Wednesday, September 24, 2008


And So It Begins

A six-member committee of teachers, college professors and curriculum experts nominated by the Texas State Board of Education has released its recommendation for new standards for the biology curriculum. The recommendation would eliminate the teaching of ideas "based upon purported forces outside of nature." The proposal would also remove language in the current standards requiring that students be taught the "strengths and weaknesses" of all scientific theories.

Kevin Fisher, a science coordinator from the Lewisville school district and a member of the committee, said they wanted to ensure that evolution was presented in a "21st century," "unadulterated fashion" and to clarify that a scientific theory is more than just an educated guess.

We actually have more evidence for evolution occurring than we do for the law of gravity. ... Something doesn't become a theory if it's got weaknesses. There may be some questions that may yet to be answered, but nothing that's to the level of a weakness.

It ain't gonna be easy, though. Don McLeroy, the state board chairman, opposes removing the "strengths and weaknesses" language:

I'd argue it doesn't make sense scientifically to take it out. Evolution shouldn't have anything to worry about — if there's no weaknesses, there's no weaknesses. But if there's scientifically testable explanations out there to refute it, shouldn't those be included too?

This is the same person who is on record as believing that there are two systems of science, a creationist system and a "naturalist" system.

The fact that the chairman of the state board of education doesn't understand science and is willing to call a narrowly sectarian religious idea "science" is more than enough reason to fear for science education in the state. And not just in Texas. McLeroy is also on record as saying that he prefers the "strengths and weaknesses" language because it allows the board to reject a textbook that doesn't cover the "weaknesses" of evolution. As the second largest purchaser of school textbooks after California, what Texas demands be included in the books it buys greatly influences what will be available across the nation, since publishers won't want to produce multiple editions.

Mealy mouthed as always, McLeroy will be coming at the issue sideways:

McLeroy said that in addition to leaving the "strengths and weaknesses" language, he would like to include the National Academy of Sciences' definition of science and their discussion of its limitations.

"Even they admit science doesn't have all the answers," he said.

But science has all the scientific answers and why would there be a need to teach nonscientific "answers" in a science class?

It's going to be a tough (and, unfortunately, political) fight. Seven of fifteen board members appear to support, at least to some extent, the teaching of the "weaknesses" of evolution in science classrooms. Six are opposed, and two — Geraldine Miller, R-Dallas, and Rick Agosto, D-San Antonio — are considered swing votes. People in Texas who like being beyond the horse and buggy days will have to get busy.

As is more and more the case these days, the charge of "elitism" and "censorship" has already raised its ugly (and disingenuous) head:

Jonathan Saenz of the conservative Free Market Foundation said it is "outrageous that these educrats have expelled the truth from state standards that have been in place for over 20 years."

"This type of pure censorship in shutting down a debate is the exact opposite of what true science is supposed to be. We strongly disagree with their recommendation."

But "true" science is "elitist," in the sense that not every person's opinion is equal. The person with empirical and testable facts and theories on his or her side wins in science. Of course, science is the opposite of elitism at the same time, since anyone can go out and find those empirical facts and construct those testable theories. Do that and there is no way you can be censored.

What you can't do is just import "facts" and "theories" from bronze age mythologies.

"'Even they admit science doesn't have all the answers,' he said."

As I am fond of saying, science doesn't have all the answers, it's just got all the good ones.
I do feel a bit bothered by one thing. To understand the underpinnings of science, it is really necessary to understand the philosophy behind scientific discovery. However, a person can go through their whole science education (through to a PhD) and still not receive any formal exposure to this issue. It is something within our education system that is lacking.

Furthermore, such a formal exposure would quickly and succinctly rid a student of any notion that creationism is on par with the neo-Darwinian synthesis.

But this does create a dilemma. The philosophy of science is incredibly complex, probably too much so for the average (or even exceptional) primary/secondary student. But without it, students aren't learning science, they are learning a series of facts determined by scientists.

Without the skills to determine good science from bad, students are very susceptible to the influence of weak theories. So, do we attempt to give students the skills to determine science from pseudoscience, knowing that we very well may fail? Or do we put off that issue until students are in university and their critical thinking skills are more honed, knowing that we have left a window open for charlatans to peddle their junk? If we choose the latter, we know we will have to keep on putting up with stuff like this indefinitely.
While I agree that the full philosophy of science -- and empiricism, from which it springs -- is extremely complicated (I'm working my way slowly -- very slowly -- through Elliot Sober's excellent but difficult new book, Evolution and Evidence), I think a "bare bones" version could (and should) be put together that would be understandable to children in middle and high school, at least. It would be, as all lower education ultimately is, in Terry Pratchett's memorable phrase, "lying to children" but it would be better than the present situation, where it is the creationists who most often tell children what science is.
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