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Louisiana, We Have a Problem

by Steven Novella, Jan 19 2009

In my recent post on the battle between science and creationism, I noted that the current strategy of the intelligent design (ID)/creationism movement is to push for academic freedom. They don’t really care about academic freedom, they just want to erode academic quality standards so as create a back door through which they can squeeze their religious beliefs into science classrooms. This strategy is playing out in Louisiana.

Last year Louisiana governor Bobby Jindahl signed into law an academic freedom bill that was part of this strategy. Now, just last week, the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education passed the Louisiana Science Education Ac. Casey Luskin, one of the worst apologists for anti-science over at the ID “think tank”, the Discovery Institute, characterized this bill as a “victory for Louisiana students and teachers.”  If Luskin in happy with this bill, we should be very worried.

I don’t think anyone is actually fooled by what is going on. Just about every article I read about the topic characterized the bill as a “thinly veiled” attempt to get creationism into public schools. The bill ostensibly is designed to allow school teachers to use outside material to teach controversial topics in science class. The bill initially contained language specifically banning the teaching of ID or the teaching of religious belief as science. However, advocates of the law pressured the school board to remove these protections, and the law was passed on January 11th without them.

Of, the fallacy of the academic freedom justification for such education policy is that it deliberately confuses issues of quality standards with those of freedom. The reason for having a curriculum and approved teaching materials is so that a minimum standard of quality can be maintained. ID proponents attempt to justify the erosion of educational standards with two arguments – that the current standards are biased and they would rather have no standards than biased standards, and that teaching controversial ideas will improve critical thinking in students.

The first claim is simply a fabrication, and part of their overall strategy. ID proponents are attempting to characterize the methodological naturalism on which modern science is based as biased against them, because it does not allow them to say “and then a miracle happened” whenever it is convenient for them. They don’t want to play by the rules of science because they cannot succeed by those rules. They want to introduce theories, such as ID, that do not meet the minimum criteria for being scientific – specifically that a scientific theory must be testable.  So they whine that the rules are unfair, and have developed a great deal of propaganda designed to mislead the public about how science works.

It really does come down to that – science has discovered certain things about the world that doe not accord with their ideology. Therefore they seek to twist the process of science to their ends, even if that destroys the institutions of science altogether. When you change the rules of science, it isn’t science anymore.

The second argument – that children will learn critical thinking by hearing controversial issues, is a more complex question. I agree with this partly in theory, with some caveats. My personal experience is that I learned a great deal about science and critical thinking when I was high-school age by learning about and debunking creationism. This was almost entirely on my own time and driven by my personal interest. As a skeptic, I definitely believe that critical thinking is sharpened by learning about pseudoscience, and specifically how to tell the difference between science and pseudoscience.

Also – I do not agree with teaching students a sanitized version of science. All science is controversy, to an extent. Students should be taught the messy process of science, with all it’s uncertainty and missteps.

But doing this well is tricky, and here come the caveats. Teaching science (or any topic) also has to be age-appropriate. Grade school students are taught, as hey should be, a very simplified version of science and the findings of science. They should be pushed to the edge of their understanding, always peering at the next level of depth, but they need to be given material they can understand. For example, recently my 9 year-old daughter was taught in her science class that there are three states of matter. Actually, there are many more than that (5-8 or more, depending on what you count). I don’t think my daughter needed to hear about Bose-Einstein condensates, however. To test the waters I did tell her that there were more states of matter, and specifically mentioned plasma. It seemed to confuse her a bit, as she wanted to concentrate on learning the material presented in class. But I do think that perhaps it would be better to teach students at that level that there are three main (or classical) states of matter, but there are other more exotic states that they can learn about when they are older. That way they can focus on an appropriate level of detail, but they have a whiff that there is deeper knowledge to be had also.

The point of this tangent is that we have to be thoughtful in deciding how to present scientific material to students to optimize learning. They have to master the basics first, and then go deeper as their understanding matures. Part of this is exposing them to more controversy and uncertainty. ID proponents, howver, are not trying to optimize science education. They are trying to confuse students by creating uncertainty even where it does not exist.

Further, the context in which controveries are presented is very important. Creationism should not be presented to students as a viable scientific alternative to evolution. It isn’t, and therefore any such presentation will confuse students about the nature of science. However, at the high-school level it would be appropriate to teach students (and this is already done to some extent) about false ideas that were discarded in the past, and even modern pseudosciences and why they are not science. I don’t mind teaching students about creationism if it is used as an example of pseudoscience. But that is not the same thing as teaching them creationism as science.

And of course this abstract discussion about how science is best taught needs to be put in to the real world context of the creationism movement. In a perfect world perhaps we could be a bit more liberal with the standards. However, we live in a society with dedicated, active, and well-funded anti-scientific groups looking to exploit any opening to weaken science education and indocrinate students. Even though teaching about creationism may be a good learning experience for some student, I don’t trust every school district and every science teacher to respect the subtle distinction. In fact it is certain that such wiggle-room would be used by some to teach creationism as science.

That is what the academic freedom strategy is all about. Creationists and ID proponents (aka Cdesign proponentsists) are trying to find the most reasonable-sounding and legally viable arguments they can to crack open the door to the public schools – and then shove and much of their propaganda and anti-science through that crack as they can.

The DiscoTute, for example, has published a book called Explore Evolution. It is their alternative text chock full of nonsense and distortions. That book is a tangible manifestation of exactly what they want to shove through the cracks. We can now look for it to show up in Louisiana science classrooms.

The battle continues.

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29 Responses to “Louisiana, We Have a Problem”

  1. Pete says:

    I always say that we should let them teach – as long as we include all the other creation theories – FSM, the Hindu creation, Last Tuesdayism. Show the kids that there is no end to the wrong (and explicitly state them as wrong) ideas.

  2. Nicole says:

    Your experiment with the states of matter is an interesting one. How many elementary school teachers, after all, know that there are more than three states of matter? It seems to me that those well versed in the sciences do not go back to teach younger aged school children, and teachers are sometimes asked to teach science when they are not comfortable with it themselves. Science education suffers at an early age due to this disconnect, even before something like creationism or ID is introduced. Scientists can do much to help alleviate this with more outreach geared towards schoolchildren and their teachers.

    Oy, how did I get back up on this soapbox? Sorry :-)

  3. Mike says:

    Once again an excellent article but I fear that you risk falling into the same trap as the Creationists. By trying to proscribe certain parts of the curriculum i.e. creationism you are merely doing the same as them (where they try to proscribe evolution).

    Surely, teaching should be left to the professionals as to the best way to deliver the subject and if so then you will have to trust the teaching profession to get it right. OK some may choose teach creationism in their classes but hopefully, the professional regulation mechanisms will weed them out (because the students will perform poorly in public exams)

    This debate has been going on in the UK for some time (with a government keen to set the curriculum and the profession resisting) Being the child of a teacher and married to one I say go with the teachers!

  4. Mastriani says:

    “My personal experience is that I learned a great deal about science and critical thinking when I was high-school age by learning about and debunking creationism. This was almost entirely on my own time and driven by my personal interest. As a skeptic, I definitely believe that critical thinking is sharpened by learning about pseudoscience, and specifically how to tell the difference between science and pseudoscience.”

    Although I agree with the greatest majority of author’s points in this article, this would be the most prominent issue, and seems to have been a touch breezed over.

    There are actually two major issues presented here, in my opinion:

    1. Education is not a “for school” only process. It is an individual responsibility; for the duration of any individual’s existence.

    2. Not mentioned by the author directly, but should be prominently addressed is the fact that what passes for parenting in this country is a number of abject states. Parents need to ascertain their child’s level of ability and interest and push their child(ren) into the critical thinking/skeptical processes.

    “All science is controversy, to an extent. Students should be taught the messy process of science, with all it’s uncertainty and missteps.”

    This is the reason that this site and the authors who publish articles here should be required reading. My personal thanks to all the contributors.

    At the end, religion is far from gone, in practice, policy or influence. For my own, although I can’t see where it ameliorates any society or individual, it seems it will, however morbidly, continue.

  5. catgirl says:

    If students were truly taught how to genuinely evaluate scientific data in the right way, then there would be no creationists. They don’t want to ‘teach the controversy’; they want their own side to be taught with much lower scientific standards than the theory of evolution. If they want to emphasize that evolution is only a theory, then they have to also emphasize that gravity is only a theory. Better yet, they could just teach students what theory actually means as a scientific definition.

  6. Max says:

    Bobby Jindal is a Creationist, right? How did he graduate with honors in biology and get accepted into Harvard Medical School?

  7. Max says:

    Will the Louisiana pseudo-Science Education Act be followed by a Louisiana pseudo-History Education Act?

  8. Mike – I have to disagree with you. Professions have standards. A doctor cannot do whatever they want and call it medicine. They can be held to a standard of care (although this is under attack also), and there are mechanisms to maintain that.

    Teachers cannot just teach whatever they want in the public schools. Private schools – go right ahead, but don’t expect to be credentialed unless you meet those standards. Public schools use tax money, and the public educational system is considered a public trust. Individual teacher cannot simply use that to indoctrinate children into their own beliefs.

    We can let the professionals decide how to teach, and also some of the details of what to teach. But they cannot set the curriculum.

    Just like generals cannot decide with whom to go to war.

    And banning creationism is absolutely not the same as banning evolution. Evolution is a science and should be taught as science. Creationism is a religious belief wrapped in pseudoscience and should not be taught as science.

  9. MadScientist says:

    @Mike -

    You’re telling us that students should suffer because they have religious imbeciles for teachers? You’re saying it’s all OK because some people in the future might decide that the teachers were worthless after all because of the large population of obviously maleducated people? What you’re saying really doesn’t make any sense. Besides, if the whole creationist nonsense takes hold in the schools, how can you expect future governments to ever reject it and get rid of the bad teachers? Ignorance is self-perpetuating and simply walking away from it only encourages it to propagate.

  10. “Surely, teaching should be left to the professionals as to the best way to deliver the subject and if so then you will have to trust the teaching profession to get it right.”

    I’d agree that professionals might be allowed to decide the best *way* to deliver the subject, but should not be allowed to dictate the subject, as with substituting creationism for actual science. As for trust, some things are too important to rely on trust, hence we have regulations, standards, ethics, etc. Education is far too important to just let teachers have a go at it and hope for the best.

    Creationism isn’t science and has zero place in any science curriculum.

  11. Dr. T says:

    Some commenters believe that educational professionals are both. I teach medical school and sent two daughters to public schools, so I have much experience with educational professionals. Most are not professional and most know little about education. My experience with high school science teachers has been dismal: most do not truly understand the scientific method. They can not distinguish between science and technology. (I’ve judged high school science fairs, and the teachers approved projects that lacked science but had neat technology.) My daughter’s chemistry teacher lacks understanding of her subject, and she admits she never wanted to teach chemistry.

    It is this lack of professionalism among our educators that allowed creationism into the curricula. The lack of competence among our educators allows so many students to graduate without understanding the scientific method and without being able to think critically and reason logically. We continue to graduate students who employ magical thinking and who will fall victim to purveyors of pseudoscience and quackery.

    I see little hope of rectifying this situation. The vast majority of the public (including public school teachers) are magical thinkers. That’s what gets passed on from generation to generation. Only a handful of each generation are skeptics, and most of those learned skepticism on their own.

  12. Dr. T: “It is this lack of professionalism among our educators that allowed creationism into the curricula.”

    What allowed creationism into schools was political pressure from above, usually a school board salted with creationists, not any action by the teachers themselves, though like-minded teachers would welcome it.

  13. Bill says:

    Devil’s Advocate: “What allowed creationism into schools was political pressure from above, usually a school board salted with creationists, not any action by the teachers themselves, though like-minded teachers would welcome it.”

    “What allowed creationism into schools” is actually a complicated mix of school boards, teachers, state legislators, parents and special interest groups. Each individual community and state has it’s own peculiar mix of these elements in differing proportions.

    As an example that political pressure from conservative school boards doesn’t always work, we don’t have to look any farther than Dover, where the teachers pushed back and won.

  14. John Powell says:

    How about some “academic freedom” in Sunday schools? Let’s teach evolution there!

  15. John Powell,

    Good idea. ;) Although I alway stand by the adage of, “If you keep religion out of school, I promise to keep thinking out of church.” I am constantly dismayed at how poorly people even understand things like the scientific word “Theory”. Or how poor their overall understanding of evolution is. Dr. Plait had a post about this very subject on his Discover magazine blog, and the commenters there who would support Jindhal’s ilk were rank and file repeating ill formed ideas about evolution and even basic science…

    I know that I downloaded the “Here be Dragons” video and made copies and handed it out to science teachers at my last parent teacher conference. Most of them were more confused by the video I think than appreciative of it. Sadly, I think the confusion was because America’s teachers are not trained for the modern world. I suppose 1950′s techniques are still supposed to work…

  16. Max says:

    I thought old techniques were rigorous and new ones are watered-down touchy-feely. A person who doesn’t know what a theory is shouldn’t teach science.

  17. Sion says:

    How about… let them teach creationism, but with the proviso that they have to tell the kids that it is utter nonsense.

  18. Jacquie says:

    This is really depressing.

    After spending the first twelve years of my life in Central New York and New Jersey, I attended public school in Northeast Louisiana from 7th grade through the end of high school (I graduated seven years ago). I feel like I had a pretty good high school education generally, but this was largely thanks to the gifted and talented program and some fantastic individual teachers.

    My 10th grade biology teacher had no qualms announcing to us that she didn’t agree with the chapter of our book that discussed evolution and therefore wouldn’t teach us anything out of that chapter beyond the names of some stages of human evolution.

    My 7th grade history teacher told us that “for the most part, the slaves loved it.”

    We had an abstinence-only speaker come to our high school and say, “Some girls come up to me and say, ‘My mom put me on birth control!’ Great, so now you’ll end up infertile or with cancer. Thanks, Mom!”

    Believe me, I would love to believe that teachers can be trusted to do their jobs and that “teachers cannot just teach whatever they want in the public schools,” but teachers are not in a bubble insulated from the general culture (and with the way people in Louisiana stick around generation after generation, a lot of the teachers are inevitably going to be people who went through the same school system themselves). And when you think about the fact that most of the time, the only ones in the classroom are the students and the teacher, it would take a student complaining to even indicate that there was a problem, and who knows how far the complaint would get anyway if the school board were sympathetic to the teacher’s views? Bill is right that there is a complicated mix of causes, and we can’t assume teachers are not part of the problem because they are “professionals” with standards and tax money. Not all of this comes from activist political organizations trying to force creationism into public schools.

    This is a serious, deep-rooted, and complicated problem.

  19. Great post, Steve. I did a similar one last night about how creationism has evolved over the years. It seems our pals at the Disco Institute are now pushing a re-labeled version of ID called “front-loaded evolution”. Be on the lookout for it. Here’s my blog post outlining this in more detail…

    http://skepticalteacher.wordpress.com/2009/01/23/creationism-is-evolving-again/

    Also, just to illustrate in a somewhat humorous manner what could happen when “academic freedom” (as creationists define the term) is extended to its logical conclusion…

    http://www.allianceforscience.org/academic/Free-for-All.html

  20. David Paterson says:

    Evolution is a theory, not a fact.

    Repeat for clarity: Evolution is a theory not a fact.

    No one was there over a period of billions of years to observe one species slowly evolving into another.

    .

    If the educational system is going to teach evolution as if it were a fact instead of a theory, which it clearly does, then the creationists have every right to demand equal time.

    If it was clearly taught as a theory, that could be in error, and in fact may be in error given the many gaps in the fossil record, perhaps this whole debate would take a different course.

    I am not deeply religious, and am not arguing in favor of creationism. Perhaps the origin of life will always be a mystery.

    ___________________________

    Perhaps it should always be a mystery.

  21. “Evolution is a theory, not a fact. Repeat for clarity: Evolution is a theory not a fact.”

    Peat for clarity – evolution is a fact and enjoys mountains of evidence in support of it, to the degree that no reasonable person could deny it.

    “No one was there over a period of billions of years to observe one species slowly evolving into another.”

    Irrelevant. It isn’t necessary to eyewitness billions of years of the evolutionary process to know it is a fact. Evolution is being witnessed as we speak. For just one of a million data, google up Professor Richard Lenski, Michigan State University, who has ‘witnessed evolution’ in a 20 yrs plus long ongoing lab experiment involving over 40,000 generations of e coli bacteria.

    “If the educational system is going to teach evolution as if it were a fact instead of a theory, which it clearly does, then the creationists have every right to demand equal time.”

    It is a fact and that fact doesn’t change with your refusal to accept it. Even if it were ‘just a theory’, as your limited knowledge defines it, it makes absolutely no sense that a non-scientific theory that enjoys zero supporting evidence is worthy of equal time. That is moot, however. The theory of evolution has long ago been established as fact.

    “If it was clearly taught as a theory, that could be in error, and in fact may be in error given the many gaps in the fossil record, perhaps this whole debate would take a different course.”

    That IS how it’s taught. The main tenets of evolution are not in doubt or dispute, but subsections of it remain in question as research continues. You’ve misapprehended the situation.

    “I am not deeply religious, and am not arguing in favor of creationism.”

    You are self-deluded or lying. You just said creationism has every right to equal time.

    “Perhaps the origin of life will always be a mystery.”

    Suspicions of your scientific ignorance are now confirmed. Evolution has nothing to do with ‘the origin of life’ (biogenesis). Evolution is about the origin of species.

    “Perhaps it should always be a mystery.”

    Only religion elects ignorance, since the facts so often prove unpalatable.

  22. David Paterson says:

    Devil’s Advocate:

    A debate based partly on insults is of little value to the issues.

    And yes, there is a lot of evidence to support evolutionary theory, and also a lot of questions which need to be answered.

    —————-

    One main issue is the large gaps in the fossil record:

    “Given the fact of evolution, one would expect the fossils to document a gradual steady change from ancestral forms to the descendants. But this is not what the paleontologist finds. Instead, he or she finds gaps in just about every phyletic series.”
    -Ernst Mayr-Professor Emeritus, Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, What Evolution Is, 2001, p.14.

    “What is missing are the many intermediate forms hypothesized by Darwin, and the continual divergence of major lineages into the morphospace between distinct adaptive types.”
    -Carroll, Robert L.,
    “Towards a new evolutionary synthesis,”
    in Trends in Evolution and Ecology 15(1):27-32, 2000, p. 27.

    “There is no need to apologize any longer for the poverty of the fossil record. In some ways it has become almost unmanageably rich, and discovery is out-pacing integration…The fossil record nevertheless continues to be composed mainly of gaps.”
    -George, T. Neville,
    “Fossils in Evolutionary Perspective,”
    Science Progress, vol. 48 January 1960, pp. 1-3.

    “It is interesting that all the cases of gradual evolution that we know about from the fossil record seem to involve smooth changes without the appearance of novel structures and functions.”
    -Wills, C., Genetic Variability, 1989, p. 94-96.

    “Instead of finding the gradual unfolding of life, what geologists of Darwin’s time, and geologists of the present day actually find is a highly uneven or jerky record; that is, species appear in the sequence very suddenly, show little or no change during their existence in the record, then abruptly go out of the record. And it is not always clear, in fact it’s rarely clear, that the descendants were actually better adapted than their predecessors. In other words, biological improvement is hard to find.”
    -Raup, David M., “Conflicts Between Darwin and Paleontology,” Bulletin, Field Museum of Natural History, vol. 50, 1979, p. 23.

    ——————-

    Another issue is the fact that evolution postulates that increasingly complex life forms happen by accident. Given the immense complexity of the human brain, it is very difficult to see how it could be an accident, or more correctly, a series of billions of accidents without the billions of mistakes that go with it.

    The human brain has 50–100 billion neurons and around 100 trillion synaptic connections.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_brain

    100 trillion synaptic connections, they all work together, and its just an accident. From a logical perspective, this is clearly absurd.

    To support a theory that at its central core postulates that staggering biological complexity, into the trillions, happens by accident makes as much sense as the guy with the white beard doing it all in a week.

    And 40,000 generations of e coli bacteria has nothing to do with the incredible complexity of the human brain. And nothing to do with evolutionary theory because a more complex new species was not produced.

    The fact that you would use that to support evolution indicates the trouble evolution has with increasing knowledge about the fossil record and the immense complexity of human DNA, a 6 foot long molecule once it is uncoiled, that has over 3 billion chemical base pairs.

    As many base pairs as there are words in 4000 bibles. All, according to Darwin, just accidents building on accidents.

    Again, I am not deeply religious, and am not arguing in favor of creationism.

    The reason evolution is under attack is because as a theory there are many problems. Darwin theorized a gradual change from one species to the next, yet these are for the most part absent in the fossil record.

    Normally a theory that is not fully supported by the facts, AND from a logical perspective is clearly just not logically believable, given what we know today about the staggering complexity of the human brain and human genome, would die a natural death.

    The fact that you have to resort to insults and e coli experiments, without addressing these issues, is indicative of the problems supporters of evolutionary theory are having with increasing scientific knowledge that contradicts it.

  23. Dude, don’t pretend these issues haven’t been addressed. This is the comment section of a cable TV science show. Every single point you raise is well-addressed in the literature. This is not the place.

    And it now becomes fact too that you were lying, and are in fact just another creationist playing the “I’m not pushing religion, I’m advocating fairness” card.

    I recommend you continue to choose ignorance, willful and otherwise, and enjoy the irony of going extinct by dint of the natural selection of better ideas.

  24. David Paterson says:

    There is little point in continuing a conversation with someone who chooses insults instead of issues, and refuses to document his viewpoint.

    Many discussion boards eventually prevent people who do this from participating in the debate.

  25. Max says:

    Many discussion boards prevent people from hijacking threads. The topic here is the Creationism movement’s push for academic freedom as a way “to erode academic quality standards so as to create a back door through which they can squeeze their religious beliefs into science classrooms.”

  26. Max says:

    We joke that each transitional form fills one gap and creates two, but this actually illustrates how scientific discoveries increase knowledge while raising new questions.

  27. Clowns like this aren’t out to ‘discuss’ anything. They’re simply internet godboys trolling about with their DiscoTute media kits on how to put out creationist propaganda sitting next to the keyboard.

  28. Winston Smith says:

    Max said:

    The topic here is the Creationism movement’s push for academic freedom as a way “to erode academic quality standards so as to create a back door through which they can squeeze their religious beliefs into science classrooms.”

    ——————-

    Religious beliefs, unsupported by fact, or logically impossible, do not belong in the classroom.

    The same is true for theories that no longer are fully supported by fact, and are from a logical viewpoint, simply incredulous.

    A six foot long molecule, with as many base pairs as there are words in 4000 bibles, and its all just billions of accidents piled onto each other.

    The logical fallacy here is that an extremely long period of time, billions of years, allows for these ‘accidents’ to first of all continually create something from nothing, and then what comes from nothing builds biological structures of such dazzling complexity that we still don’t fully understand or even fully map their workings.

    The idea that given enough time, accidents into the billions or trillions, will create something that we could never create ourselves with our level of technology today.

    The human brain dwarfs the biggest super computer, which takes teams of engineers years, perhaps decades to design and build.

    But the brain is just an accident, no wait, a trillion accidents all piled onto each other.

    The creationists are wrong to attribute this to god.

    Darwin was wrong to say it is all just an accident.

    In the real world, accidents always are destructive and produce broken and useless parts. Only in evolutionary theory do accidents, trillions of them, magically produce structures of dazzling complexity.

    By supporting evolutionary theory, you have given up a belief in god, and replaced it with a belief in magic.

    Life is a mystery. Perhaps it should remain that way.