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Tilting at Windmills

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January 23, 2009

A TIRESOME TUSSLE IN TEXAS.... At some point in the future, we'll stop seeing foolish disputes like these. That day has not yet arrived.

The latest round in a long-running battle over how evolution should be taught in Texas schools began in earnest Wednesday as the State Board of Education heard impassioned testimony from scientists and social conservatives on revising the science curriculum. [...]

In the past, the conservatives on the education board have lacked the votes to change textbooks. This year, both sides say, the final vote, in March, is likely to be close.

Even as federal courts have banned the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in biology courses, social conservatives have gained 7 of 15 seats on the Texas board in recent years, and they enjoy the strong support of Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican.

The chairman of the board, Dr. Don McLeroy, a dentist, pushed in 2003 for a more skeptical version of evolution to be presented in the state's textbooks, but could not get a majority to vote with him. Dr. McLeroy has said he does not believe in Darwin's theory and thinks that Earth's appearance is a recent geologic event, thousands of years old, not 4.5 billion as scientists contend.

In this particular dispute, the creationists want public school science classes to "analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence." As a practical matter, that means incorporating religious dogma into the curriculum to undermine modern biology.

Michelle Cottle noted how tempting it is to "let Texas revel in its own ass-backwardness." But it's best to resist that temptation.

First, Texas is "one of the nation's biggest buyers of textbooks, and publishers are reluctant to produce different versions of the same material." Weaker science classes in Texas has far-reaching consequences for students elsewhere.

Second, Texans have elected nutjobs to the State Board of Education, but that's not a good reason to punish the state's public school students.

And third, this nonsense really needs to stop as a national phenomenon. Fundamentalists are entitled to their personal beliefs, but these efforts to undermine science education have gone on long enough. The country just can't afford to tolerate this nonsense anymore -- the competitive advantage the United States used to enjoy is vanishing, and conservatives' anti-science push comes with too high a burden for the country.

Fortunately, there's some push-back in Texas, not just from educators and scientists, but also from the business community, which worries about attracting educated workers and their families to a state with a ridiculous science curriculum. A software executive told the NYT, "The political games we are playing right now are going to burn us all."

Steve Benen 1:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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"The political games we are playing right now are going to burn us all."

And utterly besides the point. The creationists don't give a tin shit about you or your beliefs or what you think, Mr or Ms Software Executive. It's all about Jesus riding the dinosaurs, and if that's not to your liking, you're going to hell any way.

Posted by: GuyFromOhio on January 23, 2009 at 1:36 PM | PERMALINK

Fourth, requiring teachers and textbook manufacturers to lie to children is really just wrong.

Posted by: jayackroyd on January 23, 2009 at 1:39 PM | PERMALINK

"At some point in the future, we'll stop seeing foolish disputes like these."

That's what I'd have thought about religion in general. And yet, that day doesn't appear to be coming, ever.

This is the logical offshoot of treating religion seriously.

Posted by: Tree on January 23, 2009 at 1:45 PM | PERMALINK

I'm so tired of these arguments! what a waste of everyone's time.

I have come to think that Texas voters should reap what they sow. If they want their public schools to teach fringy fundamentalist religious dogma, and elect school boards to make that happen, then that's what they should get. Let Texans who disagree show up to vote in greater numbers, or move out of the state.

Posted by: Jack Lindahl on January 23, 2009 at 1:47 PM | PERMALINK

maybe the good dentist would like a chapter dealing with the tooth fairy...

Posted by: mudwall jackson on January 23, 2009 at 1:47 PM | PERMALINK

1/2 the country doesn't believe in evolution, it's not just them backwoods types. I'd rather give texas back to mexico.

Posted by: Rick on January 23, 2009 at 1:49 PM | PERMALINK

the creationists want public school science classes to "analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence."

Umm, isn't that pretty much the definition of science? The creationists work is being done for them daily, so they can just pack up and go home.

And, as anyone who delves into the creationists "literature" knows, they don't deal with empirical evidence.

Posted by: martin on January 23, 2009 at 1:50 PM | PERMALINK

The first point is huge. Kansas is a little state. It isn't going to affect other states with its childish creationism dance. Texas on the other hand is one of the handful of states that publishers really want to please. It's purchasing power is just too great to ignore. Ever wonder why American History textbooks spend so much time on the Texas war for independence from Mexico? After all a lot of other important things were happening in America during the same period. Already American education is being dumbed down by stupid decisions made to curry favor with Texas. This lunacy could set the whole country on the path to 2nd world status.

Posted by: Ron Byers on January 23, 2009 at 1:50 PM | PERMALINK

maybe the good dentist would like a chapter dealing with the tooth fairy...Posted by: mudwall jackson on January 23, 2009 at 1:47 PM | PERMALINK

****laughing!****

Posted by: e henry thripshaw on January 23, 2009 at 1:58 PM | PERMALINK

First, Texas is "one of the nation's biggest buyers of textbooks, and publishers are reluctant to produce different versions of the same material." Weaker science classes in Texas has far-reaching consequences for students elsewhere.

The answer to this is something that should be done anyway: the Department of Education, or one of the state Departments of Education, should pay a group of textbook writers to produce a set of K-12 texts that would be made available to everyone online under a Creative Commons license.

It's hard to believe that Texas' role as the dominant customer of hardbound paper textbooks will matter much longer.

Posted by: low-tech cyclist on January 23, 2009 at 1:58 PM | PERMALINK

It's all about Jesus riding the dinosaurs, and if that's not to your liking, you're going to hell any way.

That's today's fundie, who can admit to dinosaurs actually having existed. A generation ago the explanation was that "the devil placed dinosaur bones to fool man into believing the false doctrine of evolution and God allowed it as a test of faith."

What this change of dogma says about Christian fundamentalism and about every reactionary movement is that it is inevitably forced to evolve its views as society marches forward. It may kick and scream and drag its feet and always be ten feet behind, but in order to survive it can't fall too far behind or it simply becomes an anachronism.

Which is not too much to hope for in this case.

Posted by: trex on January 23, 2009 at 1:58 PM | PERMALINK

Thanks for putting this issue in the spotlight. However, its my understanding that the proposed wording change is being put forward by the science/education/religious freedom groups. The current language omits the whole "empirical evidence" idea and encourages students to explore "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories. This leaves the door open for criticism of evolution. So, unless I'm mistaken, the changes would be a good thing.

As always, the good people at the National Center for Science Education are on top of this:
http://ncseweb.org/news/2009/01/whats-next-texas-science-standards-004222

And in defense of the great state of Kansas, while our evolution dance has been long and, at many points, silly, we currently have a very robust set of science-friendly standards. And the pro-science bloc gained another seat on our state board in November and now enjoys a 7-3 majority.

Posted by: eric on January 23, 2009 at 1:59 PM | PERMALINK

Suggestion:
Teach evolution backwards. At some point these retromingent retards will recognize themselves, and come to acknowledge that evolution has to be a correct theory.

Posted by: SteinL on January 23, 2009 at 2:01 PM | PERMALINK

I'd rather give texas back to mexico.

No me interesa.

Posted by: Mexico on January 23, 2009 at 2:03 PM | PERMALINK

Dr. McLeroy has said he does not believe in Darwin's theory and thinks that Earth's appearance is a recent geologic event, thousands of years old, not 4.5 billion as scientists contend.

The idea that this guy could legally prescribe antibiotics blows my mind.

Posted by: Alan on January 23, 2009 at 2:12 PM | PERMALINK

Umm, isn't that pretty much the definition of science? The creationists work is being done for them daily, so they can just pack up and go home.

Unfortunately, they have a different definition of empirical evidence than everybody else does. They think it means: "The world is Jesus's empire and belief in him is the same as 'evidence.'"

Posted by: shortstop on January 23, 2009 at 2:18 PM | PERMALINK

The idea that this guy could legally prescribe antibiotics blows my mind.

Forget antibiotics. This guy's been heavily sampling the Tylenol #3 that was supposed to be for his oral surgery patients.

(Is it still called Tylenol #3? I'm not up on today's narcotics.)

Posted by: shortstop on January 23, 2009 at 2:20 PM | PERMALINK

Cue Amy Sullivan concern-trolling us about respecting fringe evangelicals like these in 3...2...

Posted by: Gregory on January 23, 2009 at 2:32 PM | PERMALINK

Eric, it sounds so reasonable doesn't it. But it's not. This isn't scientists asking for a note that "encourages students to explore "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories". It's creationist "scientists" asking for this warning to be on the front of only text books containing evolution.

In practice, this is latest evolution of the creationist attack on science. They've appealed to god directly. Then they've tried logical fallacy. Now it's an attempt to change their PR by representing their actions as a "we just want to make science better" (by throwing doubt on all the stuff that has decades or even centuries of solid evidence and research behind it)".

At a higher level, why would you write this on any text book that is high school level. High school science is teaching the basics. The science involved is pretty much settled. No pupil is in any position to challenge the materials - since they haven't even mastered the basics. But writing it on a specific (evolution) text book, rather than mandating scientific theory classes and logical reasoning, shows where the driver is in this matter.

Read Kitzmiller vs Dover School Board, and you can see this whole "teach the controversy" strategy laid bare.

Posted by: royalblue_tom on January 23, 2009 at 2:34 PM | PERMALINK

I have to agree with Jack. This is an issue for Texans to worry about and I don't think it means all that much, really.

It is an obvious and politically naive overreach of the culture warriors, who haven't really made any progress besides delay for the past thirty years or so. If they want textbooks with pictures of people riding dinosaurs and God hiding some bones in your neighbors backyard, let someone make them.

That this will have some influence outside of backwards states like Texas and Kansas is an overreaching attempt to turn this into a national issue.

It's sad, no doubt, but lots of people don't believe in evolution, and those people have chosen to segregate themselves in certain parts of the country. That's mostly a good thing, but it does have some negative consequences.

Thankfully, they're wrong and outnumbered, and their days, like their numbers, are shrinking.

Posted by: mark r on January 23, 2009 at 2:43 PM | PERMALINK

Steve-- Eric is right here; the NCSE link explains that the "empirical evidence" language you quote is not where the controversy lies (nor should it be, since, as has been noted, that's pretty much the definition of science). The controversial point is whether to include the "strengths and weaknesses" language that has been a back door for creationism in the revised standards.

Posted by: JRD on January 23, 2009 at 2:48 PM | PERMALINK

Royalblue: I agree with you completely. "Strengths and weaknesses" arguments are used to make evolution appear like a weak theory and to put enough doubts into people's minds to continue to advance an out-of-date ideology. They (creationists) can't support their claims scientifically, so they try to come in through the back door. Kitzmiller v. Dover is just the latest in a significant number of court decisions that have shown these tactics to be not only deceitful, but flat out illegal.

The point of my post was that the proposed changes are pro-science. The current standards state:
"The student is expected to analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information."

The proposed changes would replace that with:
"The student is expected to analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing."

Posted by: eric on January 23, 2009 at 2:52 PM | PERMALINK

What continually amazes me is that these people don't realize that it absolutely does not matter whether evolution is "true". Evolution is a scientific theory which stands or falls based exclusively on past discoveries and discoveries yet to come. Only religious dimwits, who need to be spoon fed every instruction to get through life, think that what's taught in science is supposed to be true. Are that many Texans really this stupid and ignorant ? God, how I wish we hadn't insisted on the union in 1861 !

Posted by: rbe1 on January 23, 2009 at 3:04 PM | PERMALINK

Texas is "one of the nation's biggest buyers of textbooks, and publishers are reluctant to produce different versions of the same material."

I worked for many years in the educational video business. Material which might - no matter how far fetched the possibility - offend some reactionary/literalist contingent, was always ruthlessly excised. Texas is a *very* large market for educational material, and publishers don't, indeed, want to create seperate versions of every item. In fact, when something had to be cut or changed in a video for this reason, the exec. producers conveyed it in code - one word: Texas. (e.g. 'Why are we changing this?' 'Texas'.)

I like low-tech's idea of a CC-licenced set of textbooks, but the Edu Industry won't. They are used to making money selling crap to kids, and it will hurt their feelings if they lose some of that market.

Posted by: jonnybutter on January 23, 2009 at 3:09 PM | PERMALINK

The text book industry is one of the biggest scams in existence, even without this whole creationist debate. Never has so much been spent by so many for so little. (Well, at least until the Bush Administration, but this is a close second).

It's about time the internet and new technologies were put to use to lower the entry barrier to this market and allow a little competition in. If the federal government were to have a role, I would prefer that it were in providing technological standards and seed money rather than in selecting the actual content, as that would just push the political fight over these issues up to the national level, where it would be even louder and nastier.

If we can get some competition in here and prevent the consolidation that now typifies the industry, then we can let Texas shoot itself in the foot, and my children's education will not be limited by what is acceptable to the most retrograde elements in our society. The free market of ideas, please. Let states sink or swim accordingly. Experience is a hard teacher, but some students will learn from no other.

Posted by: Jon on January 23, 2009 at 3:29 PM | PERMALINK

I really think the only way to win this fight is to cave completely and "shoot the moon" - agree to analyze all creation theories in light of each other's perspectives. Then ensure that the pantheon of theorists includes not just the redactors of the new testament, but also the writers of key religious tracts throughout history. What did Zoroaster have to say about this? What about the people who lived here before white people took over? Set aside a week to discuss all the main faith-based cosmographies, with rigorous discussion of their strengths and weaknesses. Once kids come home asking about Hindu mythology and Mohawk legends, maybe closeminded parents will decide there's just too much religion - or too many religions - in school these days.

Posted by: dan on January 23, 2009 at 3:30 PM | PERMALINK

Fortunately, there's some push-back in Texas, not just from educators and scientists, but also from the business community, which worries about attracting educated workers and their families to a state with a ridiculous science curriculum. A software executive told the NYT, "The political games we are playing right now are going to burn us all."

There is quite a lot of push-back here. Texas also has a very strong medical community and we want to attract the best and brightest. Hopefully we can get rid of this silly nonsense (and Rick Perry too in another year or two).

Posted by: whichwitch on January 23, 2009 at 3:32 PM | PERMALINK

Eric and others are correct above. The controversy is that the new standards written by scientists and teachers has removed the "strengths and weaknesses" phrasing that has been in place for 20 years. This week, the Texas SBOE voted 8-7 to uphold the scientific standards recommended by scientists and teachers and get rid of the "weaknesses" language. Perhaps, because there is no controversy or weaknesses of evolution accepted in the scientific community.

So, on the bright side, the SBOE got it right (barely) but the Texas SBOE has been infiltrated by the religious right for some years now and as one can see, they almost have a majority. More voting is scheduled on this with the final decision coming in March - though it is unclear to me why there are all these votes and the significance of the vote that took place this week.

Posted by: ckelly on January 23, 2009 at 3:49 PM | PERMALINK

Tree said: "This is the logical offshoot of treating religion seriously."

I think you meant to say "this is the logical offshoot of treating American Fundamentalist Christianity seriously"

Lest we forget, Roman Catholicism - which is still by far the biggest Christian Sect, has absolutely no problem whatsoever with Evolution and actively encourages research. Remember, the Christain world is a LOT bigger than the Revivalists in the Southern Bible Belt and their ilk.

cheers!

Posted by: neilt on January 23, 2009 at 4:21 PM | PERMALINK

I always ask myself (and sometimes post comments on blogs) when this comes up-

So what if Texas is big? California is much bigger, and isn't full of wingnuts. (Nuts, yes, but not wingnuts.) New York is big. Illinois is big. Pennsylvania is big. If those four states would get together, they could force the textbook publishers to ignore Texas, couldn't they? I would appreciate someone letting me know if my reasoning is faulty.

Posted by: Tim H on January 23, 2009 at 4:27 PM | PERMALINK

Well, maybe we should look at this as an opportunity to apply empirical principles to the Holy Bible.
Let's start with the Council of Nicea, and the composition of the Bible. We can verify that the council happened, although the existence of this particular "Paul" individual may bear some closer examination.

Posted by: kenga on January 23, 2009 at 4:35 PM | PERMALINK

It would help in a lot of these places if people understood what a Theory is.

We use the word incorrectly when we mean "hypothesis".

Theories are built on facts. By producing sufficient facts, usually based on indisputable evidence, often mathematical in nature, theories become laws.

Despite mathematical evidence and no particular concern among the well-faithed, Relativity has not yet been deemed a scientific law. (the process of deeming a Theory a Law is ill defined from what I can tell. Evolution and Relativity may well qualify but the term Law hasn't caught on yet.) The potent power of Theories are that they produce models of the universe that reliably produce predictions about data we will find if we look for it which can lead to new hypotheses of how the universe works.

The theory of evolution produces such results such as anti-biotic resistance pathology models. If one assumes species do not change from one to another and all must be individually divinely created, we dispose of very valuable tools be which we may prevent mass epidemics.

Posted by: toowearyforoutrage on January 23, 2009 at 4:38 PM | PERMALINK

Why are these people so sure that God is a liar? He must be, if he faked radiocarbon evidence to give consistently false results, and if he planted fossils in separate strata when those animals existed at the same time. There's no other way to explain it -- they think God is a great big cosmic Bernard Madoff.

Posted by: T-Rex on January 23, 2009 at 4:53 PM | PERMALINK

"Theories are built on facts. By producing sufficient facts, usually based on indisputable evidence, often mathematical in nature, theories become laws"

Actually, the primary difference between a theory and a hypothesis is the number of trials (experiments) conducted to attempt to disprove the assertions of the theory or hypothesis. Otherwise, there's very little difference. They are both based on facts, if by fact you mean a careful set of observations/deductions. There is no such thing as indisputable evidence in science, as the next test might just disprove the theory ! The next rock you throw up might not come down.

Posted by: rbe1 on January 23, 2009 at 5:07 PM | PERMALINK

Old stuff, anachronism.

Who cares when each and every child has access to each and every theory on evolution explained in each and every way via the web.

My problem is not what kids are taught in the classroom, my problem is why are they in the classroom at all?

Posted by: MattYoung on January 23, 2009 at 5:29 PM | PERMALINK

"the process of deeming a Theory a Law is ill defined from what I can tell"

From what I can tell, it's non-existent. Nobody calls things 'laws' anymore. Yes, there are still old theories that still use the term "law," but that's just because we're so used to calling them that. One thing we do know about "laws" is that they are usually wrong. They come from a time in science when we didn't know about Relativity or Quantum effects. So they don't account for those things and are therefore wrong.

Posted by: fostert on January 23, 2009 at 5:46 PM | PERMALINK

In this particular dispute, the creationists want public school science classes to "analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence." As a practical matter, that means incorporating religious dogma into the curriculum to undermine modern biology.

The BEST way to teach evolution is to start with the Reverend William Paley's "argument from design" (the "blind watchmaker analogy"), update it with current "intelligent design" analogies, and then amass the evidence against them. You can point out that even Charles Darwin started from a position of respect for Paley.

The most important arguments against the argument from design are: (1) the enormous amount of variation on every attribute in the offspring of every generation, a great deal more variation in the offspring than in the parents that they are born to; (2) the fact that almost all of the offspring born in every generation die before adulthood; (3) intelligent design lacks precise definition; (4) related to (3), most things that look intelligent from one point of view look unintelligent from another point of view.

For an example of (4) consider the tarantula hawk wasp. It may be that a cursory examination makes it look like the wasp is intelligently designed, but doesn't the tarantula look like it was designed "stupidly", if designed at all. Going further, it turns out that the wasps win about 2/3 of the fights, and the tarantulas win about 1/3 of the time. Over time, only the relatively fast wasps and the relatively fast tarantulas have offspring that survive long enough to reproduce. That isn't "intelligent design", that's random variation and natural selection.

You can do this with every example of "Intelligent Design": introduce all the biological facts, especially the variation among the offspring and deaths (by natural selection) of almost all of the offspring. Then "intelligent design" begins to look like the belief only of people who are totally ignorant of biology.

The problem is that most people who insist that evolution be taught in school also do not know the most important basic facts about evolution: random variation in the offspring, and natural selection (by diverse agents of death) of a few to reproduce.

The way to combat the notion of Intelligent Design is by the tedious recital of the masses of detailed facts of each case that the Intelligent Design believers try to promote. Unfortunately, this tends to highlight the "nature red in tooth and claw" view of nature, not the "ecological balance" view of nature. As noted by Darwin, the basis of the theory of evolution is the viciousness of Mother Nature toward her creatures.

Posted by: MatthewRMarler on January 23, 2009 at 5:56 PM | PERMALINK

Fortunately, there's some push-back in Texas, not just from educators and scientists, but also from the business community, which worries about attracting educated workers and their families to a state with a ridiculous science curriculum. A software executive told the NYT, "The political games we are playing right now are going to burn us all."

Well, he can be happy that it's not as bad as in California. Texas is growing its alternative energy production faster than California, and Texas leads California in the export of manufactured goods to the international market.

Posted by: MatthewRMarler on January 23, 2009 at 6:13 PM | PERMALINK

Besides working full-time, I also attend classes full-time at the local science and engineering college (New Mexico Tech). In my speech class of about 25 students, a good half of them believe in creationism / intelligent design. A few are Deists, thinking that God is the creator and set everything in motion, and a couple think that God created evolution. It's both sad and scary...

Posted by: Tony on January 23, 2009 at 6:44 PM | PERMALINK

Does anyone here know exactly what text is being removed?

Posted by: supernovia on January 23, 2009 at 7:07 PM | PERMALINK

"The country just can't afford to tolerate this nonsense anymore -- the competitive advantage the United States used to enjoy is vanishing."

Oooooo - the nationalist left arises. "Be Like Us or Else!" Alert Marty Peretz! The Washington Monthly will be raising the Stars and Stripes at its offices shortly now ITS man is in the White House.

I guess this means Vermont independence is off the table, right?

Posted by: Sean Scallon on January 23, 2009 at 7:09 PM | PERMALINK

Why is it always dentists? Is it because the science requirements for a DDS aren't very tough, and they have access to laughing gas?

Posted by: coldhotel on January 23, 2009 at 10:44 PM | PERMALINK

Regarding "Dr." McLeroy, I am reminded of an old Texanism that applies here: "He needed killin'!"

Posted by: TCinLA on January 23, 2009 at 11:37 PM | PERMALINK

There are lots of stupid people in this world, but they are not all in Texas. Just too many of them. Then we have others who come from New Haven, Connecticut and claim to be Texans.

Posted by: captain dan on January 23, 2009 at 11:46 PM | PERMALINK

Yeah, that science is just evil stuff posts the wingnut blogger from his web enabled car.

Evil things like:
Computers!
The Internet!
Electricity!
Radio! Television!
Internal combustion engines!
Steel!
Roads!
Urban Infrastucture!
His house!
His medicine cabinet!
His job!


Posted by: Glen on January 24, 2009 at 2:15 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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