Skepticism, Religion Archive

Friday, November 21, 2008

Strengths and Limitations

Strengths and Limitations

TEA LogoThe Texas State Board of Education had their first hearing on school science standards. There's a lot of hoopla over a certain phrase that's been in the standards since 1988, to teach the "strengths and weaknesses" of all scientific theories. When the draft science standards were released in September, which were, according to the Dallas Morning News, created by "review committees of teachers and academics," the wording had been removed. Now, the new Science Standards Review Panel, a six member group containing three ID supporters, one of whom is even the director of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture from Washington state, have unsurprisingly put that language back into the standards, slightly reworded as "analyze and evaluate strengths and limitations" of scientific explanations, along with a recommendation for middle school students to "discuss possible alternative explanations" for scientific concepts (source).

Before I begin discussing this, since I realize that around half the population of the U.S. doesn't accept evolution, let me make it clear that evolution has, in fact, happened, and our knowledge of the history of life on this planet, although incomplete, is still pretty good. I've already posted A (Somewhat) Brief Introduction to Evolution explaining much of this, which also has links to much more in depth material on evolution. Moving on...

On the face of it, teaching strengths and weaknesses of any theory sounds like a great thing. After all, there are weaknesses in our current understanding of evolution: which is more accurate - gradualism or punctuated equilibrium; what is the relative importance of natural selection versus genetic drift versus sexual selection versus other forms of genetic change; what are the relative importances of allopatric, peripatric, parapatric, and sympatric speciation; how do epigenetics contribute to evolution; etc. But, understanding the larger debate, and recognizing that organizations like the Discovery Institute try to use this language to inject pseudoscience into students' education is what makes it worrying. I mean, just take a look at what the inappropriately named organization, Texans for Better Science Education, considers weaknesses of evolutionary theory (most of these are covered in Talk Origins' Index to Creationist Claims). If the language in the science standards opens the door to drivel like that, we're definitely doing our children a disservice.

There's also the question of what is the proper role of a pre-college education. You only get the students for 12 years, and there're a lot of knowledge and skills that they need to be taught in that time. There's one school of thought that says that it's more important to teach students how to think than what to think. I agree with this to an extent - critical thinking skills are essential to evaluating all the information the students will receive outside school. It's not as if school can cover everything, or as if our body of knowledge as a civilization is static. There will always be new challenges and new information that these students will face once they become adults, and they need to know how to approach those. However, evaluating claims about the world also relies on a strong foundation of knowledge. It's hard to evaluate someone claiming the Earth is flat without a working knowledge of at least geography, and maybe a little bit of astronomy and physics. So, it is up to schools to find the proper balance of teaching that foundation along with critical thinking skills.

And this is where the "strengths and weaknesses" or "strengths and limitations" requirement as part of the science curriculum comes into question. How much can actually be covered in a high school biology class? Can we really give students the good strong foundation they need in evolutionary theory before addressing some of those weaknesses I listed above? Should it just be a token paragraph as part of the lesson plan about future research opportunies? Think about another high school science topic - physics (since this requirement is about all science topics, not just biology). There's so much to teach students as is (universal gravitation, forces, vectors, friction, etc.). How much time do you think teachers should be devoting to describing the weaknesses in the classical (Newtonian) model, other than maybe a brief, single day lesson about Einsteinian relativity?

Out of all the controversies about teaching evolution in the various states of this country, this current one in Texas, other than generating some heat in the blogosphere and among a few interested parties, is probably pretty mild. After all, it's only a short phrase that's already been in place for the past 10 years, and not even one that explicitly requires teaching of creationism or Intelligent Design. With competent teachers, evolution will still be taught well. And with the creationist teachers, I don't know that the phrase would make much of a difference, anyway. The place where I see this having the biggest impact, and which will probably turn into a bigger battle, is when it comes time to choose the new textbooks. I'd hate to see our state waste taxpayer money on a book like Explore Evolution: The Arguments For and Against Neo-Darwinism.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Creationists Still on Texas Board of Education

TEA LogoNot too long ago, I blogged about how the Texas Board of Education had nomianted three creationists to the six member Texas Science Standards Review Panel. What's more, two of those creationists aren't even from Texas, and have published a textbook that could potentially be adopted by the school system (no conflict of interest there).

Well, the way the panel was chosen was that they had to each be nominated by two BoE members. The six members who nominated the creationists to the panel were Cynthia Dunbar and David Bradley (nominated Meyer), Barbara Cargill and Ken Mercer (nominated Seelke), and Gail Lowe and Terri Leo (nominated Garner). (more info at Texas Citizens for Science)

Creationist BoE members up for relection included David Bradley and Gail Lowe (both running against Democratic challengers), and Terri Leo, Barbara Cargill, and Patricia Hardy (running against third party challengers). The results are in, and all five were re-elected.

On the plus side, two rational board members, Mary Helen Berlanga and Mavis Knight, both up against Republican challengers, were also re-elected. So, at least the creationists didn't gain any power.

I know I probably shouldn't be surprised by this, but it's still disappointing.

Added 2008-11-05 Cynthia Dunbar wasn't up for re-election this time around, but this gives a good idea of just what type of people we have on our BoE down here. She posted the following comment to the Christian Worldview website a few days before the election.

So we can imagine the blatant disregard for our Constitution, but what other threats does an Obama administration pose? We have been clearly warned by his running mate, Joe Biden, that America will suffer some form of attack within the first 6 months of Obama’s administration. However, unlike Joe, I do not believe this “attack” will be a test of Obama’s mettle. Rather, I perceive it will be a planned effort by those with whom Obama truly sympathizes to take down the America that is threat to tyranny.

Argh. I can't believe these people have control over the curriculum for my daughter's education.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Teach 'Both' Sides

Teach Both SidesWhile reading a story in the Houston Chronicle on the recent naming of three ID proponents to the six member Texas Science Standards Review Panel, I read the following quote, "Close-minded efforts to ban students from (hearing both sides) is dangerous and a clear detriment to students."

It used to be that when I heard this argument about teaching 'both' sides regarding evolution, I'd sarcastically wonder to myself if that meant the right side and the wrong side. However, once I got to thinking about it a little more, I realized how biased the statement actually was. Using the word 'both' implies two sides, but what are these two sides? On the one hand, there's obviously the side of evolution, the pro-science side, backed by overwhelming evidence and endorsed by the scientific community. But what, exactly, is the other side? That Tepeu and Gucamatz created all plants and animals through their thoughts; that Pangu created the earth after emerging from a cosmic egg, and after dying his body became the sun, moon, stars, creatures, and plants; that Ra, alone and lonely, masturbated to create two more gods, and those gods went on to have children gods, who eventually created everything, including the plants and animals; that Yahweh created plants and animals a couple days after he created the Earth, or that some unspecified intelligence has been tinkering with life throughout the ages?

The problem is, there are many more than two sides concerning what the various peoples of the world believe and have believed concerning how life got here. Now, if any of those stories were actually true, that would be one thing. After all, science is about following the evidence wherever it leads. It just so happens that all of the evidence supports evolution. Unless you're a proponent of Last Thursdayism, there's really no question that evolution has occured.

When someone says to teach 'both' sides, what they usually mean is evolution, and their particular interpretation of the Bible. They're not interested in actual fairness. They want to see their religious view elevated above all other religious views to be taught in school.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Texas Science Standards Review Panel

TEA LogoOh boy, it looks like we're in for an ugly mess down here in Texas. For a bit of background - the current chairman of the Texas State Board of Education, Don McLeroy, is a creationist, who has openly advocated the teaching of Intelligent Design in schools (transcript & recording). Last year, Chris Comer, the director of science curriculum for the Texas Education Agency, was forced to resign after forwarding an e-mail announcment of a lecture by Barbara Forrest critical of Intelligent Design. This past May, McLeroy pulled some shenanigans with a last minute cut and paste job of the English standards - having the BoE approve the new standards before anyone had sufficient time to review them, all after a three year process by teachers and experts to develop the new standards. At the end of that post, I wrote, "And don't forget that the science standards are the next in line to be reviewed. If the board can be so underhanded on a topic as uncontroversial as English, I fear just what stunts they're going to pull when it comes to subjects like biology and geology."

Now, the Board of Education has just named the six people who will be on the Texas Science Standards Review Panel:

  • David Hillis, professor of integrative biology and director of the Center of Computational Biology and Bioinformatics at the University of Texas at Austin;
  • Ronald K. Wetherington, professor of anthropology at Southern Methodist University and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence;
  • Gerald Skoog, professor and dean emeritus of the College of Education at Texas Tech and co-director of the Center for Integration of Science Education and Research;
  • Stephen Meyer, director of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture from Washington state;
  • Ralph Seelke, an ID proponent and biology professor at the University of Wiconsin, Superior;
  • Charles Garner, an ID proponent and chemistry professor from Baylor.

The first three of those members are the type of people you'd expect on a science standards review panel. But the last three are certainly worrying, especially given the past actions of the BoE. For anyone unfamiliar with the Discovery Institute, it is nominally* a conservative think tank, whose main purpose seems to be promotion of Intelligent Design and attempts to discredit evolution. Meyer, Seelke, and Garner, have all signed the Discovery Institute's "Dissent from Darwinism" statement. For an idea of how relevant that list actually is, consider Project Steve. Meyer and Seelke are even co-athors of the book,
Explore Evolution: The Arguments For and Against Neo-Darwinism. For a good review of the Discovery Institute and this book, take a look at the review on ars technica. The conclusion, although a little less than polite, sums up the book pretty nicely:

But the book doesn't only promote stupidity, it demands it. In every way except its use of the actual term, this is a creationist book, but its authors are expecting that legislators and the courts will be too stupid to notice that, or to remember that the Supreme Court has declared teaching creationism an unconstitutional imposition of religion. As laws similar to Louisiana's resurface in other states next year, we can only hope that legislators choose not to live down to the low expectations of EE's authors.

I'd hope I wouldn't have to mention that evolution is in fact true, and that it's well supported by evidence and the scientific community, but unfortunately, with the state of things right now, I think I do have to say that. For a discussion of some of that evidence, take a look at a previous blog entry of mine, A (Somewhat) Brief Introduction to Evolution.

While the current mantra of ID proponents seems to be to teach the strengths and weaknesses of evolution, you have to question their motives when they say that. On the face of it, it doesn't sound too bad. Science is not a dogmatic acceptance of the teachings of your mentors - it's all about questioning the world around you and looking for evidence. Questioning the weaknesses of a theory is where you find the interesting discoveries. However, creationists tend to single out evolution with this approach. Currently, our understanding of gravity is a whole lot worse than our understanding of evolution, but you don't hear an outcry for schools to teach Intelligent Falling, or to point out the strengths and weaknesses of that theory. You also have to question just what will be taught, considering what creationists suppose are weaknesses of evolutionary theory. When you still have people asking 'what use is half an eye?', you can just imagine what they'd want the science curriculum to be. I'm not saying the review panel is that ignorant, but consider that it will be up to individual teachers to present these weaknesses.

Anyway, if you live in Texas, or if you just promote reality based education, there are several resources for this issue:

*I use the word nominally here, because it's more of a propaganda institute than anything else.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Website Update - Updated Religious Essays Section

I've updated the Religious Essays section of this site. Previously, the essays were available only as .pdf files. I figured that that might discourage some people from reading them. So, I've made the individual essays all available as regular HTML files. Hopefully, this will make them more accessible to people who don't want to download .pdf files. I did keep the .pdf file that's a collection of all the essays, but I changed the page layout slightly. I converted it to a 5.5"x8.5" sheet. That's half the size of a regular letter size paper, which works out just right for using a duplexer to print 4 pages per sheet of paper, and folding all the sheets in half to make a little booklet out of it (and yes, I realize I'm probably the only person that's ever going to do that). I also added two new essays, which are adaptations of blog entries I wrote recently, Further Musings on the Soul and Pascal's Wager, as well as expanding the essay, Problems with a Day-Age Interpretation of Genesis, using some information I wrote for a comment on a blog entry.


Selling Out