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NCSE Evolution Education Update for 2009/01/23

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(by NCSE Deputy Director Glenn Branch)

Dear Friends of NCSE,

The battle over teaching evolution in Texas is raging as the state board of
education prepares to take a preliminary vote on a revised set of state
science standards.  Darwin Day is approaching!  And a new website urges
policymakers to do right by Texas schoolchildren:  Teach Them Science.


"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," as The New York Times
(January 22, 2009) reports.  The stakes are high:  the standards will
determine what is taught in Texas's public school science classrooms and
the content of the biology textbooks approved for use in the state for the
next ten years.  And the threat is real: seven members of the
fifteen-member board, including its chair, avowed creationist Don McLeroy,
are regarded as in favor of attempts to undermine the teaching of evolution
in Texas schools.  Moreover, as the Times observes, "The debate here has
far-reaching consequences; Texas is one of the nations biggest buyers of
textbooks, and publishers are reluctant to produce different versions of
the same material."

The old standards for high school biology include a requirement that reads,
"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."  In 2003, the
"strengths and weaknesses" language was selectively applied by members of
the board attempting to dilute the treatment of evolution in the biology
textbooks then under consideration, and so it was clear that the "strengths
and weaknesses" language would be a matter of contention when the standards
were next revised.  The revised standards currently under consideration
replace the "strengths and weaknesses" language with "The student is
expected to analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical
evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing" --
a revision that was widely praised by scientific, education, and religious
freedom groups.

On January 21, 2009, the first day of the board's January meeting, the
board heard testimony about the science standards from dozens of witnesses,
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 omitted the "strengths and weaknesses" language.  The
Times quoted her as explaining, "The phrase 'strengths and weaknesses' has
been spread nationally as a slogan to bring creationism in through the back
door."  And the Dallas Morning News (January 21, 2009) added, "Scott warned
the board that if it adopts the requirement, it will lead to textbooks that
contain pseudoscience and inaccuracies as publishers try to appease the
state and get their books sold in Texas.  'If you require textbook
publishers to include bad science, you're going to have problems,' she
said, asserting that Texas students will suffer as a result."

Kevin Fisher, a past president of the Science Teachers Association of
Texas, told the Times that the attempt to retain the "strengths and
weaknesses" language is "an attempt to bring false weaknesses into the
classroom in an attempt to get students to reject evolution."  And David M.
Hillis, a distinguished professor of biology at the University of Texas,
Austin, concurred, adding, "Every single thing they are representing as a
weakness is a misrepresentation of science ... These are science
skeptics.  These are people with religious and political agendas."  Ryan
Valentine of the Texas Freedom Network worried about the consequence for
Texas's image:  "A misguided crusade to include phony weaknesses in the
theory of evolution in our science curriculum will send a message to the
rest of the nation that science takes a back seat to politics in Texas,"
the Morning News reported him as saying.

Also testifying were people, including a representative of the Discovery
Institute, who supported the "strengths and weaknesses" language, often
betraying the connection between the language and creationism.  A teacher
quoted by the Morning News, for example, said, "As a creationist, I don't
want creationism taught in science classes, but this proposal [to drop the
strengths and weaknesses rule] smacks of censorship."  A mechanical
engineer quoted by the Times said, echoing a rhetorical theme prominent in
creationist circles since the Scopes era, "Textbooks today treat it as more
than a theory, even though its evidence has been found to be stained with
half-truths, deception and hoaxes."  (As NCSE's Glenn Branch and Louise S.
Mead recently wrote, "[William Jennings Bryan's] position -- that it is
okay to teach about evolution but only as something conjectural or
speculative, as 'just a theory' and not as a fact -- continues to resonate.")

On the second day of the board's meeting, there is expected to be a first
vote on whether to adopt the standards, followed by a second vote on the
third day, January 23, 2009.  After a period for further public comment, a
final vote are expected, but not guaranteed, to occur at the board's March
26-27, 2009, meeting.  There may not be any changes in the positions of the
board members, however; the Morning News observed in its report on the
first day of the hearing, "Most State Board of Education members appeared
to have their minds made up."  But groups supporting the integrity of
science education in Texas -- including Teach Them Science, Texas Citizens
for Science, the Texas Freedom Network, the 21st Century Science Coalition,
the Texas Academy of Science, the Academy of Medicine, Engineering and
Science of Texas, the Texas Science Education Leadership Association, and
the Science Teachers Association of Texas -- are sure to continue to fight.

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 is
blogging, and posting photographs, on the Houston Chronicle's Evo.Sphere
blog, the Texas Freedom Network is blogging on its TFN Insider blog, NCSE's
Joshua Rosenau is 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.  And NCSE will, of course, have a
report on the proceedings of the second and third days of the board's
meeting as soon as possible.

For the story in The New York Times, visit:

For the old standards and the proposed standards (both PDF), visit:

For the story in the Dallas Morning News, visit:\

For Branch and Mead's article (PDF), visit:

For the various blog reports, visit:

For the Texas Education Agency's minutes and audio recordings pages, visit:

And for NCSE's previous coverage of events in Texas, visit:


Less than a month remains before Darwin Day!  And since 2009 is the
bicentennial of Darwin's birth and the sesquicentennial of the publication
of On the Origin of Species, it promises to be a particularly exciting
celebration.  Colleges and universities, schools, libraries, museums,
churches, civic groups, and just plain folks across the country -- and the
world -- are preparing to celebrate Darwin Day, on or around February 12,
in honor of the life and work of Charles Darwin.  These events provide a
marvelous opportunity not only to celebrate Darwin's birthday but also to
engage in public outreach about science, evolution, and the importance of
evolution education.  NCSE encourages its members and friends to attend,
participate in, and even organize Darwin Day events in their own
communities.  To find a local event, check the websites of local
universities and museums and the registry of Darwin Day events maintained
by the Darwin Day Celebration website.  (And don't forget to register your
own event with the Darwin Day Celebration website!)

And with Darwin Day comes the return of Evolution Weekend!  Hundreds of
congregations all over the country and around the world are taking part in
Evolution Weekend, February 13-15, 2009, by presenting sermons and
discussion groups on the compatibility of faith and science.  Michael
Zimmerman, the initiator of the project, writes, "Evolution Weekend is an
opportunity for serious discussion and reflection on the relationship
between religion and science. One important goal is to elevate the quality
of the discussion on this critical topic -- to move beyond sound bites.  A
second critical goal is to demonstrate that religious people from many
faiths and locations understand that evolution is sound science and poses
no problems for their faith.  Finally, as with The Clergy Letter itself,
Evolution Weekend makes it clear that those claiming that people must
choose between religion and science are creating a false dichotomy."  At
last count, 875 congregations in all fifty states (and fourteen foreign
countries) were scheduled to hold Evolution Weekend events.

Writing on the Beacon Broadside blog in February 2008, NCSE's deputy
director Glenn Branch asked, "Why make such a point of celebrating Darwin
Day, as opposed to, say, Einstein Day on March 14?"  He answered, "A
crucial reason, particularly in the United States, is to counteract the
public climate of ignorance of, skepticism about, and hostility toward
evolution," citing a number of current attempts to undermine the teaching
of evolution in the public schools.  The onslaught continues in 2009, with
struggles in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and elsewhere.  "So
thats a fine reason," as Branch recommended in 2008, "for you to devote a
day -- at the museum or in a pew, at a lecture hall or in a movie theater,
out in the park or indoors on a badminton court -- to learn about, discuss,
and celebrate Darwin and his contributions to science, and to demonstrate
your support of teaching evolution in the public schools."

For the Darwin Day Celebration website's registry of events, visit:

For information about Evolution Weekend, visit:

For Branch's Darwin Day 2008 blog post, visit:


As the Texas state board of education prepared to vote on a revised set of
state science standards, two organizations -- one secular, one religious --
joined forces to produce a new website, Teach Them Science, in order to
advocate for a twenty-first-century science education for the students in
Texas's public schools.  Sponsored by the Center for Inquiry Austin and the
Clergy Letter Project, the Teach Them Science website is intended to
empower parents, educators, and concerned citizens to rally in support of
the new standards, which treat evolution as the central and unifying
principle of the biological sciences that it is.  As NCSE previously
reported, however, the current draft of the standards will be considered by
the state board of education at its January 21-23, 2009, meeting, and it is
likely that the creationist faction on the board will seek to restore
language about "strengths and weaknesses" that was misused, in 2003, to try
to undermine the treatment of evolution in biology textbooks submitted for
adoption in Texas.

In a January 15, 2009, press release, Clare Wuellner, the executive
director of CFI Austin, explained, "We knew people would care if they just
knew what was happening.  But too many people didn't know about this
incredibly important issue.  We decided to do something about it."  As the
press release observes, the Teach Them Science website "explains how
curriculum is developed in Texas, provides a basic but accurate
understanding of science, explains in simple terms why teaching evolution
is essential to an effective science curriculum, explains the flaws in the
SBOE's politically-motivated changes to the science curriculum, explains
how teaching the alleged 'strengths and weaknesses' would actually teach
students to think unscientifically, motivates parents, teachers and
concerned citizens to become involved in the determination of what our
children are taught, [and] gives the public tools to take action."

The Teach The Science website also emphasizes the fact that plenty of
people of faith accept evolution, contrary to the misconception that
evolution is intrinsically at odds with religious belief.  "More than
12,000 clergy members can't be wrong," Michael Zimmerman, founder of the
Clergy Letter Project, quipped in the same press release, adding, "Kids
deserve to learn about the best scientists have to offer, and religion has
nothing to fear."  In supporting a scientifically appropriate and
pedagogically responsible treatment of evolution in Texas's public schools,
Teach Them Science joins Texas Citizens for Science, the Texas Freedom
Network, the 21st Century Science Coalition, the Texas Academy of Science,
the Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas, the Texas
Science Education Leadership Association, and the Science Teachers
Association of Texas.

For the Teach Them Science website, visit:

For the Teach Them Science press release, visit:

For information about the sponsors of Teach Them Science, visit:

For the websites of the organizations supporting science educaiton in
Texas, visit:

And for NCSE's previous coverage of events in Texas, visit:


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Thanks for reading! And as always, be sure to consult NCSE's web site:

where you can always find the latest news on evolution education and
threats to it.


Glenn Branch
Deputy Director
National Center for Science Education, Inc.
420 40th Street, Suite 2
Oakland, CA 94609-2509
510-601-7203 x305
fax: 510-601-7204

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