27 August 2007

Texas Education Threatened By Creationists

[This entry was originally written as a diary for the Daily Kos. It goes into more detail than my last post regarding education in Texas, so I'm reposting it here as well.]

The Houston Chronicle reported on 24 August that a majority of the current members of the Texas State Board of Education opposed requiring Intelligent Design be taught in public classrooms. This report comes a little over a month after Texas governor Rick Perry (R) appointed Don McLeroy, a vocal creationist, to chair the SBOE. According to the Chronicle, of the 15 members of the board, ten claimed they "wouldn't support requiring the teaching of intelligent design." One member, Pat Hardy, said she would be open to teaching ID. Four members (Rene Nuñez, Cynthia Dunbar, Terri Leo, and Ken Mercer) declined to be interviewed. Many people see this report as a sign of hope for science education in Texas. But I don't buy it for a minute.

What we're seeing now is a word game; the new name for creationism is going to be "evolution" (with the modifier "strengths & weaknesses").

It's a game the creationists have played before. In 1987, the Supreme Court ruled in Edwards v. Aguillard that creationism (or "creation science") was founded in religion, not science, and was therefore unconstitutional to include in public school science curricula. The creationist movement responded by rebranding creationism as "intelligent design." However, in 2005 Judge John E. Jones III ruled in Kitzmiller v. Dover that intelligent design was also unconstitutional to include in school curricula. Expert witnesses like Barbara Forrest successfully demonstrated (using evidence such as the Discovery Institute's "Wedge Strategy" and the Foundation for Thought & Ethics' "textbook" Of Pandas and People) that intelligent design was rehashed creationism, promoted with the intent to drive a wedge between scientific materialism and education to the benefit of a religious worldview. Now, once again, they're changing their rhetoric instead of reanalyzing their argument.

The Discovery Institute, the creationist "think-tank" responsible for the Wedge Strategy, is now promoting a new book entitled Explore Evolution: the Arguments For and Against Neo-Darwinism. They also issued a video in 2005 entitled "How to Tech the Controversy Legally." The video offers five strategies for teachers who want to criticize evolution:
1. Keep the focus ON science
This is the creationists' most basic and most dangerous tactic. Creationists are desperate to have their views accepted as part of the scientific discourse. But any hack can write a book. Real science means having your research and interpretations pass peer review. Not one creationist claim has passed scrutiny by the scientific community. They're trying to bypass that process and gain scientific legitimacy by taking their false facts straight to the impressionable minds of students.
2. Keep the focus OFF religion
Creationists know they need to distance themselves from the religious rhetoric, which means covering their tracks and denying connection to terms like "creation science" and, in the wake of Dover, "intelligent design."
3. Teach MORE about evolution, not less
Here we see the strategy of rebranding the same old creationist talking points, not as a separate hypothesis of creation or design, but rather as supposed "weaknesses" of evolution.
4. Link the teaching of evolution to existing school district policies about teaching controversial issues
This is the "present both sides and let the kids decide" approach favored by those who don't count on students to be well enough trained to see through the false facts being presented by the creationist side.
5. Defend the academic freedom of teachers who want to teach the controversy
And when all else fails, threaten legal action against any school administration that gets in your way.

The Discovery Institute isn't the only one pushing this strategy. Sal Cordova of the major ID weblog Uncommon Descent writes:
As much as I advocate that ID is correct, it is not the time to teach it in the public schools. Creationist Don McLeroy, chairman of the Texas School board, agrees.
. . .
There are individuals who may be pro-ID out there who want to lobby to teach ID in the public schools. I think this is ill advised. I encourage rather than lobbying for the teaching of ID or creation science, one should lobby for teaching MORE evolution, and in the way Darwin would have wished it taught. The was beautifully accomplished in the book: Explore Evolution.
But do we have to worry about this strategy coming from the Texas SBOE? I fear we do. McLeroy is certainly in on the strategy; let's look at the rest of the board.

The Texas textbook curriculum was last up for review in 2003. At the time, McLeroy and others were fiercely advocating replacing the biology text with one more critical of evolution. The board eventually voted 11-4 to approve the existing text. The minority vote consisted of McLeroy, David Bradley (the current vice-chairman of the board), Gail Lowe, and Terri Leo, all of whom still sit on the board. (Note that McLeroy, Bradley, and Lowe all claimed not to advocate teaching ID in the Chronicle interviews.)

However, according to a CNN article, the textbooks for all subjects were approved in a batch vote. McLeroy wanted to vote on each textbook separately, presumably because he felt other members' disapproval of the treatment of evolution was outweighed by approval of other texts. In 2005, McLeroy gave an address on intelligent design at the Grace Bible Church in Bryan, TX. In his speech, he was quite open about the association between intelligent design creationism and religion, and said of the 2003 textbook decision:
[Quoting Phillip Johnson] "This is not to say that the Biblical issues aren’t important, the point is the time to address them will be after we have separated materialistic prejudice from scientific fact."

And let me say it again: in the 2003 biology book adoption in Texas this principle was followed strictly. There wasn’t a board member that wasn’t trying to get the weakness of evolution into the debate. We never brought up religion. We never brought up intelligent design. All we brought up was evidence.
"Evidence," of course, meaning creationist talking points--anything from gaps in the fossil record to slow mutation rates--refuted by the scientific community.

Besides the four minority voters in the 2003 decision, six other current board members were also serving in 2003: Geraldine "Tincy" Miller, Mary Helen Berlanga, Mavis Knight, and Bob Craig (all of whom said "no" to advocating teaching ID); Pat Hardy (who is open to teaching ID); and Rene Nuñez (who declined interview). According to McLeroy in 2005, any or all of these members could be sympathetic to the creationist strategy of highlighting "weaknesses" in evolution.

The next round of textbook review for Texas is scheduled for 2011. With McLeroy now chair of the Texas SBOE (and Bradley vice-chair), it's entirely possible that creationists will manage to smuggle their agenda into public schools. We'll have to be on guard. The real danger of the creationist movement isn't in terms like "creation science" or "intelligent design", but rather in the false facts that these terms encompass and their corruption of the scientific method. Science means unbiased, reproducible research and rigorous, continuous peer review. We need to be prepared to repel not just the creationist name, but their false facts. As Darwin himself wrote:
"False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often endure long; but false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm, for every one takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness; and when this is done, one path towards error is closed and the road to truth is often at the same time opened."
--Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man p. 385

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