22 December 2007

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.

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