19 November 2008

Maybe one good point

This post has been sitting in the "draft" file for a while. Sorry...

The Waco Tribune has an opinion column by Charles Garner. Dr. Garner is one of the reviewers of the Texas K-12 science standards, which I wrote about before.

Garner makes one potentially good point. Really.
The “strengths and weaknesses” language has been in place for a decade. If it had been used to introduce religion or supernatural explanations into the classroom, these groups would have a long list of specific incidents, with names, dates, etc.

But when I contacted Dr. Dan Bolnik, an assistant professor of Integrative Biology at the University of Texas and the head of the 21st Century Science Coalition (from whose Web site the above quotes were obtained), Bolnik could not provide me with a single specific example of such an incident.

I give Garner credit for bringing in evidence about the number of complaints. I may criticize the details (He only asked one person? Why didn't he phone NCSE, an organization with a longer history?), but I appreciate the empirical approach.

There are many reasons why I think the argument, "There hasn't been a lawsuit, so the wording must be okay" argument has shortcomings.

First, advocacy groups don't file complaints or launch lawsuits; teachers, students, parents and school administrators do. And doing that is not trivial. Getting involved in these things takes time, money, a willingness to be put in a national spotlight, and a big risk of social ostracism. These things happened in Dover, Pennsylvania. So it's entirely possible that a lot of problems get ignored, and that people are not willing to step up. It's the cliché "chilling effect."

Second, there is a good reason to be very careful in wording policies. I am greatful to author Neil Gaiman for writing recently:
The Law is a blunt instrument. It's not a scalpel. It's a club.

Even if the wording of "limitations" and "weaknesses" was put in to education standards with the avowed intent of fostering critical thinking skills in students, the blunt instrument of Law may not distinguish that from wholesale inclusion of religion into classrooms.

Of course, that "even if" is not the case. We know this wording is being proposed specifically for evolution; Board of Education chair Don McLeroy said so. These are creationists pushing an agenda to get a religious point of view in classrooms. Here's some recent evidence of this.

But all that aside, Garner still blows it.
Perhaps what the 21st Century Science Coalition fears is criticism of a naturalistic Darwinistic worldview, the view that science has explained (or will someday) that life and everything is simply an accident of chemistry and physics.

That worldview, cherished by some in the scientific community and promoted heavily in the proposed Earth and Space Science TEKS standards, has several serious scientific weaknesses that students deserve to understand.

As is so often the case, Garner does not spell out -- heck, even hint at -- these "weaknesses" of the "naturalistic worldview."

Let’s teach more about evolution, not less, and give the students of Texas enough scientific evidence to decide for themselves.

Ah, "Let them decide for themselves." I've written before that this is unethical. The Panda's Thumb helped spot a post describing a case where it's highly doubtful that those pushing for the "Let them decide for themselves" approach for evolution would support it for another subject...
A great many religious conservatives - many of the same ones who call for teaching the controversy on evolution, I don't doubt - change their tune when it comes to public-school health classes, demanding that students be taught an "abstinence-only" program that omits contraception, or mentions it only to discuss its failure rates. How strange. Whatever happened to fairness? Whatever happened to learning about all sides? Why can students make up their own minds about evolution, but not about how to protect themselves from STDs?

Meanwhile, there are many columns about the hearings on K-12 science standards last month.

Here's what several rabbis said.

And more summary than opinion is found in The Texas Observer (scroll down).

Here's a Houston Chronicle commentary:
Forget Kansas. If we're not careful on this issue, people across the nation could soon be asking, "What's the matter with Texas?"— if they're not already.

Unlike many questions in science, the answer would be simple: the politicization of education.

Outside the state of Texas, in The Flint Journal, this column:
It appears that everything really is bigger in Texas, including the size and scope of their mistakes.

That's my conclusion after watching the Texas State Board of Education try to wrangle creationism, or intelligent design, into their state science curriculum.

Meanwhile, Seth Godin talks about why selling evolution is hard.

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