21 February 2009

What a dentist believes

Don McElroyThe Texas Observer has a profile of Don McLeroy, the dentist who chairs the Texas State Board of Education who is a Young Earth Creationist deeply involved in setting Texas Science Standards. The title ("The Curious Faith of Don McLeroy") and the first paragraph give s sense of the articles tone:

Don McLeroy’s story, and his thinking, are more complicated, and more telling, than those bare facts suggest.

There's a fair amount of interesting things here. Here's one:

McLeroy insists he doesn’t have any desire to have creationism taught in classrooms. “It’s a religious philosophy,” he says. “It doesn’t belong in schools. Same with intelligent design. Evolution is the scientific consensus, so we’ll teach that.”

You know, I'm willing to give McLeroy the benefit of the doubt here. Maybe this limited thing is what he personally is trying to accomplish. But what seems to be missing is an acknowledgment of the possibility that some people will see "strengths and weaknesses" as an invitation to teach religious philosophy.

But McLeroy believes that at some point, perhaps in 10 years, perhaps in 50, a new scientific revolution will reveal that “the creationists’ crazy ideas” are actually right—just as quantum mechanics and relativity overturned the tidy world of classical physics.

I wonder, historically, how many people who said "History will vindicate me" actually were vindicated by history...

“Well, if he feels there’s such a controversy,” says Eugenie Scott, executive director at the National Center for Science Education, “then he should address it at the university level. That’s where new science is made. To expect high school students to evaluate ‘controversies’ in cutting-edge evolutionary biology before they have a solid grounding in science is ridiculous.

“We don’t do that with any other science. Would you teach kids about the controversies in string theory before they learned basic physics?”

This line of thought reduces McLeroy to near-speechlessness. “But ...” he sputters when I call him for comment on Scott’s point, “It’s not ... it’s not true. There are real problems with it. How can we teach our kids something that’s not true?”

Sorry, Mr. McLeroy – it is true. And the author, despite a fairly sympathetic tone that paints McLeory as a relatively nuanced thinker, goes on:

What McLeroy doesn’t seem to understand is that science education is all about teaching kids things that, strictly speaking, aren’t true. When I learned about relativity and quantum mechanics in college, I learned that the classical chemistry and Newtonian physics I had been taught in high school were, at best, approximations. That they really didn’t do that great a job of describing the way the universe works. That, in a sense, they were lies.

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