As an outside observer of the US educational system, I have to report a sense of incredulity at the stances taken by opponents of change. All scientists and all educators should be able to handle the phrase "strengths and weaknesses" - without it being interpreted as a Trojan Horse for subversive ideas. Strengths and weaknesses are what we are supposed to be doing, whatever our disciplines may be! Yet, according to the report in Science, the new standards for Texas schools are said to "strike a major blow to the teaching of evolution".
What appeared to have happened in the discussions leading up to the vote, is that the S&W phrase was replaced by statements that spelled out the implications for educators. Some of these are cited by the reporter. The first provides the principle behind the changes. There is nothing new here - most people will think that teachers are already doing these things. Educators are expected to:
"analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations in all fields of science by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing, including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations so as to encourage critical thinking by the student."
In order to develop critical thinking skills, you have to use them (source here)
The reporter refers to two hot-button topics. The first concerns the complexity of the cell and the way the origin of complexity is handled by evolutionary theories. As is well known, Darwinists are convinced that the action of natural selection to preserve favourable gradational changes in living things is sufficient to explain biological complexity. Not so well known, but nevertheless an important part of the academic community, are scientists who reject the comprehensiveness of Darwinian explanations. They find major shortcomings in the 'Modern Synthesis' and consider that the problems of explaining evolutionary novelties require new theory. It is therefore sad to find NeoDarwinians rejecting all talk of controversy about evolutionary theory and directing their fire, not at the scholars who disagree with them, but at those who are responsible for educating the next generation of scientists. To avoid the dangers of brainwashing young people with one particular theory that is deemed (by some) to have achieved the status of fact, teachers are called upon to help students:
"analyze and evaluate the evidence regarding formation of simple organic molecules and their organization into long complex molecules having information such as the DNA molecule for self-replicating life."
The second controversial area relates to the significance of the fossil record for theories of origins. Students will also be expected to "analyze and evaluate a variety of fossil types such as transitional fossils, proposed transitional fossils, significant fossil deposits with regard to their appearance, completeness, and alignments with scientific explanations in light of this fossil data." What issues are being raised here? In many ways, we have to cover the same ground as for the explanation of biological complexity. Darwinism predicts gradual change. It finds small variations in a breeding population of organisms today, and it extrapolates back in time to explain the origin of species, families, orders, classes and phyla. The problem for Darwinists is that the fossil record has stubbornly resisted this interpretation of the data. This came to a head when Eldredge and Gould famously proposed their theory of Punctuated Equilibrium. It is not difficult to find evidence of the problem in refereed literature: "For instance, with its abrupt transitions, the fossil record provides little evidence for a gradual evolution of new forms." (Theissen, 2008), and "The clamour to revise neo-darwinism is becoming so loud that hopefully most practising evolutionary biologists will begin to pay attention" (Pigliucci, 2005). Students do need to be exposed to this kind of thinking if they are to gain a decent education. 'Teaching the controversy' is an educational practice that enlivens the minds of students, hones critical thinking skills and prepares people for life.
I would expect that all friends of education will welcome the decisions made by the Texas Board of Education and wish them well. However, this response may be muted because most of the media reports are negative - as in this case in Science. Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education is given the last word. She commented on the removal of the phrase "strengths and weaknesses" and its replacement with words about developing critical thinking skills: "It was like you put the stake in the heart of the vampire and it comes back." For anyone with doubts about the seriousness of these issues, that comment should clear them all away.
I give the last word to Don McLeroy, chair of the Texas Board of Education. He wrote in a commentary piece to the Austin American-Statesman as follows:
"If we are to train our students, engage their minds and, frankly, be honest with them, why oppose these standards? If the standards do not promote religion and they are not unscientific and they deal directly with the data, then possibly these standards are being opposed for ideological reasons. This supports the argument that this culture war exists, not because of the religious faith of creationists, but because of the rejection of the empirical demonstration of science by academia's far-left and the secular elite opinionmakers."
New Texas Standards Question Evolution, Fossil Record
Science, 324, 3 April 2009: 25.
Summary: New science standards for Texas schools strike a major blow to the teaching of evolution, say scientists and educators who last week tried unsuccessfully to block the adoption of last-minute amendments aimed at providing an opening for the teaching of creationism.
Don McLeroy, D., Enlisting in the culture war, Austin American-Statesman, Wednesday, March 25, 2009
Tyler, D. Is critical thinking subversive to science? ARN Literature Blog, (23 June 2008)
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