Most of you know that there’s a crucial battle going on in Texas about science education in the public schools. The school board (which is loaded with social conservatives and at least three unashamed creationists) and the state legislature are trying to water down the teaching of evolution by:
1. Demanding that teachers expose students to the “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific theories (as we all know, this is a transparent attempt to drag in the discredited creationist/intelligent design criticisms of evolution),
2. Teaching about “the insufficiency of natural selection to explain the complexity of cells.” (Lord have mercy–this is right out of the Behe handbook!), and
3. Teaching about “the insufficiency of common ancestry to explain the sudden appearance, stasis and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record” (see below).
It’s hard to believe this is really going on in modern America, but it is. The Guardian asked me to write an op-ed piece about the issues, which I have you can find here. An excerpt:
Creationism in the classroom
Evolution is a scientific fact – except, perhaps, in Texas, where the school board is trying to cast doubt on it
Imagine that your state legislature has decided to revamp the way that health and medicine are taught in public schools. To do this, they must tackle the “germ theory of disease“, the idea that infectious disease is caused by microorganisms such as viruses and bacteria. The legislature, noting that this idea has many vocal opponents, declares that it is “only a theory”. Many people, for instance, think that Aids has nothing to do with viruses, but is the byproduct of a dissipated life. Christian Scientists believe that disease results from sin and ignorance, spiritual healers implicate disturbed auras and shamans cite demonic possession.
In light of this “controversy”, the legislature sets up a school board that includes not only doctors, but also shamans, faith healers and, for good measure a few “psychic surgeons” who pretend to extract veal cutlets from patients’ intact bodies. Taking account of these diverse views, the board recommends that from now on all teaching of modern medicine must be accompanied by a discussion of its weaknesses, including the “evidence” that Aids results from drug use and malnutrition, as well as from impure thoughts and evil spirits. And our failure to understand the complexities of chronic fatigue syndrome might be seen as reflecting its causation by an inscrutable and supernatural designer.
You would rightly be furious if all this happened. After all, the “germ theory” of disease is more than just a theory – it’s a fact. Like all scientific theories, it might be wrong, but in this case that chance is roughly zero. That is because the germ theory works. Antibiotic and antiviral drugs really do cure diseases, while spiritual healing does not. Only an idiot, you’d say, would try to tamper with medical education in this way.
But this is precisely what is happening in Texas with respect to another well-established theory of biology: evolution. . . .
. . . What’s next? Since there are many who deny the Holocaust, can we expect legislation requiring history classes to discuss the “strengths and weaknesses” of the idea that Nazis persecuted Jews? Should we teach our children astrology in their psychology classes as an alternative theory of human behaviour? And, given the number of shamans in the world, shouldn’t their views be represented in medical schools?
Our children will face enormous challenges when they grow up: global warming, depletion of fossil fuels, overpopulation, epidemic disease. There is no better way to prepare their generation than to teach them how to distinguish fact from mythology, and to encourage them to have good reasons for what they believe.
How sad that in the 21st century the Texas legislature proposes the exact opposite, indoctrinating our children with false ideas based squarely on religious dogma. Can’t we just let our kids learn real science?
One of the most bizarre aspects of this whole mess is that the head of the Texas Board of Education, appointed by the governor, is one Don McLeroy, a young-earth creationist whose day job is dentistry. McLeroy is also a born-again Christian and a Sunday school teacher. (For the usual pungent comment on this guy, see P. Z. Myers’s take on Pharyngula.) Yesterday, McLeroy wrote a bizarre Op-Ed piece in the Austin Statesman making his case for teaching the “problems” with evolution. It seems to boil down to– of all things– stasis in the fossil record:
Stephen Jay Gould stated: “The great majority of species do not show any appreciable evolutionary change at all. [This is called ‘stasis.’] These species appear … without obvious ancestors in the underlying beds, are stable once established and disappear higher up without leaving any descendants.”
“…but stasis is data…”
Once we have our observations, we can make a hypothesis. The controversial evolution hypothesis is that all life is descended from a common ancestor by unguided natural processes. How well does this hypothesis explain the data? A new curriculum standard asks Texas students to look into this question. It states: “The student is expected to 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 should not raise any objections from those who say evolution has no weaknesses; they claim it is unquestionably true.
And the standard is not religious but does raise a problem for the evolution hypothesis in that stasis is the opposite of evolution, and “stasis is data.”
This is sheer sophistry based on an out-of-context quotation. Gould, of course, was a firm believer in evolution, something that Dr. McLeroy conveniently forgets to mention. And Gould never saw punctuated equilibrium as incompatible with neoDarwinism. He raged at creationists who used punctuated equilibrium to their advantage. And you don’t have to be an Einstein to realize that the theory of evolution does not demand that every species must evolve all of the time! Further, how does McLeroy deal with the many examples of real transitional fossils, and the many cases of palpable evolutionary change within fossil lineages (many described in WEIT)? He doesn’t tell us.
This would all be comical if it didn’t have enormous repercussions for public education in this country. Texas is of course one of the nation’s biggest consumers of public-school textbooks, and, to maximize sales, publishers tend to bring their texts in line with the strictest state requirements. This means that what happens in Texas may affect science education throughout the country. And so the circus continues.
Fortunately, the National Center for Science Education is down in Texas in force, fighting hard for evolution at the school board hearings. I have just heard from Genie Scott, and I hope she won’t mind if I quote a bit of her on-the-spot report. It looks as if things are going fairly well:
But the good news is that 45 minutes ago +/-, an amendment to reinsert S&W [“strengths and weaknesses] failed on a tie 7:7 vote. One of the moderates is away taking care of a sick husband, so we don’t have a majority. But the moderates hung in there, and there was not a majority voting for the restoration of the old language.
We have several bad amendments to go, but that is the truly big victory that if we had lost, we would have been in very bad shape. But other bad stuff needs to go.
If anybody can get rid of the other “bad stuff,” it’s Genie & Co. Keep your fingers crossed!