited "the bogus and misleading examples
of Piltdown Man, Haeckel's vertebrate embryo drawings, the peppered
moths that were glued to tree trunks, and the half-bird, half-dinosaur
that were all 'evolutionary frauds'" -- all of which are familiar
staples of creationist literature attempting to discredit
Ultimately, as the Morning News reported, "The amendment failed to pass
on a 7-7 vote, with four Democrats and three Republicans voting no.
Another Democrat -- who would have opposed the amendment -- was absent."
The significance of the vote was apparent to the Texas media: for
example, the headline of the story in the Morning News was "Texas Board
of Education votes against teaching evolution weaknesses"; the San
Antonio Express-News began its story with the sentence, "A 20-year-old
Texas tradition allowing public schools to teach 'both the strengths and
weaknesses' of evolution succumbed to science Thursday when the State
Board of Education voted to abolish the wording from its curriculum
standards"; and the headline of the story in the Austin
American-Statesman (January 23, 2009) was "State board shuns disputed
language on evolution."
And the momentousness of the vote was not lost on NCSE's executive
director Eugenie C. Scott, who explained in a January 23, 2009, press
release: "The misleading language [in the original science standards]
has been a creationist loophole in the science TEKS [Texas Essential
Knowledge and Skills] for decades. Its removal is a huge step forward."
Similarly, the Texas Freedom Network's Kathy Miller commented in a
January 23, 2009, statement, "This is a very important victory for sound
science education. A board majority stood firmly behind 21st-century
science and should be applauded." Even the Free Market Foundation --
the state affiliate of Focus on the Family -- in effect conceded the
significance of the vote by issuing a press release on January 22, 2009,
expressing outrage at the vote and pointedly identifying the members of
the board who voted for and against the amendment to restore the
"strengths and weaknesses" language.
The victory was not complete, however. A flurry of amendments
introduced by creationist members of the board sought to compromise the
treatment of evolution in the biology standards. Terri Leo successfully
proposed a revision to the standards to replace verbs such as
"identify," "recognize," and "describe" in section 7 of the high school
biology standards with "analyze and evaluate" -- no other section of the
standards was treated similarly. Worse, Don McLeroy successfully
proposed a revision to section 7 to require that students "analyze and
evaluate the sufficiency or insufficiency of common ancestry to explain
the sudden appearance, stasis and sequential nature of groups in the
fossil record." It is significant that "sudden appearance" is a
creationist catchphrase, associated in particular with young-earth
creationist Wendell Bird. During oral arguments in Edwards v.
Aguillard, for example, Jay Topkis observed, "those buzzwords come right
out of Mr. Bird's lexicon. ... They're his."
Just as worrying were the amendments introduced by creationist members
of the board that sought to compromise the treatment of evolution and
related concepts in the earth and space science standards. Barbara
Cargill successfully proposed revisions to the standards to add, in her
words, "humility and tentativeness; in the view of Steven Schafersman of
Texas Citizens for Science, however, "All five of the changes ... are
not needed and were proposed to weaken and damage the ESS TEKS." The
worst change was to a requirement that students "evaluate a variety of
fossil types, transitional fossils, fossil lineages, and significant
fossil deposits with regard to their appearance, completeness, and rate
and diversity of evolution," which now reads, "evaluate a variety of
fossil types, proposed transitional fossils, fossil lineages, and
significant fossil deposits and assess the arguments for and against
universal common descent in light of this fossil evidence."
NCSE's Eugenie C. Scott, who was at the meeting and observed the board's
confusion over these amendments, commented in NCSE's January 23, 2009,
press release, "They didn't ... have time to talk to scientists about
the creationist-inspired amendments made at the last minute. Once they
do, I believe these inaccurate amendments will be removed." The Texas
Freedom Network concurred, observing on its blog, "Board members -- none
of whom are research scientists, much less biologists -- appeared
confused when they were asked to consider amendments with changes to
specific passages of the standards. That's why it's foolish to let
dentists and insurance salesmen play-pretend that they're scientists.
The result is that the standards draft includes language that is more
tentative. Not good, but not necessarily disastrous overall." With
respect to McLeroy's revision, the TFN added, "What we saw is what
happens when a dentist pretends that he knows more about science than
scientists do."
All of the action -- the vote not to restore the "strengths and
weaknesses" language and the flurry of amendments from creationist
members of the board apparently eager to salvage a small victory from
the defeat -- occurred on the second day of the board's meeting. On the
third day, January 23, 2009, there was virtually no discussion as the
board voted unanimously to adopt the science standards as revised on the
previous day, without hearing any further comments from those in
attendance. The vote, again, is only a preliminary vote, with a final
vote on the standards expected at the board's March 26-27, 2009,
meeting. The Houston Chronicle (January 23,
2009) reported, "Scientists vowed to fight the plan before the board
takes final action in March"; since a survey demonstrated that the vast
majority of biologists at universities in Texas rejected the idea of
teaching the supposed weaknesses of evolution, there ought to be no
shortage of scientifically competent advice for the board to heed.
Reports in the press recognized that the overall result was a qualified
victory for science, with the Houston Chronicle (January 23, 2009), for
example, reporting, "Texas schools wont have to teach the weaknesses of
evolution theories anymore, but the State Board of Education ushered in
other proposed changes Friday that some scientists say still undermine
evolution instruction and subject the state to ridicule," and reporting
Steven Schafersman of Texas Citizens for Science as concerned that
McLeroy's revision, if not reversed, would make the standards a
laughingstock. David Hillis, a distinguished biology professor at the
University of Texas at Austin, added, "This new proposed language is
absurd. It shows very clearly why the board should not be rewriting the
science standards, especially when they introduce new language that has
not even been reviewed by a single science expert. He also told The New
York Times (January 24, 2009), "Its a clear indication that the chairman
of the state school board doesnt understand the science."
In the same vein, editorials in Texas and nationally have praised the
omission of the "strengths and weaknesses" language but lamented the
creationist revisions. The Austin American-Statesman (January 24, 2009)
seemed pleased if not excited about what it termed "an incremental step
away from dogma-driven curriculum decision-making," while the Waco
Tribune (January 26, 2009) was happy about the omission of a phrase that
"was meant to open the door to the undermining of evolution theory" but
dismayed by McLeroy's revision, which it described as "a fall-back
attempt by the right wing of the board to hang tough in its effort to
undermine evolution theory." The New York Times (January 26, 2009), for
its part, editorialized, "The lesson we draw from these shenanigans is
that scientifically illiterate boards of education should leave the
curriculum to educators and scientists who know what constitutes a sound
In addition to the newspaper reports cited above, a variety of on-line
sources provided detailed, candid, and often uninhibited running
commentary on the proceedings: Texas Citizens for Science's Steven
Schafersman blogged, and posted photographs, on the Houston Chronicle's
Evo.Sphere blog, the Texas Freedom Network was blogging on its TFN
Insider blog, NCSE's Joshua Rosenau was blogging on his personal blog
Thoughts from Kansas (hosted by ScienceBlogs), and the Houston Press
blogged the first day of the meeting. For those wanting to get their
information from the horse's mouth, minutes and audio recordings of the
board meeting will be available on the Texas Education Agency's website.
NCSE's previous reports on events in Texas are available on-line, and of
course NCSE will continue to monitor the situation as well as to assist
those defending the teaching of evolution in the Lone Star State.
Dick Fischer, GPA president
Genesis Proclaimed Association
"Finding Harmony in Bible, Science and History"

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Received on Fri Jan 30 14:56:05 2009

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