31 December 2007

Texas Higher Education and Creation Research, Part 9

The Waco Tribune-Herald is the latest in the slow roll of editorials waking up to the ICR's application to offer Master's degrees in science education in Texas.
Unfortunately, people with religious agendas continue in their efforts to gain leadership positions in state education while other people continue their efforts to get schools to teach their religious beliefs in Texas public schools.
Unfortunately, this is a very slim editorial, which does little but restate the facts of the application and the Comer case.

A personal review of 2007

"Practiced long enough, war begins to seem normal."
- Ree Soesbee, flavour text from War-Stained Fields, Legend of the Five Rings card

That quote has been on my mind a lot lately. 2006 was not a good year. And this one hasn't been much better. High points were being awarded the REU grant, maybe my talk at the J.B. Johnston Club, which I was pretty happy about in the end. Getting the Marmorkrebs was a very promising thing. And I've had the busiest blogging year by a long shot, and I'm pretty happy with some of the blog posts.

But I had no new research papers out. One commentary was it. Grant administration is all it's cracked up to be -- fairly hellish. And it didn't help I was ending the year writing about two highly worrying stories concerning creationism and Texas education: Chris Comer's forced resignation and the ICR proposal for grad degrees in science education.

So yet again, I can't wait to see the back end of this year. Roll on 2008.

29 December 2007

An elf?

I'm an elf? Dagnabbit, I don't like elves...

I am a: True Neutral Elf Wizard (5th Level)

Ability Scores:

True Neutral A true neutral character does what seems to be a good idea. He doesn't feel strongly one way or the other when it comes to good vs. evil or law vs. chaos. Most true neutral characters exhibit a lack of conviction or bias rather than a commitment to neutrality. Such a character thinks of good as better than evil after all, he would rather have good neighbors and rulers than evil ones. Still, he's not personally committed to upholding good in any abstract or universal way. Some true neutral characters, on the other hand, commit themselves philosophically to neutrality. They see good, evil, law, and chaos as prejudices and dangerous extremes. They advocate the middle way of neutrality as the best, most balanced road in the long run. True neutral is the best alignment you can be because it means you act naturally, without prejudice or compulsion. However, true neutral can be a dangerous alignment because it represents apathy, indifference, and a lack of conviction.

Elves are known for their poetry, song, and magical arts, but when danger threatens they show great skill with weapons and strategy. Elves can live to be over 700 years old and, by human standards, are slow to make friends and enemies, and even slower to forget them. Elves are slim and stand 4.5 to 5.5 feet tall. They have no facial or body hair, prefer comfortable clothes, and possess unearthly grace. Many others races find them hauntingly beautiful.

Wizards are arcane spellcasters who depend on intensive study to create their magic. To wizards, magic is not a talent but a difficult, rewarding art. When they are prepared for battle, wizards can use their spells to devastating effect. When caught by surprise, they are vulnerable. The wizard's strength is her spells, everything else is secondary. She learns new spells as she experiments and grows in experience, and she can also learn them from other wizards. In addition, over time a wizard learns to manipulate her spells so they go farther, work better, or are improved in some other way. A wizard can call a familiar- a small, magical, animal companion that serves her. With a high Intelligence, wizards are capable of casting very high levels of spells.

Find out What Kind of Dungeons and Dragons Character Would You Be?, courtesy of Easydamus (e-mail)

28 December 2007

Texas Higher Education and Creation Research, Part 8

Houston ChronicleThe editorials have been slow coming, but coming they are, on the ICR application to grant Amster's in science education. Today's is in the Houston Chronicle. The subtitle says a lot: "State recognition of a creationist institute's degree would undermine science teacher credentials."
Texas Commissioner of Higher Education Raymund Paredes expressed discomfort with the recommendation to sanction the institute's graduate degrees but wants a thorough review. He told the Houston Chronicle that "because this controversy is so potentially hot, we owe it to both sides to be absolutely fair in evaluating it."

His caution is admirable, but the creationist battle has already been fought in other states in which science has been the decisive victor. Paredes makes the sensible observation that a degree issued by the institute should be labeled creation studies rather than science education.
Again, it's notable that Ray Paredes is quoted as expressing reservations over the whole thing. Also, many of the editorials so far have expressed a view along the lines of, "Feel free to teach this -- just don't pretend it's science."

27 December 2007

Texas Higher Education and Creation Research, Part 7

Dallas Morning News logoThe Dallas Morning News has an editorial today that is partly about the ICR's application to offer Master's degrees in science education.
We hate to second-guess the three academic investigators – including Gloria White, managing director of the University of Texas at Austin's Dana Research Center for Mathematics and Science Education – but, still, the coordinating board had better give this case a long, hard look.

The board's job is to certify institutions as competent to teach science in Texas schools. Despite the institute including mainstream science in its programs, it's hard to see how a school that rejects so many fundamental principles of science can be trusted to produce teachers who faithfully teach the state's curriculum.
Emphasis added.

One thing I do find a little weird about some comments -- like the one above -- is the assumption that people who get Master's degree would (a) only be from Texas and (b) only teach in Texas. I've seen this idea in a couple of places. It overlooks that the ICR is proposing to offer online degrees (indeed, it apparently has exactly one classroom), and basically, within the U.S., accreditation is accreditation. There would probably be people from many places interested in getting an accredited Master's that legitimizes creationist beliefs as science. Likewise, I have no doubt that many people would be happy to take use an accredited degree to try to get teaching jobs in public schools outside Texas, even though teaching creationism is illegal in K-12 public schools across the U.S.

23 December 2007

Texas Higher Education and Creation Research, Part 6

Rick PerryThe Austin American-Statesman, which did such a fine job breaking the Chris Comer story, has an editorial today that reaches big. It says the fight brewing over evolution does nothing less than "threaten Texas." I have to admit that I find "threaten Texas" to be a little overblown. Texas will continue to exist regardless of the outcomes of these processes. It may be intellectually and economically poorer, may have less prestige, may have fewer scientists willing to live here -- but the state, as a whole, is not threatened.

The editorial also calls for the Governor (pictured) to get involved.
Now is the time for Gov. Rick Perry to step up and halt the bloodletting before it does serious harm to the state’s reputation, economy and future. ...

Perry should not sit idly by while this potentially devastating issue unfolds in national headlines. He appointed Scott and McLeroy, and he should derail any efforts to downgrade evolution in Texas schools.
The editorial gives more encouraging signs concerning Raymund Paredes's take on the ICR's application:
Raymund Paredes, Texas’ higher education commissioner, said he is evaluating the report from the team that recommended approving the science course. He’s not happy with it and is actively gathering more information ahead of next month’s board meeting.
Emphasis added.

22 December 2007

Texas Higher Education and Creation Research, Part 5

Raymund Paredes (pictured) of the THECB has written a letter to the New York Times outlining the process of how the Institute for Creation Research's application to give Master's in science education will be handled.
I am reviewing the report and seeking more information and advice from scientists to evaluate the program and make recommendations to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board on Jan. 24.
I sincerely hope this is the case. And I sincerely hope those some of those scientists are biologists. Geologists and astronomers would be good, too.
The primary goal in reviewing the application is to consider whether the program will contribute to helping high-school students be successful in rigorous college science courses. In evaluating it, we will make certain Texas remains hospitable to high-quality science education and scientific research.
This, frankly, sounds encouraging. I hope that come late January, he won't have those words haunting him over and over.

Meanwhile, Dave McNeely for the Midland Reporter-Telegram has a very short note about ICR at the end of a longer piece on Texas governor Rick Perry. He quips:
Maybe education officials will say science teachers should be like the editorial writer, asked if he thinks the earth is round or square.

"I can," the editorialist replied, "write it either way."

Texas Education Agency and Chris Comer, Part 23

You may recall that professors wrote an open letter to Robert Scott, which I commented upon here.

Scott replied to that letter (PDF file). The letter is vague and says very little substantive. The only thing he says that is remotely encouraging is:
The science TEKS will be reviewed and updated by the SBOE in 2008 but at this point, I am not aware of any plans to change these particular curriculum standards.
Very non-committal.

Earlier this week, Daniel Bolnick (pictured), the lead author on the original letter, has written to Scott again (scroll down; PDF here). It is a very good letter, and I recommend reading it in full.
You (Scott) write "that anything said will be scrutinized and may be interpreted as representing a position of the agency or State Board of Education." The Board's position on science education should be to provide the best and most accurate science possible, regardless of the political consequences. There are times when public bodies need to lead, and this is one of them.
Bolnick extends out a hand and says, "Hey, we're here to help you put in the best possible science in the curriculum." He also points out how "critical thinking skills" are only pulled out where evolution is concerned, and not for any other branch of science.
(Y)ou probably recall that in 2003, during the textbook adoption hearings, the evolution-related standards were the only standards to which 3A directly was applied (emphasis added - ZF), in an effort to weaken the coverage of evolution in the books. An attempt to force textbook publishers to rewrite their textbooks to include non-existent "weaknesses" almost succeeded. This would have resulted in students in Texas and nationally being miseducated about evolution. Upon entry to university science classes, they would have to unlearn the spurious "weaknesses" they had been taught in high school, which is profoundly unfair to them.
Nice to have some historical information in there. Good job all round.

The Zen of Presentations, Part 14: The Ehrlich Method

The Australian radio show In Conversation recently played two excerpts from a presentation by Paul Ehrlich (pictured). Presenter and interviewer Robyn Williams, who I imagine has seen more than his fair share of incredible talks by some of the world’s best thinkers (interviewing them is his job, after all), was impressed.

He described Ehrlich’s talk in the first part thus:

Here is an internationally renowned biologist and environmental stirrer, at the Perth Convention Centre, strolling on stage with his hands in his pockets or gesticulating for effect, and just chatting. No notes in sight; just that Paul Robeson, rich baritone and a few incendiary remarks(.)

In part two, Williams elaborates:

I was going to call him the ecological answer to Jerry Seinfeld, but the difference is edge. Among the jokes and segues Paul Ehrlich really means some of those barbs.

Williams refers to Erlich as having a “conversation” with his audience and is impressed enough to ask specifically about how he does it.

Robyn Williams: So what enables him at the age of 75, to pace around a stage at the Convention Centre in Perth with no notes, speaking like a Gatling Gun to an audience of 600?

Paul Ehrlich: What I do is I engrave my notes on the inside of my eyelids so all I have to do is blink to be able to read them.

RW: laughs... It’s quite extraordinary. There are two ways of taking this way of having a conversation. You have a conversation with an audience. Either you always say the same thing - or - you've extremely well organised. Which is it?

PE: I always say the same thing... laughs... no... It’s not a matter of organisation, in fact it's a very simple thing. You know a number of things you want to say; you organise them into routines, so you can leave them in or add another one, and depending on the audience you have a basic idea of what you’re going to talk about, so it’s not all that complicated.

There’s a useful idea in there. What Ehrlich calls “routines,” I think of as making a talk modular.

This is particularly a way I structure a series of lectures. Over time, I develop a set of lectures. In any given semester, I put in some but take out others. Once you get each individual piece ready, it’s easy to slot them in, take some in, leave others out, and mix it up.

But what if you have just one presentation you’re working on?

If you’re using slides, you have a natural Ehrlich "routine" right there. Make each one a little self-contained story.

Organize your “routines” so that you have the most important stuff first. When I wrote for newspapers, well before digital publishing allowed very clear calculations of how much space you had, articles would often have to be longer or shorter. So the trick was to break the story down. Put all the important stuff up front. Anything that was interesting, but tangential or dispensible, you put in the last paragraphs. That way, if the story had to be cut due to space limitations, the main thrust of the story was intact and undamaged.

It’s like a set list for a band. A band gives a different concert each night, and each can be totally different. They can do this because they don’t do their entire repertoire of songs. They pick a subset. Before every performance, the band writes out what songs they're going to do.

Can you guess what artist’s set list this is before clicking the link? (Hint: How many songs do you know with “science” in the title?)

Texas Education Agency and Chris Comer, Part 22

Don McLeroy, chair of the Texas State Board of Education, dentist, and avowed creationist, has a letter in the Dallas News yesterday.

Mr. McLeroy does not get it.
I would like to clarify any impression one may make from the article about my motivation for questioning evolution. My focus is on the empirical evidence and the scientific interpretations of that evidence. In science class, there is no place for dogma and "sacred cows;" no subject should be "untouchable" as to its scientific merits or shortcomings. My motivation is good science and a well-trained, scientifically literate student.

What can stop science is an irrefutable preconception. Anytime you attempt to limit possible explanations in science, it is then that you get your science stopper.
It's a sly, clever letter that uses broad and vague generalities to its advantage.

No scientist is going to argue against holding an "irrefutable preconception." But McLeroy implies that's what biologists have: a bunch of irrefutable preconceptions that we won't allow to be challenged. He doesn't come out and say it, leaving himself plenty of wiggle room for people to read between the lines and give himself the "No, I didn't mean that at all, I didn't say that" plausible denial. But given the context, is there anyone who seriously doubts the implication is "evolutionary biologists are closed minded"? (That's a genuine question, by the way, not rhetorical.)

McLeroy is mixing up two very different things: original scientific research and science education.

When you're conducting original scientific research, the rules of engagement to tackle "irrefutable preconceptions" are very clear. You make predictions. You do experiments. You gather data. You analyze results. You submit those findings to the critical review of your peers who have some expertise in the field. You publish them.

That's the way that a lot of controversial ideas in science eventually found support. Continental drift, just off the top of my head. Yes, it's a long, hard slog, and yes, there will be arguments against the idea. But if you've got the evidence, you'll usually win out.

And the creationists aren't doing that. I just do not see a large number of specific, testable predictions out there, never mind interest in doing actual experiments. And really, in the digital age, they can't claim that they're unable to communicate they're findings in peer reviewed journals. If they want to communicate their results in non peer reviewed sources, I say, "Go for it." Subject it to public scrutiny. If the predictions have power, if the experiments are well designed, the analysis is careful, and there is actual supporting evidence that can be replicated by others -- researchers will be all over it.

Now, what about science education? Do we expect students to carry out original scientific research at the level that goes on in universities? In general, no. Students don't have that kind of expertise. Schools don't have those kinds of resources. Do we introduce students to absolutely very point of view and let them "make up their own minds"? No. In fact, it is generally considered unethical to do so. It's an abandonment of adult responsibility.

In history class, we don't teach that there is controversy about whether the Holocaust occurred under the Nazis in World War II. Even though there are some people who insist that the Holocaust is never happened. Because there is overwhelming historical evidence (though disputed by a small number of people), and there is a consensus that those advocating the "minority" position are motivated by bigotry, not an interest in historical fact. People who argue that students should be allowed to hear both sides and make up their own mind about the Holocaust are usually arrested for hate crimes.

Instead of presenting every point of view as equally legitimate, we present those things that have strong consensus of evidence. When there is real disagreement, we teach that, too. We show past controversies -- like continental drift -- as examples of how evidence matters.

While McLeroy wants to been seen as a friend to critical thinking, I think what he's really trying to sell is doubt. When two sides are presented in brief as opposing views, people will just think, "Oh, there's disagreement, so I don't have to change what I personally do, because maybe the other side is wrong." This is how the cigarette industry countered reports that smoking was harmful. This is how others countered the scientific evidence that global warming was a serious problem caused by humans.

Meanwhile, newspaper columns keep coming. This next one is from Tim Holt, but before I get to his column, let me quote from an earlier blog entry in Intended Consequences:
I know Chris. She has nothing but the best interest of the kids in mind. I met her when I was president of the Science Teachers Association of Texas in 2002.

I know, I know. How dare she, The head of SCIENCE EDUCATION in Texas forwarding something about SCIENCE! ... Next she will take a stand that is “pro gravity.” We have to stop her!

Damn her for forwarding a message about a topic that the state of Texas TEACHES!
He's gone on to write a more recent article in El Paso's curiously named Newspaper Tree:
(T)here seems to be no other science-related subjects that the agency does not “support.” “Gravity? Go for it. Forces and Motion? Have fun!” “Change over time? Whoa there partner, them is fighting words! Ya’ll can say anything you want ‘bout them other science terms, but ya better just hush-up when yer talking that devil Darwin” ...

What should concern everyone with any interest at all in Texas education is how the agency appears to be stifling debate and discussion, even within itself and within broader science education, the very place where debate and discussion should take place. A science director for a state education agency should be the one that fosters discussion. Comer should not have been fired, she should have been praised. Politics has no place at the TEA curriculum table, especially when it comes to proven scientific truth. (And don’t kid yourselves, there is not a scientist alive today worth his or her salt that does not view as a given that systems change over a period of time.)
Oh, I'm sure there are some scientists worth their salt who don't view things changing over time. But they're not publishing evidence-based science testing predictions based on those views.

21 December 2007

Texas Higher Education and Creation Research, Part 4

I'm really amazed at how little press the Institute for Creation Research is getting for its application to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to grant Master's degrees in science education.

Maybe all the reporters are busy Christmas shopping.

One of Nature's blogs, The Great Beyond, has taken notice.
On the one hand this is a totally stupid move: creationism is not a science and anyone attempting to teach science from a creationist view point is going to – at best – produce ignorant and misinformed students. On the other hand, does it really matter what name you give a degree? In the UK ‘science’ masters degrees are sometimes awarded for history courses and ‘Master of Arts’ degrees for physics.
It's not just about whether it's a Master of Science or a Master of Arts, although it certainly is gallingthat they would have the chutzpah to try for a Master of Science.

I would be just as upset if this proposal was for a Master of Arts degree in science education. It's the content, not the title, that makes this an application that should be rejected. A graduate degree in science education that revolves around creationism is a total contradiction in terms. It would undermine the credibility of every other education graduate program in Texas that teaches actual science.
Creationists are already teaching science in schools and that is the problem, not the creation (groan) of unwarranted degree titles.
Not legally in the U.S. K-12 public school system, however.

The Great Beyond author also puzzled over how quiet this story has been.

I hope this story gathers steam in the New Year, as the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board is slated to discuss this proposal on 24 January 2008.

The Coordinating Board's approval may be more important than I originally thought. According to a report from Texas Citizens for Science, approval from THECB would give the Institute permission to offer degrees for two years while it applies for SACS accreditation. It would also allow them to offer degrees through distance learning, according to another report.

Since the newswire is quiet, let's see what some other bloggers have to say...

Michael White at Adaptive Complexity writes:
Is it acceptable to accredit a science education program that teaches science students that they can build perpetual motion machines that violate the laws of thermodynamics? That matter is not made up of atoms, and that diseases are caused by 'humours' and not germs? Of course not, and by the same token, it is wrong to give state approval to a Master's program that teaches future science educators that the earth suddenly appeared less than 10,000 years ago, and that today's living species did not descend from a common set of ancestors.
The author of the Petunias blog tries to see humor in the situation, but fails:
Go look at the ‘Institute’s’ web site. It would actually be funny if they weren’t serious.

Texas Education Agency and Chris Comer, Part 21

TEA logoBack as an undergraduate, I remember one of my psychology professors talking about the most complimentary and most destructive things you could say about a person. The best compliment to be paid was to say someone was "honest." The worst thing you could say about someone was to call them a "liar."

So I have real strong misgivings over various blogs that have called Lizzette Reynolds (the woman who initially called for Comer to be fired or reassigned) a liar (e.g., Panda's Thumb, to name just one prominent one). A lot of blog responses contained variations on, "How do you know when a creationist / Bushie / fundy lies? Her lips move." And some were nastier.

But did she say anything that contradicted the known facts?

Several people pointed out that at one point, Ms. Reynolds said:
What I didn’t think about was evolution in terms of a political struggle.
when earlier, she mentioned the whole reason she forwarded the email to Comer's bosses was:
I looked at it and said, “This could be political.”
Juxtaposed like that in a convenient quote mine, it does look like a contradiction. But does it represent a lie? Personally, I'm willing to give Ms. Reynolds the benefit of the doubt at least here. I think it's possible to recognize that something has political implications, but not recognize how big those implications are. And we often say slightly contradictory things, particularly about something abstract like "politics."

Others also found it improbable that she was not aware of Ms. Comer's resignation. Working in a bureaucratic administration myself, I find this all to easy to imagine happening. You start something and people forget to follow-up and tell you something's gone on. Unless someone else can verify that Ms. Reynolds was informed before that, that isn't grounds to call her a liar, either.

I am not trying to let Ms. Reynolds off the hook here. Her initial actions look incredibly thin-skinned and hyper-reactionary. Ms. Reynolds email about Comer's "FYI" said:
"This is something that the State Board, the Governor's Office and members of the Legislature would be extremely upset to see because it assumes this is a subject that the agency supports."
But virtually nobody has agreed that "FYI" implies endorsement or support.

Of all the players involved, Ms. Reynolds has came closer than anyone else in the TEA administration to saying what should be said: "We made a mistake."

20 December 2007

Annoyances of meetings

SICB logoI spent almost all day today trying to print off two posters for the upcoming SICB meeting in San Antonio. And a good thing, too, as one more day would have screwed me over.

I love the SICB meeting. But that it's in the middle of winter can pose logistic problems. To wit:

The entire university becomes a flipping ghost town just at the time you're trying to work on your poster!

We have in our building a large poster printer capable of massive, 42 inch wide jobs. And it does gorgeous work. But the lab closed last week, and won't open again until after the SICB conference is over. I managed to get into the lab, being faculty (rank has its privileges), the main computer was on, and I got one poster printed. But I was having problems with the second poster, and at one point ended up accidentally restarting the computer. That did me in, because I didn't have a password to get back into the computer.

I go to the Dean's office, which used to have an oversided printer. But no longer.

Finally, I go to the library, get told the person who can help me is at lunch, come back, and learn their poster is 36", not 42". That's okay, we work around it, and with a bit of fiddling, get the second poster. But this costs me. Whereas I get to use the printer in the Science building for free, I have to pay out of pocket to get this poster printed by the library.

I shall complain no more, however, because I shudder to think what taking it to a local print shop would have cost. And if I'd tried to do them tomorrow, there would have been nobody in the library to help.

But the posters are done -- hooray! -- and I'm looking forward to showing them off in the first Saturday of the new year.

For those of you who will be flying to San Antonio, I have bad news: All the annoying extra steps we go through in airport security don't appear to have made airports more secure. The article contains this bon mot:
"Can you hide anything in your shoes that you cannot hide in your underwear?"
I can, however, think of things I could hide in my underwear but not in my shoes.

Texas Education Agency and Chris Comer, Part 20

And columns speaking out against the Texas Education Agency still keep coming... The latest is by one Rod Rose in Indiana:
If Texas tells a publisher it wants creationism in a biology textbook, it will probably get books that espouse creationism as a scientific alternative to the theory of evolution — because publishing is a for-profit business.

19 December 2007


IndohyusGiven how much I've been writing about evolution of late, it only seems right to point out that new fossils have been found further linking whales to land animals. It's in the new issue of Nature, and a summary is here.

Pretty pictures 2007

This slideshow of science photos from Nature is well worth a quick run through.

Texas Education Agency and Chris Comer, Part 19

Glenn BranchGlenn Branch is the author of the email that Chris Comer forwarded, which in turn precipitated her forced resignation. He comments on the situation. To nobody's surprise, he is not impressed.
It’s absurd, of course, to regard Comer’s forwarding of my announcement of Forrest’s talk as endorsing Forrest’s view (ask a linguist). But that absurdity pales in comparison to the absurdity of the Texas Education Agency trying to adopt a position of “neutrality” on evolution, when (as the National Academy of Sciences observes) “The scientific consensus around evolution is overwhelming.”

The future of seafood

Lobster bitesWhen I saw Long John Silver's ads for Langostino lobster on television, I had a flash of recognition. Because they showed a picture of the Langostino lobster tail, and I thought, "Those are squat lobsters."

I recognized them because I published a paper on squat lobster motor neurons (Faulkes & Paul, 1997. A map of the distal leg motor neurons in the thoracic ganglia of four decapod crustacean species. Brain, Behavior and Evolution 49(3): 162-178).

I was surprised, because squat lobsters get their name from the fact that their tails are small, and they sit with them normally tucked underneath the rest of their body. They are crunchy little animals with a small tail, slender (though often long) claws -- and there's just not much meat on them. When I was working with them, we would sometimes go out trawling for animals and we'd throw some prawns on the boil for lunch, but nobody ever considered throwing a squat lobster into the pot.

Yet there they were, being advertised and sold on the mass market.

I was reminded of a study of seafood menus that showed how clawed lobster used to be considered trash food rather than a delicacy. Lobster meat moved up in prestige as the preferred fish stocks were depleted.

Now, lobster is too expensive for mass consumption, so squat lobsters are being fished and sold. I don't like the trend. We're just going down and down the food chain as one fishery is depleted after another. What's next? Krill?

"Eat like a whale at Long John Silver's! If krill can feed the largest animals on earth, it can feed you!"

Texas Higher Education and Creation Research, Part 3

New York TimesThe New York Times has an article on the THECB's panel's recommendation to allow the Institute for Creation Research to grant Master's degrees in science education in Texas.
Asked how the institute could educate students to teach science, Dr. Paredes, who holds a doctorate in American civilization from the University of Texas and served 10 years as vice chancellor for academic development at the University of California, said, "I don't know. I'm not a scientist."
You could ask some scientists, you know, We're nice. We'd help.

The article clarifies how the Institute for Creation Research has been accredited, and it's partly through legal muscle:
In California, the only other state where Mr. Morris said the institute was offering degrees, it won recognition from the state superintendent of public instruction in 1981 but was denied license renewal in 1988. The institute sued and in 1992 won a $225,000 settlement that allowed it to continue offering degrees; it now operates under the California Department of Consumer Affairs. Dr. Morris said his program was accredited by the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, which is not recognized by Texas.
Texas Citizens for Science, however, claims that the Institute no longer has TRACS accreditation.

The Houston Chronicle also has a news article on this, as does the Austin American-Statesman, here. Patricia Nason is quoted as saying:
"The bottom line is we're teaching science and we're teaching teachers how to teach science(.)"
You're not teaching science when you require students to follow a literal biblical interpretation, which is ICR's avowed mandate.

I'm expecting now that this story has made it into a national newspaper, we're probably going to start seeing editorials around the country about this. Bringing Texas into more disrepute.

This is way, way more worrying than what happened to Chris Comer, frankly.

18 December 2007

New article: E4D Commentary

Behavioral and Brain SciencesA short commentary on the book Evolution in Four Dimensions by my colleague Anita and myself has just been published. Yes, the cover date on the journal says August, but the article was published online on 17 December (yesterday). Probably lots of libraries won't see print copies until early 2008.

The doi is 10.1017/S0140525X07002270. Accept no substitutes.

Faulkes Z, Davelos Baines A. 2007. Evolutionary string theory. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 30(4): 369-370.

Here's the abstract:

Evolution in Four Dimensions claims that epigenetic, behavioral, and symbolic inheritance systems should be considered equal partners to genetics in evolutionary biology. The evidence for, and applicable scope of, these additional inheritance systems is limited, particularly with regard to areas involving learning. It is unclear how including these extra dimensions in mainstream evolutionary thinking translates into testable hypotheses for a productive research program.

You can check out other responses to the book in this issue here.

The Zen of Presentations, Part 13: The worst mistake

StopwatchNever go over your alloted time when you're giving a talk.

This is particularly an issue for people giving presentations at conferences, where your talk is just one small part of a much larger parade of presentations. If you go too long, you make everyone else late for the rest of the day.

If there are multiple tracks of presentations, the imperative to stay on time gets even greater. People will often move from one room to another, popping in to see one talk and then leaving to see another talk. If the schedule goes out of whack, you do a great disservice to the audience.

My general rule of thumb is aim for your talk to be about 80% of alloted time. Given a 15 minute talk? Aim for 12. Got a 50 minute talk? Aim for 40. That way, if you are delayed a little, you can still finish on time.

And how do you know how long your talk is? Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.

Nobody ever criticizes a talk for being too short. But having a talk that goes on too long -- not knowing when to shut up -- is really the height of rudeness.

Then as now

One of my students asked me today what high school was like for me. I said, "Nothing's changed."

"You were a geek?"


Frighteningly, there's not much difference between my Grade 12 high school yearbook entry and my Facebook page.

17 December 2007

Texas Higher Education and Creation Research, Part 2

An advisory committee to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board has, to my shock, actually recommended the Institute for Creation Research be allowed to award Master's degrees in science education in Texas.

My surprise was slightly mitigated by this information:
(T)he Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board will be taking up the issue in the wake of an August ruling by the Texas Supreme Court questioning the grounds on which the board had evaluated seminaries and warning the board not to impose secular values on seminaries.
But the surprise factor went back up when I read this familiar sounding quote:
“A lot of people believe creationism is a legitimate point of view. I respect them,” (Raymund A. Paredes, commissioner of higher education for Texas) said. “I’m an advocate of the principle that when there is a controversy and there are legitimate arguments on both sides of the conflict, my pedagogical principle is ‘teach the conflict.’ Maybe that’s a possibility here.”
Ah, yes. "Teach the conflict." I refer you back to the letter to the Texas Education Agency signed by many biology professors in the state, which surveyed journals to find 29,639 peer-reviewed scientific papers on evolution in 12 journals to 0 on intelligent design. I expect "creation science" would yield a similar total.

From a scientific point of view, that's not a conflict. That's a massacre.

In some sense, however, although surprising, the advisory report is almost meaningless, since the major accrediting agency is the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (universally known in the area as SACS). I can't imagine SACS would accredit them, since the Institute for Creation Research has never had mainstream accreditation, by all accounts. They had accreditation from the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS), but apparently have no longer, according to Texas Citizens for Science. Texas Citizens for Science is turning out to be a very active ad interesting source of information on this matter.

Silver lining

Where my extended brain used to sitThat my computer has been taken away from my desk and is not likely to return from being repaired until well into the new year has an unexpected up side. Moving to a new computer, I was forced to look at how I was going to handle email and such, and in so doing, I figured out several good things about working with Thunderbird so that I wasn't continually forced to use webmail. I upgraded some Bluetooth software and found it works much better than the old stuff I was using.

Now, if I can just get my computer back before the start of classes next year, I'll be happy.

15 December 2007

Texas Higher Education and Creation Research, Part 1

The Institute for Creation Research is asking the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board for permission to offer graduate degrees in science education.

The article describes the institute's contentious history of offering degrees in California. Apparently, they did offer accredited degrees, lost that right in 1988, sued and won money but didn't get the right to offer accredited Master's degrees back.

Opinion: Avowed creationist institutes should not offer Master's degrees with science in the title.

And I thought the Texas Education Agency and Chris Comer situation was giving me lots to write about.

13 December 2007

Texas Education Agency and Chris Comer, Part 18

The Austin American-Statesman continues to do a fine job of investigating the forced resignation of Chris Comer. Now, they have an interview with key player Lizzette Reynolds. She was the one who first responded to Comer's forwarded email.
Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?

I would have alerted the proper people that something was being sent on the state e-mail. I would have said, “Let’s discuss this,” instead of giving my opinion in the e-mail. … Should I have used the words “termination” or “reassignment”? I don’t know.
Interestingly, although she was the first to send a very strong opinion to Comer's supervisors, she said she did not know Comer was forced to resign.
Were you aware of the significance of evolution?

I didn’t recognize the importance of the subject in terms of it being tagged “evolution.” I know now that it has very real importance in modern science and research. I know that it is in our TEKS, and I’ve no reason to believe it won’t continue that way. What I didn’t think about was evolution in terms of a political struggle. That took me by surprise because the science is being utilized in all our schools.
I have to say that I'm not surprised that an administrator wouldn't really appreciate the science. Unfortunate, but not surprising.

All told, I think Ms. Reynolds comes across as someone who's honestly given thought about what's happened to Chris Comer. She sure does not give anywhere near the same vibe as statements from Robert Scott or Don McLeroy, who really give the impression that they have an agenda to push.

Meanwhile, William Lutz, writing in the East Texas Review takes an unabashedly conservative point of view and spells out why conservatives have to take political note of evolution.
Even discussing the pros and cons of evolution can cause political problems. Many Americans view it either as a government imposition of religion or political tampering with science or both.
Could it be because it, you know, actually is? That, in fact, the repeated defeats for creationism and such in multiple court challenges are because it truly does violate the first amendment of the American constitution by showing favouritism to one particular religious point of view?

It's unfortunate that this is seen purely as political positioning, instead of empirical fact.
Even people who make well-thought-out critiques of Darwin are accused of trying to cram their religious views down others’ throats.
What "well-thought-out critiques"? That is a sincere question, not rhetoric. Where are they? Because I keep looking, and I keep seeing the same arguments and no actual new data.

I say again: Make predictions. Do experiments. Analyze data. Do real science. There are lots of armchair critics capable of composing "well-thought-out critiques" that don't stand up to serious experimentation.

Lower molars

MolarsIn a recent post, I quoted one Mark Ramsey, who wants "weaknesses" in evolution taught in K-12 public schools, who asked, "What are the Darwinists afraid of?"

I said those were fighting words. It's a taunt. And it's an effective taunt, too, judging how bloody irritated I got upon reading it.

The implication is that biologists don't want a "fair hearing" because it will reveal that evolution is somehow lacking. In fact, it has much more to do with the futility of engaging in intellectual debate with people who will never, ever change their minds.

Normally, I would try to express my frustration over the pattern of discussion, but someone beat me to it, albeit in a totally different context. The following are excerpts from a post made by Joe Straczynski, writer of many things including Babylon 5, to the usenet newsgroup rec.arts.sf.tv.babylon5.moderated back in 19 May 1998. It perfectly expresses the tremendous frustration that arises when dealing with a small number of unreasonable people.
Let’s play a game for a moment. Let’s say there are 30 people out there who don’t like you. For whatever reason. They don’t like your work, your face, whatever. 30 people out of a much larger universe of people.

Now, those 30 people go online, where you hang out, and they leave dozens -- literally dozens -- of messages attacking you, every day. They put out absolute and downright lies, total fabrications... they cite contracts that don’t exist, they put out the word that you’ve had a heart attack just so the switchboards at your office get flooded and people get upset, they send you trojan horses and viruses, and impugn your ability, your credibility, your honesty, your relationships with your co-workers.

And they do this day after day, week after week, month after month... for six years. Unflaggingly, untiringly, just one nonstop series of attacks. Yeah, it’s 30 people out of a much larger universe, but over time, even a whole human being can be eaten by ants. They have an impact substantially greater than their numbers or real influence would warrant.

And you cannot hit them, you cannot strike back (it’s okay for THEM to say whatever they want about you, but if you do it back somehow that’s wrong), so your hands are tied unless you want to spend several hundred thousand dollars suing them (which mind you, you’re not entirely ruling out), all you can do is take it, and take it, and take it.

And then one of these jokers will come up with “Well, if you can’t stand the heat...” and you vow you will make them eat their lower molars. It’s not heat, it’s pathology.


If you were standing in the street, and someone walked up to you discheveled, with madness in his eyes, clearly deranged, and began shouting at you two inches from your face, would you stand there and say, “No, it’s okay, it’s his free speech.” No, you would walk away, or help someone who was being assaulted verbally by this person. (And before somebody says “it’s just words,” the Supreme Court and every court in the land has found that words have power to hurt, to defame, to abuse, and to incite.)


Sure, I could keep on going toe-to-toe with them for the *next* five years, day in and day out... but to what end? For what purpose? To explain myself to them? They have no interest in explanations. If you counterattack, you just feed them; if you ignore them, they take it as permission to continue doing so, and others take it as implicit endorsement of what they said.
Joe became a much less public figure after completing Babylon 5.
Ultimately, those people who didn't like Joe's work on Babylon 5 and elsewhere didn't really have much in the way in the ability to impact his ability to write.

Biologists don't have that luxury of withdrawing. A small, dedicated group of people can have huge impacts on science education.

So biologists keep working.

We do research. We keep trying to increase our knowledge of the natural world. We teach classes to students to try to give them the best possible education. We write articles for our peers, we write books and blogs for the public. We say again that yes, there are transitional fossils. We provide detailed answers to claims against evolution that go on for pages and pages. And for all that effort, we are usually rewarded with the same one-line dismissals ("Only a theory!" "Gaps in the fossil record!" "Nobody was there!") over and over and over again.

And then one of these jokers will come up with “What are the Darwinists afraid of?” and you almost wish you could vow you will make them eat their lower molars.

Almost. But that's not the scientific way. So you don't.

Texas Education Agency and Chris Comer, Part 17

TEA logoLooking for work? The Texas Education Agency is hiring. Yes, that used to be Chris Comer's position.

Note that you even get:
(C)onsiderable latitude for the use of initiative and independent judgment.
Uh-huh. I suggest applicants take that with a grain of salt.

I seriously wonder how many applications they will get. It's pretty clear that you're basically asking for a job that will require you to walk straight into a political minefield.

Texas Education Agency and Chris Comer, Part 16

Chris ComerNow that the Chris Comer's resignation from the Texas Education Agency is a couple of weeks old, it's no longer news, and so reports are slowing down. But this story is going to be flaring up for a long time.

This article in the Dallas Morning News does a good job of looking at the long term issues at stake in Texas, namely the upcoming review of science standards that begins in 2008. It contains some blunt language.

Don McLeroy is crystal clear about his intentions:
"I'm a Christian, and I think about how this impacts everything," Dr. McLeroy said. "Religion is not just something you put on the side. It's everything. I see us all created in the image of God. I don't believe nature is all there is."
So there you go. McLeroy and company are bound and determined to promote a particular religious point of view. (And it's important to realize it is a very particular religious view, not a religious view generally.)

Likewise, Chris Comer is quoted:
"Any science teacher worth their salt that has any background in biology will tell you there is no controversy," said Ms. Comer, a mother of two grown children. "It is time for America to grow up." ...

"The way things are being done these days I don't think rational minds have a chance," she said.
The article also notes that Comer is a Christian.

Now here's the real fighting words:
"Emphatically, we are not trying to 'take evolution out of the schools,'" said Mark Ramsey of Texans for Better Science Education, which wants schools to teach about weaknesses in evolution. "All good educators know that when students are taught both sides of an issue such as biologic evolution, they understand each side better. What are the Darwinists afraid of?"
I'm afraid of willful ignorance.

I'm afraid of people subverting scientific process.

I'm afraid of people breaking the law. (See U.S. Supreme Court decision Edwards vs. Aguillard, 1987, among others.)

I'm afraid of people lying. (For example, the Kitzmiller v. Dover people revealed, unfortunately, a lot of dishonesty on the part of those opposing the teaching of evolution.)

I'm not afraid of honest intellectual debate about science. The problem is, there is no "other side," scientifically speaking. There's "another side" in the social debate, in the political debate, but there just isn't decent science. It's like the old joke about no entering a battle of wits with an unarmed person.

Make some predictions, run some experiments, analyze some data -- in other words, do some actual science -- and we'll talk.

Suggesting that scientists are avoiding the issue is absolutely mad. I will probably write much more about this later.

And another thing.



Makes it seems like a little cult of personality instead of a scientific discipline.

Makes it seem like there hasn't been an original idea since the publication of On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life nearly 150 years ago.

I prefer, "biologist."

KXAN has video related to the ongoing Chris Comer story. One of the titles they gave a piece is... underwhelming: "Some TX Biology Professors Support Evolution Education."

Was the "some" qualifier necessary?

Text version here.

And, in my quest to find alternative views, I actually did find a blogger who supports the Texas Education Agency's forcing Comer's resignation. Be warned before you click the link: It's shrill.

12 December 2007

A good time or a bad time?

External hard driveThe good news: I was able to get my office computer functioning long enough to back up most of the stuff I needed onto my external hard drive. Thank goodness I actually had the presence of mind to buy one a couple of months back.

The biggest nuisance is that email and address book settings aren't quick or easy to back up. I'm stuck with clunky webmail and no easy contact list for the duration.

The bad news: I wasn't able to get it running after that. Which meant I had to contact our Helpdesk.

May god have mercy on my soul.

Okay, maybe it wasn't that bad. Yet. I actually managed to get someone in my office within a couple of hours. The computer went away for repair, and given the time of year, it's unlikely that I'll get it back until early next year. Bothersome, when I'm trying to prepare conference trips, revise manuscripts, submit grant proposals, etc., but still... better than having it taken away when it's all that plus classes going full bore.

But I know that when the computer comes back, I'm going to have to spend a day fixing all the helpful "adjustments" to my OS that tech services feel compelled to make.

11 December 2007

Perversity of the universe tends to maximum

My office computer is malfunctioning. So I'm writing this on my lab computer.

It looks like something has gone awry with the video display, which is good, because that means actual stored data is unaffected.

Not sure if I'm going to be able to get anything useful out of it for a while, though.

It's not a good time for my major workhorse to be out of commission, though. I really wanted to use it to work on conference posters, which I was hoping to finish this week.

Texas Education Agency and Chris Comer, Part 15

The Dallas Star-Telegram has an op-ed piece from Alan Leshner, the CEO of American Association for the Advancement of Science commenting on the Texas Education Agency's policy of "neutrality":
These comments -- suggesting that scientific facts based on indisputable physical evidence are somehow subject to debate on nonscientific grounds -- are especially troubling in a state known for its innovation and filled with high-quality research universities. ...

But, the more important question is this: Should anyone in charge of science curriculum be expected to remain neutral regarding efforts to insert religious viewpoints into science classrooms? The answer is "no."
Wired also has an interesting blog entry focused on the more general battle over state education standards, textbooks, and why Texas plays such an important role. It quotes Lawrence Lerner:
Florida and Texas represent two chances to get a Federal district court opinion that contradicts the Pennsylvania one (Kitzmiller v. Dover - ZF), and the present and possible future makeup of the Supreme Court gives the creationists considerable encouragement to give it their best try.

10 December 2007

Texas Education Agency and Chris Comer, Part 14

Robert ScottWhere do I sign?

The Austin American-Statesman is reporting that over 100 of my colleagues sent a letter to commissioner Robert Scott (pictured). The letter (Word document -- easy to miss on the American-Statesman page) argues that the Texas Education Agency should abandon its posture of staying "neutral" on intelligent design, the non-science idea that was tried in court and found wanting in Kitzmiller v. Dover.

You can tell scientists wrote the letter: they have data!
A quick database search of scientific publications since 1975 shows 29,639 peer-reviewed scientific papers on evolution in twelve leading journals alone. To put this in perspective, if you read 5 papers a day, every day, it would take you 16 years to read this body of original research. These tens of thousands of research papers on evolution provide overwhelming support for the common ancestry of living organisms and for the mechanisms of evolution including natural selection. In contrast, a search of the same database for “Intelligent Design” finds a mere 24 articles, every one of which is critical of intelligent design. Given that evolution currently has a score of 29,639 -- while "intelligent design" has a score of exactly zero -- it is absurd to expect the TEA’s director of science curriculum to “remain neutral” on this subject.

In the American-Statesman article, biologist Daniel Bolnick is quoted as saying:
As educators, we simply feel strongly that scientifically sound information be taught in public schools, and certainly having people sympathetic to quality evolution education at the TEA is important.
Incidentally, the American-Statesmanheadline is now referring to Comer's forced resignation as a "scandal."

Meanwhile, in my quest for points of view other than "You have got to be kidding,", I was lead to the blog Telic Thoughts, well known for its support of intelligent design. Some legitimate points are raised in this post:
How is the teaching of evolution compromised by Comer's departure? The answer. It is not.
Which is true. The science standards today are the same as the day before Ms. Comer was forced to resign. But this incident speaks to a pattern that is worrying. When you put together Don McLeroy's on the record support of intelligent design because it is compatible with certain religious views, Ms. Comer's revealing how a presentation by NCSE's Eugenie Scott was put off until 2:00 a.m., and so on... Forgive people for being concerned.

The post continues:
The agency should remain neutral on the issue of intellligent (sic) design. Why? Because it lies outside what should be the real focus of science educators namely, furthering the education of students in Texas.
As many have realized and pointed out, the prospect of weakening teaching on evolution is not compatible with furthering science education. Not saying it's happened yet -- but there is very good reason to be concerned and watchful.

The letter from the biology professors quoted above is very clear why the TEA should not be neutral: intelligent design isn't science.

Moving on:
There is no point to devoting time and resources to a struggle against intelligent design. Taxpayers are not funding that.
Taxpayers are funding the upcoming curriculum review. Periodic review is normal and desirable. There has been no suggestion that the agency should "invest resources" into fighting intelligent design -- but there is a very high probability that various interested parties will either bring intelligent design to the table, or, more likely, try to weaken or remove the bits of the state science curriculum that concern evolution. And it is certainly is within the scope of the Agency's mandate to assess what the state of science is, and what concepts students need to learn to be ready to understand the current state of science.

Texas Education Agency and Chris Comer, Part 13

Chris ComerThere's a local prediction that "south Texas is the new Florida." The idea is that retirees looking for a warm place to move to will start moving to south Texas, because Florida is full. But here's another interesting comparison to make between Florida and Texas. Someone from a state education agency emails people about upcoming reviews to the state K-12 science curriculum.

In Florida, an email that says:
(I)work for the Florida Department of Education as the Director of the Office of Instructional Materials... I say all of this, obviously, to give this e-mail credibility. ...

Districts will not have a choice in teaching evolution as a theory... Whose agenda is this and will the Christians in Florida care enough to do something about it? ...

The least we can do is make sure evolution is presented to our children and grandchildren as a theory as it has been in the past. Hopefully, though, we can do better than that.
gets a reprimand.

In Texas, a forwarded email with "FYI" gets a forced resignation.

The Florida situation appears to have occurred after news of Chris Comer's resignation broke, so perhaps those in the Florida Department of Education took note at how much attention the Comer situation has received nationally.

Meanwhile, let's see what the Texas Education Agency's education commissioner, Robert Scott, has to say in Dallas News interview:
I'm aware of the reports and a bit disturbed by them because they're not based in reality or fact.
If that's the case, it might have been handy for the Agency to have been communicative. Mr. Scott goes on to say:
The really frustrating part about this is, if I start talking about activities and things that happened, I get sued.
Nevertheless, since the Austin American-Statesman published a TEA memo on proposed disciplinary action, it seems a little coy to say that he can't talk about things that happened. Indeed, the memo absolutely supports Mr. Scott's contention that Ms. Comer was not forced to resign over one thing (i.e., the forwarded email about Barbara Forrest's presentation).

Nevertheless, I think that many reasonable people have looked at that memo. I admit that memos like that don't give the whole story and don't capture workplace dynamics. Unless there was something else really major that was not written down in print there, a lot of people have concluded that the matters in question are not something you normally fire someone over. Ooops... I mean, "not something you normally ask for someone's resignation over."

Regarding whether Ms. Comer advocated evolution, Mr. Scott says:
But she may have given the impression that ... we were taking a position as an agency – not as an individual but as an agency – on a matter.
"May have." So the problem is, as I've said before, is just the possibility of the appearance of a conflict of interest.

You know, the memo published by the Austin American-Statesman has been read by a lot of people. The vast majority (I am being measured here, because I am tempted to say "all") who've looked at this don't see Ms. Comer advocating any position on the subject, much less one that could be confused as a Texas Education Agency position. This is simply not how reasonable people are viewing the situation.

And when the paper calls the bluff of neutrality directly and asks, "Why shouldn't the agency advocate the science of evolution?", you get a very telling remark:
But you can be in favor of a science without bashing people's faith, too.
When did anyone's faith get "bashed"? What kind of "bashing" is he worried will occur?

I'm having a hard time finding sympathy for the TEA at this point. A lot of statements that have been made by people associated with the Agency give the impression that it is run by a lot of people who are very thin-skinned and very, very worried about what one particular group of religious people might say.

Another editorial over the weekend, this one from the San Antonio Express-News.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development recently released the results of a test that assesses science and math skills of students in 30 industrialized countries. The results showed American students scored in the bottom half — worse than their peers from 16 other countries, and better than only those from Italy, Portugal, Greece, Turkey and Mexico. ...

Do Texans truly want their educators to be neutral on the teaching of religious faith versus science in schools? If so, then the State Board of Education and the Texas Education Agency are well on their way to making students in Italy, Portugal, Greece, Turkey and Mexico feel proud.
Outside of the state of Texas, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is also concerned about America's standing in science education rankings:
Some politicians don't seem to grasp the difference between science and faith, so it's no wonder scientific theory befuddles U.S. high school students.
Over in Utah, Salt Lake Tribune writer Robyn Blumner says:
Really folks, in this information age, when scientific innovation is the key to our nation's future, we don't have the time to be mucking around in this tired debate. You don't produce doctors and scientists by teaching science from the Bible. Period.
He talks a little about Comer, but is more concerned with George W. Bush's track record in science and prospects for the next presidency.

08 December 2007

Texas Education Agency and Chris Comer, Part 12

The Austin American-Statesman has just published its second editorial on the Chris Comer resignation.
The firing of Comer already has done real damage to Texas’ reputation as it competes with California and New York for research and development projects, grants, biomedical industries and the nation’s best scientists.
Yup. They got it. You can't expect to benefit from knowledge while promoting ignorance.
Blogs by researchers have cast Texas as a backwater state that puts religious ideology on par with science.
You're welcome. Go me.

Something that has been missing in the editorials, though, is that Texas has a plan in place called "Closing the Gaps," which aims to increase university participation and student success across the state. Biology is a very popular major, and many non-science majors take some biology to fulfill biology requirements.

Weaken teaching on evolution, put in any language that waffles or sows doubt, and students are going to be in for a shock. They'll be left playing catch-up as they find that, say, intelligent design is not taught in science classes (except, perhaps, in a historical context under its original name of natural theology, or as an example of how to do science wrong). They'll be in for a rude awakening that all those alleged "weaknesses" probably have solutions that have been known for decades.

Students would be less ready for a university education, and less likely to succeed.

07 December 2007

Texas Education Agency and Chris Comer, Part 11

Chris ComerEven some of the major intelligent design guys are stepping back from the Texas Education Agency's treatment of Chris Comer. William Dembski, on the Uncommon Descent blog (which I earlier characterized as "strangely quiet") wrote:
I’m still not clear about the details of the case, but if Comer’s firing were solely for supporting Forrest, this ought not to be.
Dembski seems very reserved in saying he doesn't know the details. They've been up for a week (including PDF from the Texas Education Agency) and there has not yet been any factual challenge as to what happened -- only why.

Anyway. Chris Comer's interview on Science Friday was only about 20 minutes, and largely consisted of a narrative of the events leading to her resignation. Not a lot of the information is new, although a few things are worth emphasizing. She did not send the email in question through her work account. The person who pushed for her resignation was not a recipient of the email, but found out about it and lodged a complaint within hours. And the ultimatum of resign or be fired was rather abrupt.

Texas Eduation Agency and Chris Comer, Part 10

In addition to speaking on Science Friday, Chris Comer is interviewed by an Austin TV station, News 8 Austin. The video link is incorrect, but may be fixed in the future. An accompanying text article says:
Unemployable is how Castillo-Comer describes herself now.

Castillo-Comer has not decided whether she will file a lawsuit against the state.
Frankly, if she does, I think she would have a lot of people behind her. Not least of which is the American Institute of Biological Sciences, who have issued a position paper:
Biologists and evolution education advocates across the United States are outraged that the TEA requires, as agency policy, neutrality when talking about evolution and creationism.
As much as I try to be a level-headed guy, yeah, I would have to agree that I'm stepping towards outrage on this.

Update: The video link in the News 8 Austin page now works and actually shows Comer and not sports.

Texas Education Agency and Chris Comer, Part 9

Today (Friday, 7 December), Chris Comer is scheduled to appear on Science Friday on America's National Public Radio (NPR). It's slated for 1:00 pm Central Standard Time. If this is as usual for the show, they will have a "Listen again" feature on the Internet for those outside the county.

Meanwhile, I've been looking in blogs for anyone who is willing to defend the Texas Education Agency on this.

About the only one I can find is an argument that certain people have double standards, drawing parallels between Comer and one Guillermo Gonzalez, an astronomer who supported intelligent design, and was recently denied tenure. As these are unrelated cases, each case has to be looked at upon its own merits. I'm not getting into the Gonzalez case, as others are doing that. Much is getting written on Panda's Thumb.

Even Uncommon Descent, arguably the most famous intelligent design blog, is strangely quiet, asking if Texas can or should remain neutral. It posts several questions, mentions the Gonzalez situation, and posts two news stories from the Austin American-Statesman.

I also found this piece, which affirms that many Christians also smell something rotten in the TEA's actions. And even a post that starts "I'm a creationist," admits:
How can the Texas Education Agency justify her firing her for endorsing a view which is taught at every Texas public school? ... I’m still confused as to why Comer was let go.
Finally, a more personal perspective is taken by someone who is familiar with one of the key players involved, Lizette Reynolds, and is boggled. "But she seemed so smart..."

More newspaper editorials today. In keeping with my quest for alternative views, the University of Texas at Austin Daily Texas is more forgiving than most to intelligent design:
Darwin's theory of evolution may be just that - a theory, and as much of one as intelligent design - but scientifically, a theory is a call for questioning and synthesis, and a path toward tangible fact.
But that's as far as they'll go, still not supporting TEA's actions:
There are facts and there are suppositions, and as the TEA has proven, the former does not belong in the realm of political politesse. But the latter does not belong in our schools.
One in the International Herald-Tribune:
Surely the agency should not remain neutral on the central struggle between science and religion in the public schools. It should take a stand in favor of evolution as a central theory in modern biology.
Another in the Dallas Morning News:
Professional educators need assurance that no one aims to impose a religious agenda on students and require the teaching of creationism alongside evolution in science classes.

If Ms. Comer was incompetent, it's certainly not reflected by her 27-year career as a teacher and nine years of service as director of science. The impression we get is that her bosses were gunning for her, and the forwarded e-mail was the most expedient excuse they could find.

This action could not have sent a worse message to our state's educators, when we should be doing everything possible to encourage people to choose teaching as a career, not frightening or bullying them into leaving.
Incidentally, since all of this was set off by a presentation by Barbara Forrest, the website for Creationism's Trojan Horse, the book she co-authored has lots of resources and may be of interest.

06 December 2007

Texas Education Agency and Chris Comer, Part 8

You're not fooling anyoneThe Austin American-Statesman, the paper that broke the story on Chris Comer's resignation from the Texas Education agency, has an important follow-up story:
"We were actually told in a meeting in September that if creationism is the party line, we have to abide by it," Comer said(.)
Holy shit.

If true, we (Texas, biologists, educators) are in much, much more trouble that I thought.

More importantly, the paper has finally got comment from an agency spokesperson, Debbie Ratcliffe:
She said charges of misconduct against Comer were prompted by a lack of professionalism(.)

"An employee shouldn't say something that's contrary to the curriculum, and they shouldn't look like they are siding with one camp over another," Ratcliffe said. "It's no secret that there are political differences on the State Board of Education. ... And employees have to be able to work with all the members in a fair way without the perception that they are siding with one group or another. That's why it's important for us to be neutral on issues and just to say what the policy is and not to create it ourselves."
This seems to me to be a 100% admission that the Texas Education Agency wanted Comer to resign for political reasons.

By the sounds of it, it would not be "neutral" to point out that there are mountains of peer-reviewed papers on evolution, and rather fewer on intelligent design. It would not be "neutral" to point out the outcome of the Kitzmiller v. Dover case. In other words, according to the Texas Education Agency, correct and factual information is not "neutral" when evolution is involved.
"Obviously, there was a concern about the forwarding of that e-mail ... that she was supporting that particular speaker and (how) that could be construed ... as taking a position that could be misinterpreted by some people," Ratcliffe said.
So Comer was getting pressured for the mere possibility of the appearance of bias.
Board Chairman Don McLeroy said that he does expect evolution to be a hot topic during the upcoming review(.)
Well, yeah, it sure as heck is going to be now, given the provocative actions the agency has taken, and the clear alignment with the point of view that evolution, alone among scientific disciplines, should be singled out for criticism.
McLeroy said he would support changes that further spell out what evolution's strengths and weaknesses are.
You're not fooling anyone, Mr. McLeroy. You'd support spelling out alleged weaknesses because it's an opportunity to attack evolution and thereby make religious views look better by making evolution look bad.

Meanwhile, there are more editorials in the Waco Tribune-Herald, which notes:
Texas parents, teachers and lawmakers should be on guard that the state avoids the mistakes that led to the 2005 Dover, Pa., lawsuit.
And in Kansas, on the idea that Comer should remain neutral on intelligent design, the Wichita Eagle asks:
Why should she be?

The Eugene, Oregon Register-Guard says:
Comer’s ouster already is a tragedy.