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Texas science standards wrapup: Yup. Doomed.

by Phil Plait, Apr 01 2009

So the vote was made, the standards were set, and now the dust is settling. And what do we see?

I see Texas being the laughing stock on a world stage, finally replacing the Kansas fiasco from the 1990s.

First, a brief intro: this last week, after months of discussion, the Texas State Board of Education voted on the science standards, the baseline scientific knowledge students going through school should know. They vary across grade level, of course, and while there are national standards, states set their own. In general, they use experts in both science and education to advise them, and many states simply adopt or adapt the national standards (I have some experience here– for six years I developed educational activities based on NASA science, and did lot of work with educators and the standards).

States should have this right. The problem is, school boards can easily get packed with creationists. And that’s where we get back to Texas.

Ignoring or even outright denouncing the advice of experts, creationists have been trying in any way they can to attack evolution in the standards. The latest gambit has been what’s called a "strengths and weaknesses" clause in the standards, which sounds reasonable on the surface: when learning scientific theories, students should understand both where the theory is firm and where it needs work.

The problem, of course, is that creationists are using this as a wedge to lie about evolution. And yes, I mean lie: they hammer away with old, outdated, and easily-disproven ideas in an attempt to make evolution look weak. But let’s be clear: evolutionary ideas are the very basis of modern biology, and are as solid a fact as gravity is. If you think otherwise, you are wrong. This is not just a theory. It’s fact.

The good news from Texas is that the "strengths and weaknesses" clause did not pass the vote. The sad news is that science and reason did not prevail because they are right and the creationists had a change of heart: it didn’t pass because the vote was a tie, 7-7, and it needed a majority to win. So basically, the creationists lost by forfeit.

After that, the news sinks rapidly. The far-right Republicans on the Board were not finished. They put in language to weaken the Big Bang theory, saying that there are different estimates for the age of the Universe. You can try to be coy and say this is also strictly true, but again that’s a cheat and a lie. The woman who proposed this is obviously a young-Earth creationist, and when she says "different ages", she means 6000 years. This belief in a young Earth, is, simply, dead wrong. We know the Universe is 13.7 billion years old, and the Earth, while younger than that, is still 4.55 or so billion years old itself. This is not some random guess, this is rock-solid (literally) science, confirmed independently from such diverse scientific fields as astronomy, physics, chemistry, anthropology, archaeology… and even the study of how languages change over time shows the humanity is older than 6000 years.

These same people on the Board added language to the standards to weaken teaching about global warming. Don McLeroy, who is a creationist and also the Chairman of the BoE, said that climate change is "hooey". They also attack the science on the complexity of the cell, and the initial genesis of life (called abiogeneisis; life from non-life). These are all standard creationist tactics.

With all this, I’m surprised they didn’t add standards about how the tooth fairy is real, the Alamo siege was won using prayer, and Hitler and Darwin were secretly married in New Hampshire by a crocoduck.

Do I sound unhappy? Yeah, damn straight I am. These creationists are trying to destroy science in Texas. And they’re succeeding. They are imposing their narrow religious and ideological views on reality, and it’s the schoolchildren in the state who will suffer.

And they’re not alone. Think you’re safe from creationist nonsense because you live in Vermont, or Illinois, or Oregon? Think again. Texas is so big and has so many students in it that they have a huge amount of leverage on the textbook industry. This means that the creationists will put their weaselly language into the textbooks, and those will get sold all over the country.

A couple of months ago I took a look at my daughter’s Earth Science book, and it has a decent chapter about evolution in it, hitting all the right notes: descent with modification, common ancestors, the fossil record, and so on. But how long will that last? I wouldn’t be at all surprised if her next textbook says that scientists disagree about evolution (they don’t disagree at all that it happens, just on some details of how it happens), that some people disagree that the Universe is billions of years old, and that the environment is just hunky-dory, so let’s go drill some more, mmmmkay?

It seems incredible that here we are, in the 21st century, and a group of less than a dozen religious zealots has the kind of power to affect millions of children across the country, but there you have it. One problem with a democracy — and it’s a doozy — is that it’s possible to game the system, and give far too much power to people who are far too unqualified for it.

And it’s brought us here.

Now, the good news: it’s not entirely too late. If you live in some other state, find out who is on your school board [Edited to add: go here for that information]. Find out when they hold meetings, and find out when they adopt their standards. And if it’s soon, or even if it’s not for a while yet, make your voice heard. And even better, when elections come up for the board, find out where the candidates stand. Ask them point blank: do you think evolution is true? Do you think creationism is true? How would you vote on science standards for our state?

Don’t be shy. I did this right after moving to Boulder, and found out what was what. Don’t assume someone else will do it for you!

Because if you do, you’ll get a Board of Education like the one in Texas. And as for them, well, you’ve seen this before:

Texas: doomed

For more on this, check the Texas Freedom Network blog, Pharyngula, and Astroengine. Do not rest, do not waiver, and do not assume this problem will go away. That’s just what they want you to do.

The bad guys never give up, and neither should we.

25 Responses to “Texas science standards wrapup: Yup. Doomed.”

  1. Xplodyncow says:

    April Fool’s–? *sigh* I wish.

  2. C. Beth says:

    Thank you for this. I live in TX and listened to quite a few hours of the 3-day meeting live, online. I was thrilled when “strengths and weaknesses” was not reinserted…and my heart sank as I saw other dangerous language put in the standards.

    And my blood was boiling when I listened to the Chair, Dr. McElroy, talk about “science” in this clip:

  3. Gridman says:

    Perhaps we should also be reminding textbook companies that we do not welcome Texas’ inanity in the books that we be sold in our states?

  4. Max says:

    What would happen if they add standards about how the tooth fairy is real?

  5. RockDoctorJ says:

    Oh my. After watching the clip from C. Beth, I am mortified by this person. The Cambrian Explosion is a term coined 100 years ago…and new fossil finds in Australia and China have bridged the gap between Precambrian single-celled and multi-celled colonial organisms to multi-celled, multi-system organisms, beginning with soft-bodied fossils that appear to be similar to jellyfish, sea pens, and sponges (including the presence of spicules that are consistent with sponges), and moving toward shelled organisms very late in the Proterozoic to the base of the Cambrian. The appearance of organisms with shells still seems abrupt, but not nearly so as it was even 25 years ago. What Dr. McElroy conveniently ignores, is the fact that new discoveries are made every day, and that those new discoveries support evolution as an overarching scientific theory. Evolution predicts during what time period an organism would have existed and what physical characteristics that organism must have possessed. When these fossils are discovered, we almost invariably find that predictions based on evolutionary theory are confirmed. Where is Dr. McElroy’s discussion of that fact? Yes, I am one of those so-called ‘experts’ a geologist who teaches Historical Geology at a state University. We do address the Cambrian Explosion, which isn’t really an explosion any more, and we do so int he context of the history of evolutionary thought, another topic that McElroy butchers, and then ignores.

  6. C. Beth says:

    RockDoctorJ–Great information, though of course you’re one of the “experts” who so perplexes Mr. McLeroy–he just doesn’t understand why you don’t see the other side of the issue. Aargh!

    As I was listening to his speech, live, I was just so terribly disturbed. I realized just how logical some of his arguments would sound to someone without a good science education. And I’ll freely admit that I was one of those people until I decided to do my own research, recently. I grew up believing in some form of creationism. I’m still a Christian, and believing in theistic evolution puts me in the minority among my Christian peers. I’m very, very well aware of how convincing “arguments” like Mr. McLeroy’s sound, and it worries me greatly.

  7. Anonymous Coward says:

    I think the science supporting states should work with other nations internationally, perhaps with Canada, Britain, or even non-Anglophone countries, to try to harmonize the curriculum such that publishers could relatively easily publish a schoolbook for the international market. Such an international market is nowadays perfectly possible, you can send PDFs around to local printers, do local translations if necessary, host websites with interactive or multimedia supporting material common to all versions, you could get great people like Richard Dawkins, Michio Kaku, David Griffiths or yourself to contribute, the thing could scale up wonderfully. And the nice thing is, that this market would be absolutely gigantic compared to Texas. They would drown in the see of reason. If we can all get our act together, we will have victory.

  8. Jimmy says:

    @ Anonymous Coward – You’d be surprised how many countries out there that are as pious as these nutjobs in the U.S. Also who’s taking the money, who’s providing money for this international textbook market, and who’s going to translate all those frivolous languages? I think you have a decent proposition but it would be just opening a can of worms.

  9. Disgod says:

    I think a great way to follow the standard, but still give a big old middle finger to the Creationists is to go through the strengths and weaknesses, but in a historical context. Here are the historical weaknesses of the big bang and evolution, but here’s the mountain of evidence that addresses the weaknesses. It addresses the standard, but at the same time doesn’t lie to children about reality.

    I think it is stupid that they have to do it in the first place, but this might be the best way to not compromise science standards.

  10. The best place to address this is in the courts, where judges have precedents to follow and may call experts in to advise.

  11. Max says:

    Disgod, the “strengths and weaknesses” clause didn’t pass, you know.

    Here’s how McLeroy used standards to adopt a single biology book and all but reject the rest.
    He wrote, “While all the books contain some ‘qualifiers’, Glencoe’s Biology the Dynamics of Life comes the closest to meeting Texas’ high standards and is the most ‘qualified’ book up for adoption.

  12. Alex says:

    “@ Anonymous Coward – You’d be surprised how many countries out there that are as pious as these nutjobs in the U.S.”

    The Serbian minister of education in 2004, Ljiljana Colic, comes to mind. Back in 2004 she ordered that schools suspend teaching evolution unless they introduce creationism. The conservative goverment originaly backed her ideas, but after they realised that the public didn’t like what they were doing, quickly fired her and reversed her actions.

  13. Thank goD I live in Australia.

    That would never happen here.

    Wait…..wait…..I may have spoken too soon…

  14. Paul Caggegi says:

    It is interesting how we’ve all become so well read on evolutionary literature because of this. If not for cases like these, I would never have known certain facts about the current state of the fossil record, what Darwin did and didn’t say, but most importantly, how run-down the teaching of well-established theories were in public school systems!

    I think we’ll all be better parents for it, considering that we’ve all been made aware that morons like these exist, and are trying to erode science education and rewrite it to the detriment of future generations.

  15. gwen says:

    This IS an April Fools day joke…..right???? Pleasse say yes, please say yes!! You’re scaring me!!! You didn’t say YES!!!!!

  16. Max says:

    “That would never happen here”?
    Well, Canada’s science minister is a Creationist, and Britain is heading toward replacing textbooks with the Koran, so yeah, spoken too soon.

  17. thenunnery says:

    Max: I’m guessing/hoping(!) you are living somewhere with poor news reporting about the UK. There is no move to replace textbooks with the Koran in Britain, there is no discussion of this in the mainstream media, there has been lots of good media coverage of Darwin day etc. There is a small movement supporting faith schools in a very small and insignificant way. The National Curriculum includes evolution, and evolution is alive and kicking in the country of Darwin and Dawkins thank you very much!

  18. I actually had the privilege of attending a lecture by the lawyer from the famous Pennsylvania case dealing with Intelligent Design. It doesn’t matter what guise they use, this has everything to do with creationism no matter what language they use. As an illustrative example, the main book on intelligent design (I believe put out by the Discovery Institute) called “Pandas and People” was an exact rehash of creationist books from the 1980s. They simply took out the word “God” and inserted “Intelligent Designer”. That’s in the court record.

  19. JWC says:

    There are legitimate scientists who question the role that CO2 plays in the current warming of the Earth. Please don’t cheapen their dissent by lumping them in with creationists.

  20. Roger Schlueter says:

    Humanity Blues @19: Not quite correct. The Dover court record shows that the word “creationism” was inartfully replaced by “intelligent design”. The word “God” did not appear in any version.

  21. Andy Wilkins says:

    Well, I happen to believe that evolution is just as much a theory as you think creation by intelligent design is and I feel that it needs to be presented as such, “a theory”. Honestly think about this, just because new fossils are found that show similarities in species and are believed to be missing links to evolutionary development doesn’t prove that evolution is fact. Did it ever occur to you that God may have created more than one similar species that we have just never discovered existed yet? If evolution were a fact, why are apes not evolving into humans as we speak? It is because God created apes and God created humans…they look kind of similar and sometimes act alike…haha…but they are not the same. Why is it so important to believe that we used to be apes? What kind of value does that put on the human life? Not much…that is the kind of thinking that leads to depression, low self worth, suicide, and abortion on demand.

    As far as lumping all creationists into a narrow bucket of believing the earth has to be 6,000 years old…that is very narrow minded in itself. Come on people what are we afraid of here? Can’t we all be open minded enough to search for the real truth? I am a creationist and I am not afraid of scientific fact. But don’t give me a bunch of assumptions about evolution. Give me hard core facts that can’t be disproven. Bring it on. I want the truth here! Because I believe if we were truly honest and not just trying to prove our own point, we would come to the conclusion that there is no other possibility other than God created heaven and earth and all that is in it for His purposes. I believe there is a God out there that loves us all and that is what we are missing in our lives…Him!

  22. tmac57 says:

    Andy Wilkins- This is satire, right? There is no way you would come to this blog with such lame arguments unless you were pulling our collective legs.

  23. Andy Wilkins says:

    No sarcasm here tmac57. I was just offering a sincere opinion and asking sincere questions. I wanted to let everyone know that I believe in creation and I don’t think science is bad. I honestly believe that science can be used to and would prove creation if all facts are taken into account. I also wanted to make known that all creationists are not narrow minded in believing that the earth is only 6,000 years old. I happen to believe that if scientifc fact has proven that the earth is 13.7 billion years old, we creationists should accept the truth. We as creationists do not have to be afraid of truth and feel that if the facts don’t fit inside our box of understanding then they are incorrect. I also, want to suggest that we teach both theories in public schools presenting all data and allow the students to decide for themselves how the data fits together. What harm could come of this? Check out this video and see what you think…



  24. Jeshua says:

    Andy, Andy! Were you home-schooled by any chance?
    As many people have pointed out before, there is a huge insurmountable problem with your suggestion “that we teach both theories in public schools.” First of all, and i think most significant, there IS NO theory of creationism. No research was done. No concrete proof has been offered. No testing of the theory in the real world has been conducted. The only thing that really “proves” creationism is an ancient book of myths, long discredited as a legitimate source for science, or even history. Evolution, on the other hand, has a long history of development, discoveries and adjustments in the theory. There is simply no appropriate platform for comparing a faith-based idea with a scientific theory.