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Academic Freedom in Texas

by Steven Novella, Mar 23 2009

Texas remains a battleground state in the clash between creationists and scientists over science education standards. This week the Texas Board of Education will vote on whether or not to replace the “strengths and weaknesses” language that existed in the state’s science standards for the last 20 years, but was removed this Winter by a narrow 1-vote margin.

The battle represents the latest strategy of creationists to either hamper the teaching of evolution or introduce creationist ideas into the science classroom under the banner of “academic freedom.” The basic concept is that teachers, students, and school systems should have the academic freedom to: teach both the strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories, use outside (unapproved) material in teaching their classes, and believe whatever they wish without penalty.

Academic Freedom

The academic freedom strategy is getting some traction. Americans are generally for freedom, and the bills and language used to promote their agenda with “academic freedom” may appear innocuous on the surface. This strategy is specifically designed to skirt the constitutional barriers to teaching creationism in public schools, and has yet to be tested on constitutional grounds.

The claims of creationists (and for practical purposes I will use the term “creationist” to refer to anyone denying evolution to a significant degree, from young-earth creationists to intelligent design proponents who accept common descent) is that “Darwinists” are dogmatic, they wish to censor critical discussion of evolution and shield it from criticism.  They are, of course, completely wrong.

There are two major flaws with the academic freedom claim. The first is that it ignores the need for quality control in academia. School systems at every level have the right and responsibility to ensure quality education. This means that the teaching of science should acurately reflect the consensus of scientific opinion, should be based upon legitimate scientific methods, evidence, and thinking, and should teach how to think scientifically and critically. Schools have a right to demand that teachers teach approved curricula and that they do not teach their personal beliefs as science.

The second major flaw in the academic freedom concept is that it is unnecessary. It is already part of teaching science to teach the strengths and weakness of theories, reflect genuine controversies, and discuss alternative theories when legitimate ones exist. Science educators do not want to pretend that controversies do not exist, or to shield evolution or any other theory from legitimate criticism. That is a completely false charge – and it is the major premise of the academic freedom movement.

Promoters of academic freedom tend to be creationists who want to introduce false criticisms and controversies into science classroom – arguments that have not passed scientific muster or have been long rejected on logical or factual grounds. Having lost the scientific battle they wish to change the venue to the political arena and use politics to have their bad arguments introduced into science class. Their agenda is entirely transparent.

Christian’s Bill

Representative Wayne Christian has introduced bill HB 4224 in Texas, which will do two things. It will replace the “strengths and weaknesses” language in the Texas science standards, and Christian also decided to up the ante a bit. He also would include language that protects students and teachers who profess belief that is not in accord with accepted science.

Here is the specific change to the “strengths and weaknesses” language that was made a few months ago:

Old Language: “Analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information…”

New Language: “Analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing.”

Creationists argue that the new language would enforce teaching only the positives of evolution and would ban teaching any weaknesses. That is absurd, and reflects a misunderstanding of science. “Analyze and evaluate” requires addressing any evidence for or against a theory, and also any competing theories. What creationists don’t get is that there are no legitimate alternatives to evolution, and the arguments they put forward as weaknesses are psudoscientific rubbish.

However, they make the same claim back at scientists, saying that the “strengths and weaknesses” language, that has been in the Texas science standards for 20 years, has not resulted in the introduction of religious beliefs into the science classroom or hurt science education.  I do not know of any data from Texas itself, but surveys show that as many as 25% of high school science teachers devote class time to teaching creationism. Only 40% think that creationism has no place in science class – which means that perhaps the number would be as high as 60% if science standards and the law did not prohibit it. In other words – standards matter.

The second proposition of the bill – protecting students and teachers from being penalized for their beliefs – is a more complex issue. It all depends on how such a provision is construed and enforced. Christian claims that:

“They can be lazy if they want to . . . but teachers are still in charge of the grading system,”

That is cold comfort if teachers are also protected, meaning that teachers could decide that if a student gives a creationist answer on a test they may be graded as correct. Steven Schafersman, president of Texas Citizens for Science says:

“Students could claim they believe anything they wanted in anything in science and if that’s what they say, the teacher would be forced to give that student an A.  That’s how bad this bill is written.”

I have not seen the language of the bill itself (if anyone can find a link to the text, please put it in the comments). The details matter, in my opinion. I think such a provision is unnecessary, like the strengths and weaknesses language, and so such a bill would either be redundant or harmful, but not helpful.

I do think that students should be graded on what they know, not what they believe. So, for example, they should be required to demonstrate that they understand the course material on evolution. They do not have to state, however, that they in fact “believe” in evolution. But this is the way science class works now. I don’t remember ever being quizzed as to my beliefs.

Schafersman’s fear, shared by many scientists, is that the language will be applied in such a way that a student could give the answer “Godidit” to any science question and the teacher would be forced to give them an A. Or, a teacher could teach their personal religious beliefs as science and be protected from any mechanism of quality control. If the law does not do this – then what does it do? Why is it necessary?

There have been individual science teachers (at the college level, I am not aware of any at the high school level) who used “belief” as a measure of understanding – if a student truly understands the science then they will accept the conclusions, they argue. The consensus, however, appears to be against these few exceptions. I think the scientific and educational communities should be clear on this point – teachers impart knowledge and understanding, they don’t demand belief.

Conclusion

Clearly we are seeing the battleground on evolution and creationism over the next decade or so – “academic freedom” and its many incarnations. Once again the creationists are using false arguments to push their transparently religious agenda. Our job is to point this out clearly to the public, while highlighting the risks to quality science education.

Recommended Reading

10 Responses to “Academic Freedom in Texas”

  1. Dr N: “I have not seen the language of the bill itself (if anyone can find a link to the text, please put it in the comments).”

    ————————————-

    By: Christian H.B. No. 4224

    A BILL TO BE ENTITLED AN ACT relating to the teaching of science in public schools.

    BE IT ENACTED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF TEXAS:

    SECTION 1. Subchapter A, Chapter 28, Education Code, is amended by adding Section 28.0027 to read as follows:

    Sec. 28.0027. STUDY OF SCIENCE.

    (a) As part of the essential knowledge and skills of the science curriculum under Section 28.002(a)(1)(C), the State Board of Education by rule shall establish elements relating to instruction on the scientific hypotheses and theories for grades 6-12.

    (b) Instructional elements for scientific processes: the student uses critical thinking and scientific problem solving to make informed decisions. 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;

    (c) Students may be evaluated based upon their understanding of course materials, but no student in any public school or institution shall be penalized in any way because he or
    she subscribes to a particular position on scientific theories or hypotheses;

    (d) No governmental entity shall prohibit any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students to understand, analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations,
    including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information.

    SECTION 2. This Act applies beginning with the 2009-2010 school year.

    SECTION 3. This Act takes effect immediately if it receives a vote of two-thirds of all members elected to each house, as provided by Section 39, Article III, Texas Constitution. If this Act does not receive the vote necessary for immediate effect, this Act takes effect September 1, 2009.

  2. Thanks – that’s basically what has been discussed. He is replacing the exact “strengths and weaknesses” language. I think that Schafersman is correct in that the language of the bill is very ambiguous – “shall be penalized in any way because he or she subscribes”. What does that mean, exactly? Does that apply to test answers?

  3. tmac57 says:

    For any Texas residents concerned about these proposed amendments, here is a link for Contacting the Texas State Board of Education,and Analysis of Proposed Texas Educational Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) Amendments provided by National Center for Science Education: http://ncseweb.org/creationism/analysis/analysis-proposed-texas-educational-knowledge-skills-teks-am
    Thanks, Steve for blogging about this, and thanks to Eugenie Scott and the NCSE for providing us a way to combat this assault on science.

  4. MadScientist says:

    One problem is not so much that people can believe what they wish without penalty (that is mostly the case at present) but that teachers and publicly funded schools are allowed to teach nonsense, indeed encouraged to teach nonsense, without being reprimanded or penalized.

    Always be suspicious of proposed legislation vowing to ‘give’ you freedoms which you already enjoy.

    “Schools have a right to demand that teachers teach approved curricula and that they do not teach their personal beliefs as science.”

    You’re only half right on that one, Steve; schools have such a *duty*. If schools are negligent in that duty then they have utterly failed all noble purposes and serve only as a bastard minion to religion and other magical beliefs. Unfortunately there seems to be a general attitude that schools must please legislators or else be punished by a cut to budgets. Schools should be fighting for sufficient funds to carry out their duties rather than be behoven to legislators or indeed to actual legislation. The primary duty of a school is to educate, not to play silly games with imbeciles in power; although interacting with such imbeciles is inevitable, schools should not simply do as told in a misguided belief that their fate is determined and must be taken as is – that, after all, is the basis for religion.

  5. MadScientist says:

    Hmm… why didn’t the creationists call this the “New Science” just as there was a “New Math” in … ooo … was it the late 1950s? I remember Tom Lehrer’s “New Math” which had a line like this:

    “Well, six actually. But the idea is the important thing.”

    In Tom Lehrer’s introduction to that song:

    “… but in the new approach, as you know, the important thing is to understand what youre doing rather than to get the right answer”

    Unfortunately with the New Science, understanding what you are doing is implicitly forbidden.

    This move will bring US schools back to the bad old days of ‘Ipse Dixit’ which was common during Plato’s lifetime and yet absolutely abhorrent to Plato (except is special cases – there’s always an excuse). This is the attitude born of ignorance which science must forever struggle against.

  6. Courtney Franklin says:

    that’s a rather stupid act, since when have School science classes being a reasonable place for debating the strengths and weakness of a science? All I can say is that I’m glad I live in Australia. Fundies have almost no power down here and best to luck to you guys.

  7. Cambias says:

    I do think the worries about creationists somehow plunging us into a new Dark Age are overstated — and lend a slightly hysterical tone to this whole debate. Consider: when Creationism was the law of the land in the 19th Century, American scientists still managed to discover whole fields of knowledge.

    I’m not defending Creationism, mind, but I think attacking on the basis of truth rather than alarmist “SCARY CHRISTIAN” claims would be more generally effective.

  8. MadScientist says:

    @Cambias: Ignorance is terrifying; we should all be very scared about creationists’ intent to abolish science and perpetuate ignorance. This is not a case of simple scaremongering.

  9. It is important to discern between ‘Christians’ and far right-wing, politicized, creationist, fundamentalist Christians.

    It is even more important to understand that the latter set has designs on far more than just the public education system. That is just their entry point. Their plan is to eventually turn the US into a theocracy.

  10. Andrew says:

    Freedom at the expense of intelligence and field work. Are they kidding? Creationism doesn’t require and scientific understanding. Any empirical evidence. It’s a backdrop to the players on stage. You can’t infer from what you find in the field on scientific inquiry that God did this other than to say that God did this. Okay, then what? Ask a creationist that and all you get is one of their roundabout answers that all say the same thing. “God made everything, in this time frame, and we’ve been living off the benefits since.” End of story. Any details plucked out and strung together to form a narrative of development (for better or worse) is merely a trick of the eye, some smoke in a mirror, and Fairies are forever. If they’re so right, then biology aside, how do you explain the evolution of societies, of civilization itself. Are we living in huts anymore? I mean, the majority of us. Do we think in exactly the same way as our ancestors? Have not dozens and dozens of religions and perspectives of the spiritual come and gone and lingered and themselves transformed while holding onto certain traditions to maintain the fabric by which they are weaved? Wow, just like the human body. Didn’t just chuck out bacteria when we could finally see the suckers under a microscope and thought them yucky germs. (not that we could.) But did God? Did he go, “Oh, shuckles. Another thing they just weren’t supposed to find out about. I could get rid of–ahhh… Probably not. Then I’d have to reconfigure the whole biological structure of every single organism on the planet. Oh, well. All my followers will simply denounce them, then slowly over time come to accept it as a reality, until the next discovery reveals yet another hidden gem of how things get done. Damn you people! Just believe!”
    Anyways, if you believe in God, fine. Just don’t fog science over with absolute conjecture and be Big Brotherly selective in what science should reveal. Creationist text books are only missing the Faithspeak. And, if you believe in God, why are you basically saying he’s incapable of producing, by design or by default, organisms in such a way as evolution does. You’re outright dissing him.