NCSE Evolution Education Update for 2009/01/23
(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.
WHAT'S NEXT FOR TEXAS SCIENCE STANDARDS? "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: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/22/education/22texas.html For the old standards and the proposed standards (both PDF), visit: http://www.tea.state.tx.us/rules/tac/chapter112/ch112c.pdf http://www.tea.state.tx.us/teks/Sci_TEKS_9-12_Clean_010509.pdf For the story in the Dallas Morning News, visit: http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/latestnews/stories/012109dntexsciencecurriculum\ .192e26c.html For Branch and Mead's article (PDF), visit: http://www.springerlink.com/content/fr258627q2x3t378/fulltext.pdf For the various blog reports, visit: http://www.chron.com/commons/readerblogs/evosphere.html http://tfnblog.wordpress.com/ http://www.scienceblogs.com/tfk/ http://blogs.houstonpress.com/hairballs/political_animals/ For the Texas Education Agency's minutes and audio recordings pages, visit: http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/sboe/audio_archived.html http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/sboe/minutes_archived.html And for NCSE's previous coverage of events in Texas, visit: http://ncseweb.org/news/texas DARWIN DAY APPROACHES 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: http://www.darwinday.org/events/ For information about Evolution Weekend, visit: http://www.butler.edu/clergyproject/rel_evolution_weekend_2009.htm For Branch's Darwin Day 2008 blog post, visit: http://www.beaconbroadside.com/broadside/2008/02/dust-off-your-d.html TEACH THEM SCIENCE 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: http://www.teachthemscience.org/ For the Teach Them Science press release, visit: http://www.teachthemscience.org/press/2009-01-15 For information about the sponsors of Teach Them Science, visit: http://www.centerforinquiry.net/austin http://www.butler.edu/clergyproject/rel_evol_sun.htm For the websites of the organizations supporting science educaiton in Texas, visit: http://www.texscience.org http://www.tfn.org http://www.texasscientists.org http://www.texasacademyofscience.org http://tamest.org http://www.tsela.org http://www.statweb.org And for NCSE's previous coverage of events in Texas, visit: http://ncseweb.org/news/texas REMINDER If you wish to unsubscribe to these evolution education updates, please send: unsubscribe ncse-news firstname.lastname@example.org in the body of an e-mail to email@example.com. If you wish to subscribe, please send: subscribe ncse-news firstname.lastname@example.org again in the body of an e-mail to email@example.com. Thanks for reading! And as always, be sure to consult NCSE's web site: http://www.ncseweb.org where you can always find the latest news on evolution education and threats to it. Sincerely, 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 800-290-6006 firstname.lastname@example.org http://www.ncseweb.org Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design Is Wrong for Our Schools http://www.ncseweb.org/nioc Eugenie C. Scott's Evolution vs. Creationism http://www.ncseweb.org/evc NCSE's work is supported by its members. Join today! http://www.ncseweb.org/membership