Radical Religious Right Creationists
on the Texas State Board of Education
Want to Keep Anti-Science "Weaknesses" in Science Standards

Commentary by Steven Schafersman, Ph.D.
Texas Citizens for Science
2008 June 3
Revised for Web publication, 2008 June 4

Damaging Science Education With "Weaknesses"

The valuable May 31 article by Gary Scharrer in the San Antonio Express-News is highly relevant and revealing, but some comment is necessary to fully understand the context, since the reported topics have been a problem in Texas for over two decades. Furthermore, I have written several reports and essays since 2003 that discuss these topics in detail. Texas Citizens for Science has been the foremost organization opposing organized Creationism on these topics in Texas, so it is important that readers understand the issues in the depth that only TCS can provide. If you haven't already, please read Gary Scharrer's article (reprinted below) before reading this essay.

First, contrary to several of the statements expressed in the article, the radical religious right Biblical Creationists on the State Board of Education (SBOE) are not going to try to require that in public schools "creationism will be taught alongside the theory of evolution" or that they will attempt to "replace real science with religious instruction" and " introduce religious ideas...into the science classroom." These inaccurate statements are meant to be alarmist so readers and supporters will be motivated, but inaccuracy does us little good. Even in 2003, in which the issues discussed below were widely publicized and reported on by TCS (see links below), the SBOE Creationists never tried to teach Creationism in science classrooms or replace science with religious instruction. Both statements describe things that are now plainly illegal and won't be attempted by the SBOE Creationists. I think the real issues are dangerous enough that we will be sufficiently motivated without having to resort to untrue hyperbole. (Note: the words "and anti-science ideas" were omitted by the use of ellipses above, and as I explain below, this part is true.)

Second, David Bradley, R-Beaumont, is being disingenuous when he says that "the only thing this board is going to do [during the 2008 science standards revision] is ask for accuracy." This is simply not true. The intent of the SBOE Creationists is to ask for misrepresentation of science, not for accuracy. What Bradley and his colleagues actually plan to do is damage evolution instruction by trying to get the new science standards to include alleged but false "weaknesses" of evolution, in order to weaken evolution content, confuse students and make them think science is less accurate and reliable about biological origins than it really is, and intimidate teachers to avoid or minimize the subject (as many of them do now in Texas, to their shame and Texas' gain of a majority of citizens with blighted biology educations).

A secondary goal, if they can accomplish the primary one, is for students to turn to Creationist explanations, both Young Earth and Intelligent Design, that they learn in their churches and Sunday schools. Their object is to so denigrate and damage evolution and origin of life content (i.e., any scientific explanation about origins, especially human origins) in science instructional materials and science standards, that students will resort to their only other option to learn about biological and human origins, the Creationist teachings of fundamentalist Christianity. I emphasize that the Creationist public officials on the SBOE will not try to use their official power to push Young Earth or Intelligent Design Creationism in public schools--which have been well-established by numerous Federal court decisions to be illegal topics in science--but only to hurt science education so students will probably turn to sectarian explanations or just remain ignorant. Remember, science quite rightly has enormous legitimacy in our culture, so secular science instruction in public schools has great influence over young people's beliefs about the world. It is these beliefs that the Religious Right members of the SBOE are trying to counter using their official powers.

The Discovery Institute and TEKS Rule 3A

The impetus for evolution "weaknesses" comes straight from the Discovery Institute--an organization whose only discovery is how well modern marketing techniques work to confuse public officials, keep teachers fearful and students ignorant, and create a climate of misunderstanding, ignorance, and controversy that damages science education in the United States. The DI has briefed several of the Creationist SBOE members so that they are all on the same page; you don't think Bradley, Don McLeroy, Ken Mercer, Teri Leo, and Cynthia Dunbar thought this subterfuge up for themselves, do you? This comes straight out of the DI playbook, as does the misnamed "Academic Freedom" bills that have been introduced in several state legislatures, as it will in Texas next January. The bill was written by the DI and far from promoting academic freedom, it promotes the freedom to teach sectarian pseudoscience in science classrooms, which is the bill's true goal. TCS believes that Texas House members Warren Chisum and Charlie Howard will propose this bill in the 2009 Texas Legislature. They don't need to actually write it, since they will file the same stealth bill that was filed in Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, Missouri, South Carolina, and Michigan--the one written by the Discovery Institute. Eventually, one of the southern states is going to pass this bill and we'll have another expensive round of Federal First Amendment litigation.

In the Scharrer article, Bradley says the Board had to "salvage" the final ELAR standards when the Texas ELAR teachers tried to force their own ideas into those standards! He says this won't happen again because the Board "spanked" the ELAR teachers for being too pushy and concerned about the standards which it is their job to implement. Ken Mercer used the same description in a related op-ed opinion column (also reprinted below): "spanking." Wow. What a concept: the state experts on ELAR wanted to be sure that the standards they will be forced to use to do their jobs would be competently-written with input from them, but instead they were "spanked" by Bradley and Mercer, who know better about what is needed for ELAR. TCS suspects that, since SBOE Chair Don McLeroy is ill and rumors say he may resign his chairmanship, Bradley and Mercer are each aspiring to become the new chair, so they are trying to convince Governor Rick Perry that they have the proper sectarian radical rightwing mental toughness that only a testosterone-addled brain can provide. That explains their juvenile and misogynistic choice of words (all the ELAR supervisors, teachers, and lobbyists for the ELAR coalition are women).

In his next sentence, Bradley threatens the science teachers, who are next up for standards revision: "Science teachers should work with the board on their process and not try to do an end run around this elected body and steal the process." What Bradley is asking is for science teachers to be complicit in the corruption of their own science standards by working with sectarian-motivated ideologues who have a long-standing antipathy to science. Why would science teachers want to do that? We certainly would want to work with the elected State Board of Education on this issue, but at the same time we expect the members of the State Board to respect our expertise on science topics and not try to use the power of their public offices to maliciously force pseudoscientific and antiscientific materials into the science standards that favor their sectarian beliefs. But that is exactly what they have repeatedly tried to do in the past and what they intend to do later this year if they can, so why should science teachers "work with the board" on this process and expect fair and competent reciprocity? We can't expect this from the seven radical religious right Creationists, so we will have to oppose those Board members just as the ELAR teachers did, but we will certainly work with the other eight members. In a perfect state, we would rely on English teachers to establish ELAR standards and scientists to establish science standards, not non-scientists with religious and political agendas to promote. But this is not a perfect state. This is Texas.

Third, the article is correct when it suggests that there will be a major fight over Science TEKS Process Skill 3A, the one that says that students are "expected to analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information." This anti-science language was inserted into Texas science standards during the mid to late 1980s as a compromise with Creationist SBOE members, who at that time wanted the biology textbook requirements to state that Creationism must be taught in addition to evolution, the so-called "balanced treatment" strategy. The majority of Board members didn't want to explicitly mention Creationism, so a compromise was reached. The language remained in the standards when the TEKS were established in 1998.

Process skill 3A is notoriously anti-scientific with regard to scientific theories, which have no so-called "weaknesses," since scientific theories are not accepted and taught until an immense amount of reliable and corroborated evidence is available. Scientific theories, therefore, have strengths, not weaknesses. Creationists have used the "weaknesses" language ever since--the last time in 2003 in a major effort by the Discovery Institute (DI) to corrupt the evolution content of biology textbooks--to damage and disparage instruction in evolution, the origin of life, and other topics objectionable to sectarian advocates of various forms of Creationism. Up to the present they have always failed, because the rule requires that "scientific evidence and information" must be used to perform the "strengths and weaknesses" analysis, so for historical but discarded scientific theories historical information is used, and for weaknesses of modern theories--such as modern evolutionary biology--no such evidence or information exists, so the rule is properly ignored. Again, if there were weaknesses in some explanation, as there are in many hypotheses that require testing, it would not be part of a scientific theory and certainly would not be taught in high school. There is only time in high school science courses to teach what scientists consider the most accurate and reliable scientific information and explanations science possesses.

What "Weaknesses" of Evolution?

One might argue that evolutionary theory is incomplete, which is true, but this is a strength, not a weakness, because it spurs research and inquiry. Nature has many questions and mysteries that science continues to answer, but our current lack of some particular answer or explanation is not the same thing as an alleged weakness. It appears that scientific theories will never be complete, yet scientific theories have been extraordinarily successful in providing us with accurate and reliable knowledge that allows a modern, technological civilization to exist and continue. Scientific theories are strong and do not contain any weaknesses to "analyze, review, and critique." Furthermore, the intent of those who support rule 3A is clear, since the rule is only applied to the scientific theory of evolution, not to the rest of science, all of which is theoretical and should--if the rule was actually followed--be subject to the same critical scrutiny. But in practice, only evolution gets that focus by SBOE members, so it's pretty obvious what is going on.

Even more damning is that when you actually examine the "weaknesses" of evolution alleged by Creationists (Haeckel's vertebrate embryo drawings, peppered moths, Darwin's finches, fossil record gaps, Cambrian fossil radiation, the Tree of Life, Miller-Urey experiment, micro- and macroevolution), especially by the Discovery Institute, you find that their examples are completely bogus. In 2003, TCS examined their bogus "weaknesses" submitted by the Discovery Institute and refuted them. And TCS was not alone. The DI had simply taken several of the so-called "icons of evolution" described in Jonathan Wells' then recent book (2000) of the same name and used those, since these were found in most of the textbooks then up for adoption. These "icons"--now termed "weaknesses" in 2003 by the DI to match the language in the Texas science TEKS--had all been analyzed and critiqued by several authors prior to the TCS examination, including Nick Matzke (2002) and most completely by Alan Gishlick (2003). So, the alleged but false "weaknesses" of evolution that anti-evolutionists want to force into Texas science standards were examined and refuted by scientists six years ago and continue to have no validity today.

As the article states, there is an effort by the scientists and science educators on the science TEKS-writing panels to remove the Creationist-inspired, anti-scientific "strengths and weaknesses" language from Process Skill 3A and replace it with scientifically-accurate phrasing. When the revised standards are presented to the SBOE later this year, the members will have the legal (but not the wise or scientifically-justifiable) opportunity to add back the "strengths and weaknesses" language. I have long advocated that the phrase be removed, beginning in 2003 when I wrote an essay about rule 3A. Before then, I was present at the very SBOE meeting in the late 1980s (I have not had time to search long-stored records to find the correct date, but the experience is still vivid in my memory) when the "weaknesses" language was first adopted for a textbook proclamation that included biology texts. I explicitly warned SBOE member Will Davis, who was taking the lead on writing the language, that the language was unscientific and would be used by Creationists in the future to damage evolution instruction in Texas. He told me the language was a compromise with Creationists on the SBOE and therefore had to be accepted, and that if there was no scientific evidence or information for such weaknesses, scientists should make that case whenever the necessity arose. I replied that that method would be cumbersome, would generate much rhetoric and polemics in a time-consuming process, and the language would cause unending problems for biology textbook adoptions and science standards in subsequent years, which has proven to be the case. When the first Science TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, the state's education standards) were written and adopted in 1998, the language was transferred to that new document without controversy. It still haunts Texas science education today.

The Plan to Keep "Weaknesses" Rule 3A in Texas Science Standards

David Bradley says that he "doesn't foresee any successful effort to remove the 'strengths and weaknesses' requirement from the science standards." Actually, that statement is not quite true. The requirement has already been removed by the Science TEKS writing teams from all the science standards. The members of the teams--who were appointed fairly and competently--recognized that the "weaknesses" requirement doesn't belong in science standards and revised it to one that is scientifically accurate. However, the SBOE can, by majority vote, add that language back in, since the SBOE has power over the final language of the science standards before approving them. Bradley believes that he has the eight votes to do this, and he may be right. We will have to see.

Since that SBOE meeting, and most recently in 2003, scientists have indeed made the case that there is no evidence for the bogus "weaknesses" identified by Creationists, most prominently by the Discovery Institute, which is a master of polemics, obfuscation, and disinformation. So far scientists and science teachers have been able to prevail on this issue, but frankly, this is no way to adopt biology textbooks and science standards. Every time the process re-commences, a battle breaks out in Austin in front of the State Board and television cameras that makes Texas look like a theocratic third-world country ruled by petty and ignorant theocrats. Is this really what Texas and its citizens deserve? Is this really how Texas citizens want others to view their state's education policy-making? The anti-scientific rule 3A language should be permanently removed to end this demeaning public spectacle.

The State Board of Education Circus Sideshow

That the circus sideshow is going to continue this year, and further disparage the reputation of Texas in the eyes of the scientifically-educated world, is obvious from the remarks of radical religious right and Creationist SBOE member Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio. Mercer's remarks are typically uninformed: "Any real scientist understands there are major weaknesses in evolution....If we truly believe in intellectual debate, let's discuss those weaknesses." The news report says that Mercer has a biology degree from the University of Texas at Austin, so the biology professors there must be cringing with embarrassment to learn what one of their students ended up believing after four years of their instruction. Perhaps Mercer was a student before the current biology professors were employed by UT. Mercer, of course, has no concept of what a "real scientist" understands about evolution, so let me briefly and explicitly explain why he is wrong to make his statements. Also, go to http://www.texscience.org/files/icons-revealed/ for a more complete analysis. An even better essay on this issue is forthcoming.

First, to counter Mercer's contention and as explained above, there are no "major weaknesses" in evolution or any other scientific theory. Hypotheses may have major or minor weaknesses, but not theories. The only possible weakness of a scientific theory is its incompleteness, but this is inevitable and is a strength, not a weakness. The various aspects of a scientific theory that are well-understood and accepted by the scientific community are taught in lower-level science instruction, such as high schools. If there is scientific disagreement about an explanation of a natural process, which means the current theory is incomplete, this is not the subject of instruction in high schools, where students need to learn science's most reliable knowledge first before engaging with the legitimate scientific controversies. Legitimate scientific debate about competing hypotheses that wish to extend a scientific theory occurs in university science departments and scientific journals, not high schools. In fact, Intelligent Design Creationists at the Discovery Institute have ignored this proper realm of scientific debate and opted instead to use deceptive marketing techniques to win public officials to their sides and do an end run around normal scientific procedures. Young Earth Creationists also ignore the proper scientific methods, instead marketing their books and pamphlets to churches, Sunday schools, and Bible colleges. Remember, the Creationists object to even the existence of evolution as a natural process that pervades the biologic world, a controversy that ended in science over 150 years ago. Teaching this as a current controversy would be the height of mendacity and miseducation.

Second, Mercer's statement that "there are issues in the evolutionary process that have been proven wrong" is only true in a historical sense. The modern scientific theory of evolution does not suffer from these historically incorrect hypotheses, since they were tested, found to be wrong, and discarded long ago. Some of Darwin's original hypotheses have suffered this fate, such as his pangenesis explanation for heredity and his acceptance of Lamarckism, but there are many others known to historians of evolutionary biology. On the other hand, Darwin's hypothesis of natural selection has been repeatedly tested and corroborated, so is now part of modern evolutionary theory. There is no problem teaching high school students about these past hypothetical mistakes as "weaknesses" of earlier evolutionary hypotheses, but to suggest, as is Mercer's true intention, that the modern scientific theory of evolution contains such "issues" or "weaknesses" is mendacious nonsense. Mercer is deliberately misrepresenting the true issues and history by conflating two separate concepts (inaccurate historical evolutionary hypotheses and accurate and reliable modern evolutionary theory) in order to confuse readers and listeners and make them susceptible to his duplicitous obfuscation. He wants to win at any cost, even if specious arguments and confusing rhetoric must be used.

Third, let's look at Mercer's final ignorant statements:  "Some ultra-radical groups have not evolved to the point where they realize that the 'theory of Evolution' is just that -- a theory." Bradley uses this argument, too: "There are issues in the evolutionary process that have been proven wrong....Evolution is not fact. Evolution is a theory and, as such, cannot be proven. Students need to be able to jump to their own conclusions." This banal canard is indulged in by every Creationist who thinks he can get away with it. Scientists have refuted these misstatements repeatedly over the years. Evolution is a fact, if fact is defined as something for which so much reliable evidence exists that it would be irrational to deny it. Obviously, a deity could have created everything with attributes that hid its true created nature, and deliberately and maliciously misled us into inferring from the evidence that evolution was at work when in reality it was not, so evolution would not be a fact in an ultimate sense. But from any empirical and rational point of view, evolution is a fact in a proximate sense, exactly as gravity, continental drift, genes, and atoms are facts. The existence of all of these objects and processes is not obvious on superficial examination, but all of these were discovered by scientists after intense, patient scientific investigation and keen insight and are now considered to be facts. Similarly, the factuality of evolution is not in question among scientists and educated persons.

David Bradley's last sentence is a treasure: "Students need to be able to jump to their own conclusions." If that's the case, why have schools at all? Education, analytical and investigative methods, and scientific research would not be necessary if students have SBOE license to "jump to their own conclusions." "God did it" could be a universal answer to every question for students who don't want to do their schoolwork. Bradley himself is an anti-intellectual and does not value education. He has the wrong intellectual background to be a competent member of the SBOE, and his many extreme statements prove his incompetence. He should be frankly replaced as a SBOE member if Texas education in general and science education in particular are to improve to 21st century standards. But then, this could be said of several other SBOE members, including Ken Mercer, Don McLeroy, and Teri Leo. A good start for improving Texas public education would be for Governor Rick Perry to appoint someone else to be SBOE chair.

Are Theories Proven?

As for theories, they can indeed be proven and have been proven in the popular sense (corroborated is the formal term we use when dealing with empirical evidence, since proven is formally limited to defined systems such as logic and mathematics, but the terms mean essentially the same thing). Scientific theories, including evolutionary theory, have been proven and are the most accurate and reliable knowledge about nature that humans possess, because they are composed of tested and corroborated hypotheses that have resisted falsification, a necessary attribute of any truthful knowledge statement. Theories are proven in a proximate sense, of course, not an ultimate sense, because if one assumes the existence of the supernatural, obviously any scientific theory--based totally on natural evidence--cannot actually be proven beyond all possible objections, including those that invoke the supernatural. The proper reasoning depends on science's use of methodological naturalism as a working hypothesis, what I term a metahypothesis.

Scientific theories, while proven in a popular sense, are not themselves facts, but unifying, predictive explanations. Theories explain facts. The scientific theory of evolution explains the fact of evolution, just as the scientific theories of gravity and general relativity, plate tectonics, genetics, and quantum mechanics explains the facts of gravity, continental drift, genes, and atoms.

If one does not accept methodological naturalism, as Creationists do not but all scientists--including religious scientists--do, then there would always be some doubt, and no scientific theory could be proven or corroborated since there would always be the possibility that a supernatural miracle could have created the natural conditions we experience now. But within the established scientific realm of empiricism, reasoning, and methodological naturalism, as is universally adopted in secular American universities, Mercer's statements are nonsense. The University of Texas at Austin is a secular, American university, so it is sad that one of its biology graduates would have such a poor knowledge of science that he would make such ignorant and specious statements. I'm sure the problem lies with Ken Mercer, however, and not the UT Austin biology department faculty!

Creationists on the Texas State Board of Education

Ken Mercer and David Bradley's statements are classic overreaching indulged in by zealots and radicals, and they will soon answer to informed Texas citizens this year and ultimately as well to history. Frankly, it is remarkable that Mercer and Bradley make such confident but ignorant statements about science to the press. In the past, the religious right zealots on the SBOE kept their ignorance hidden, worked in secret behind the scenes, and voted to implement their dirty work without much press scrutiny. Either the press is doing a better job or the religious right radicals are so confident of their ultimate success that they indulge in expressing their pathetic ignorance and malign intent openly without being mindful of the consequences and public reaction. This is really a remarkable situation in Texas today that intentions are so clear and open for all to see, and I think determined Creationists have misjudged the will of Texas citizens and public officials to appease them today.

Believe me, in the 28 years I have been involved in opposing aggressive and organized Creationism in Texas, today's environment is the best I have ever experienced. With statements and intentions so well expressed and exposed, the state's political, business, and scientific communities have no excuse for not doing something about the current SBOE. This is equally true of the current issue of the Institute for Creation Research and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Everything is being done in the open with full press and public attention. I have been extremely gratified to see the interest in what is happening in this state by the press and by the scientific community. This was not the case in the 1980s, when almost every scientist I spoke to would not help me advocate for scientifically-accurate biology textbooks. But as organized Creationism has grown more wealthy, powerful, and successful in corrupting science education in the United States, working scientists are finally beginning to take notice and assume some responsibility to help oppose the ideology.

Update on ELAR and the SBOE

Readers might be interested to know that I have recently learned several things about SBOE events in Austin. First, it appears that the SB broke several state laws regarding open records, prior notice in the Texas Record, and statutory procedures written in their own rules when they adopted their final ELAR document. Second, the final ELAR document--which most SBOE members got an hour before the meeting--was not just a simple cut and paste job, as Bradley and his radical religious right colleagues have claimed; instead, it was edited: items were added to it and removed from it. Third, this final ELAR standards document still has not yet been released publicly, so the ELAR teachers cannot review it and comment on it; it remains a secret, and the longer it remains so, the more suspicious we may reasonably become. In my email message to TCS members and supporters I included here some rumors, but since these have still not been confirmed by an investigation, I am omitting them from this Web-published document.

The radical religious right members on the SBOE are out of control. As is the case with extremist ideologues throughout history, these individuals have flagrantly over-reached and this will ultimately be their undoing. We are fortunate that Texas has laws that, today at least, require that the political over-reaching be done in full view of the public and press, but the extremist ideologues are betting that most Texans either agree with them and won't mind, or don't know and don't care. We must make an effort now to ensure that the extremist and Creationist SBOE members discover that they are wrong.


Update, 2008 June 5: The New York Times Publishes a Similar Article

Unexpectedly, on June 4,  just as I finished revising the above commentary and the day after I wrote and sent it to the TCS email list, I discovered The New York Times published a similar news article (reprinted below) that covered many of the same topics as the news article by Gary Scharrer. Laura Beil's article is also valuable and has been widely reprinted in newspapers across the country. Let me say a few words about this second article, for again historical context and some analysis is needed.

New York Times writer Laura Beil was able to interview dentist Dr. Don McLeroy, the current chair of the SBOE. McLeroy is an avowed Young Earth Creationist who holds evolution in contempt. Since I frequently attend SBOE meetings, I have spoken with him at length several times about textbooks, science, and evolution. He is a friendly and charming person who sincerely believes he is right, although--despite his medical training--he frankly has no competent understanding of how science works and why scientists accept evolution. He apparently believes there is some gigantic conspiracy among scientists or something has befell them that makes them all so misguided. He reads and believes Young Earth and ID Creationist literature and talks to his friends at the Discovery Institute and believes them. He truly believes that they are telling him the truth about science and evolution, so his knowledge of the subjects is hopelessly muddled and confused. However, the same is true of his colleagues David Bradley, Terri Leo, Gail Lowe, Ken Mercer, Cynthia Dunbar, and Barbara Cargill; Cargill actually taught science in public schools at one time and has not made such bizarre statements as the others, but she is a Creationist, believes evolution is "only a theory," and votes with the other six.

In recent months, reporters have elicited several choice quotes from McLeroy, and Beil has done the same. He denies that the "weaknesses" phrase "is subterfuge for bringing in creationism." Strictly speaking, he is right, since the phrase will be used to falsely and maliciously damage, demean, and discredit evolution and origin of life instruction, not bring in Creationism. McLeroy innocently asks, "Why in the world would anybody not want to include weaknesses?" Several reasons come to mind: there is no time to do so, students need to learn the strengths of scientific theories--not bogus weaknesses, there are in fact no weaknesses of modern theories to teach, and making up phony weaknesses and falsely teaching them as true science--as Creationists intend--is unscientific, anti-educational, deceptive, and unethical. McLeroy continues, "You've got a creationist system and a naturalist system." Correct, but secular institutions, such as the state-mandated public education system, can only teach science from a methodological naturalist point of view. The "creationist system" is derived from home-grown American religious Fundamentalism and Biblical Literalism, not from any respectable origin.

It is illegal to teach the "creationist" (McLeroy means the supernaturalist) system in secular public schools. He knows that, which is why he is merely trying to undermine the process of evolution as a biological topic, not mandate Creationism. Since evolution is the most important biological topic that allows scientists to explain many otherwise unrelated scientific observations, McLeroy's goal would severely damage science education in Texas, quite a remarkable ambition for the Chair of the State Board of Education. McLeroy caps his remarkable expressions of ignorance and confusion by claiming that his rejection of evolution is not based on religious grounds, but on scientific ones. Here McLeroy is deceiving himself; he needs to look deeply into his thought processes and discover what his real motivations are. In my experience, every student who carefully and fairly "considers the case for evolution" has come to accept it. Don, there's a reason why evolution is in all the biology textbooks.

Texans for Better Science Education--A Young Earth Creationist Front

The article mentions the existence of the remarkable Texans for Better Science Education (and fails to mention the existence of Texas Citizens for Science). The TBSE website contains a very brief list of some of the so-called "weaknesses" of evolution. It web address is even http://www.strengthsandweaknesses.org/. As fully described in a 2003 TCS investigation, TBSE was created by a group of Young Earth Creationists (YEC) who also run the Greater Houston Creationist Association. Both websites are administered by the same person. In 2003, TBSE mimicked the Discovery Institute and tried to pass itself off as an organization advocating Intelligent Design Creationism, not YEC. Now, TBSE promotes its goal of trying to make sure the soon-to-be revised science standards contained the TEKS-mandated "weaknesses." I'm sure TBSE members are worried about the prospect of the "weaknesses" language imminent removal from the TEKS, since they would have to change their URL.

The "weaknesses" that TBSE discuss on their website are the peppered moths, the Miller-Urey experiment, Haeckel's vertebrate embryo drawings,  Darwin's Galapagos Island finches, micro- vs. macroevolution, and problems of the fossil record (gaps, Cambrian "explosion"). As described above, all of these so-called "weaknesses" are false and were refuted during 2002-2003. These bogus "weaknesses" were first formally identified in 2000 by Jonathan Wells in his book Icons of Evolution, not "decades" ago as the article states. You must remember that the need for "weaknesses" to undermine evolution in biology textbooks and standards is a relatively new phenomenon, required after organized Creationism lost its "equal treatment" court cases because Creationism was determined to be religious. Attempted laws that forbid evolution, require Creationism, require both evolution and Creationism, or require both evolution and Intelligent Design Creationism have all been rejected by the courts on First Amendment grounds, so the current Creationist strategies of this century are marketing campaigns to require alleged "weaknesses" of evolution, "critical analysis" of evolution, and "teach the controversy" about evolution. There are several others, all manifestations of the DI's infamous Wedge Strategy.

All of these public relations campaigns are based on fallacious presuppositions, sophistic arguments, and malevolent intent, but the techniques allow organized Creationists to achieve success at fooling people to accept the DI claims by leveraging inexpensive marketing techniques with significant press exposure to manufacture a bogus controversy and then use its existence to justify specious claims. The whole process consists of one lie built upon another. The best technique in the DI's arsenal is advertising their manufactured controversy and encouraging the press to cover it. By training and nature, the press must present both sides of any controversy equally, so the DI gets as much exposure as the legitimate science community when the evolution-Creationism debate is covered. This equivalence of ideas greatly confuses readers, who understandably come to believe that there must really really be a controversy when news reports cover both sides equally. The reality, of course, is that there is no controversy about evolution within science, and the tens of thousands of scientists who accept and teach evolution far outnumber the dozens of non-scientists associated with the Discovery Institute. Appearances can be deceiving, but that's what you get with some marketing. At least the two articles reviewed here make clear who are the scientists and who are the non-scientists, but each side does get equal time.

The Discovery Institute Again

Another topic that needs to be addressed is the New York Times article's mention of the misnamed "Academic Freedom" bills. The article states, "Already, legislators in a half-dozen states....have tried to require that classrooms be open to 'views about the scientific strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian theory,' according to a petition from the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based strategic center of the intelligent design movement." However, the DI's Model Academic Freedom Statute on Evolution on their Academic Freedom Petition site does not contain the words "strengths" or "weaknesses." The purpose of this bill (or proposed statute) is to protect teachers if they discuss Young Earth and Intelligent Design Creationism in their classrooms (the bill's actual language is the "full range of scientific views regarding biological and chemical evolution," but we know what the real purpose is: to allow Creationism proselytization). However, some of the states in which the bill was proposed do use these terms: The Michigan bill describes evolution as controversial or subject to doubt, advocating that teachers discuss the "scientific strengths" and "scientific weaknesses" of scientific theories. The Louisiana bill contains the language, "the scientific strengths and weaknesses of existing scientific theories...." The South Carolina bill mandates that teachers cannot be prohibited from helping "students understand, analyze, critique, and review the scientific strengths and weaknesses of biological and chemical evolution in an objective manner." So many of the bills use "strengths and weaknesses" language not found in the current DI proposed statute. Perhaps these and other states wrote their bills from an earlier DI version of the Academic Freedom Statute, which I have not seen.

Finally, in two weird blogs by Robert Crowther and John West of the Discovery Institute on June 5, both harshly criticize Laura Beil for trying to falsely make it appear that the "strengths and weaknesses" language in Texas is a "new, post-Dover innovation," "a brand new idea cooked up by Discovery Institute," and "implying that support for covering the 'strengths and weaknesses' of evolution is supposedly a new strategy on the part of Darwin critics." Crowther says Beil's premise was "flagrantly false" and West says she "botched" the story. Crowther claims that Beil thought this was "a brand new idea cooked up by the Discovery Institute," than says, "As they say in Texas, 'you can put your boots in the oven but that doesn't make 'em biscuits.'" Wow. The DI is certainly not trying to curry favor with the New York Times. But perhaps this language is a product of a past DI grievance with the Times. Inevitably, the DI is wrong, or, as they say in Texas, it is "all hat and no cattle." If they had bothered to actually read Beil's news article, it states quite clearly and correctly that

The "strengths and weaknesses" language was slipped into the curriculum standards in Texas to appease creationists when the State Board of Education first mandated the teaching of evolution in the late 1980s. It has had little effect because evolution skeptics have not had enough power on the education board to win the argument that textbooks do not adequately cover the weaknesses of evolution.

When I read the article, I thought its theme was that the next battle between scientists and anti-evolution critics would be in Texas, and that the topic of controversy would be "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution. All true, and exactly what I have been saying and writing for the past year. If Beil had bothered to access the TCS website or interview me, she could have found this information easily. Nowhere did I get the impression that Beil was claiming that the "strengths and weaknesses" language was a new DI idea or innovation. I acknowledge that the headline suggested that idea: "Opponents of Evolution Adopting a New Strategy." But this was written by an editor, of course, not by Beil, and for the headline I must agree with the DI folks that their criticism has merit. But only for the headline, which is perhaps the only part of the article the DI writers read before jumping to a conclusion. The headline was in error, because the DI used the identical strategy in 2003 in Texas. They lost then by a 11-4 State Board of Education vote, but this year the battle goes into a second round, and the outcome is unsure, since three conservative Republicans have been replaced by three radical religious right Republicans (yes, the original three were primaried, i.e., incumbents were challenged by well-financed extremist right-wingers of their own party in the primary). With one uncertain swing vote (a Democrat, believe it or not), the vote could go 8-7 either way.


Update, 2008 June 7: The New York Times Editorial

The New York Times published an editorial on this issue, "The Cons of Creationism" (reprinted below). The editorial makes the usual and correct pro-science analysis of the Creationist antics of the Texas State Board of Education. Editorial writers for the major Texas newspapers would agree with the NYT analysis, and I expect to see similar editorials in Texas during the next several months as the science standards revision process continues.


Debate over biology is brewing

By Gary Scharrer
San Antonio Express-News
Web Posted: 05/31/2008

Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
June 2, 2008

AUSTIN — After feuding for months over how to teach school children to read, the State Board of Education soon will shift to a topic that could become much more controversial -- the science curriculum.

Science, after all, involves biology. And biology is built on the theory of evolution, raising fears among some observers that social conservatives on the 15-member panel will try to shade textbooks with religion.

"The issue is ... whether or not creationism will be taught alongside evolution as science, which will absolutely undermine our kids' science education and their ability to compete for the best colleges and jobs of the 21st century," said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, an Austin-based organization that advocates religious freedom and individual liberties.

Those fears amount to hogwash, says board Vice Chairman David Bradley, R-Beaumont.

"I hate to take the air out of their balloon. They're going to be very disappointed if they come for a fight," said Bradley, a leader among the board's social conservatives. "The only thing that this board is going to do is ask for accuracy."

It's been 11 years since the state of Texas last updated standards for the science curriculum for its public schools. Things change. Pluto, for example, lost its status as a planet two years ago, but students in Texas still see it listed in textbooks as one of nine planets in the Earth's solar system.

"So that changes how we look at the solar system and how we teach students about the characterization of planets," said Anita Givens, a deputy associate commissioner at the Texas Education Agency.

The State Board of Education recently finished a three-year rewrite of standards for the English language arts and reading curriculum. Some called the process tortured, with revisions slipped under members' hotel room doors in the early morning hours just before a final, 9-6 board vote.

Bradley and the board majority faulted English teachers for forcing too much of their own ideas into a proposal the board had tentatively approved two months earlier. That's why board members had to salvage a final document with a last-hour cut and paste job, he said.

"I don't think this will happen again because they got spanked," Bradley said. "Science teachers should work with the board on their process and not try to do an end run around this elected body and steal the process."

English and reading educators vigorously deny hijacking the process, saying the curriculum facilitator hired by the board decided to use a teacher work group's revised the document.

David Hillis, a distinguished biology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, predicted some board members would try to "replace real science with religious instruction." He warned that the "intelligent design" theory preferred by evolution skeptics, which holds that living things are too complex to be the result of natural selection, has no scientific support or basis.

"We should rely on scientists to establish the science standards, not non-experts with a particular religious or political agenda to promote," Hillis said.

Board members say it's unlikely that intelligent design will even be considered. Bradley said a fight pitting evolution against creationism simply will not materialize.

"It's all going to be in the Texas anti-Freedom Network's mind. They are working themselves into a frenzy," he said.

More likely is a fight over whether to keep an existing requirement that teachers present both the strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories, including evolution.

Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, said that standard is clear and worth keeping.

"We want our children to be able to think and understand the strengths and weaknesses of any theory. Some ultra-radical groups have not evolved to the point where they realize that the 'theory of Evolution' is just that — a theory," Mercer said.

"Any real scientist understands there are major weaknesses in evolution," said Mercer, who has a degree in biology from the University of Texas at Austin. "If we truly believe in intellectual debate, let's discuss those weaknesses."

Bradley said he doesn't foresee any successful effort to remove the "strengths and weaknesses" requirement from the science standards.

"There are issues in the evolutionary process that have been proven wrong," he said. "Evolution is not fact. Evolution is a theory and, as such, cannot be proven. Students need to be able to jump to their own conclusions."

It may sound like a good idea to require teachers to point out the weaknesses of scientific theories, but Hillis contends that when it comes to evolution, "its main purpose is to introduce religious ideas and anti-science ideas into the science classroom."

"The fact that biological populations evolve is not in question," he said. "Evolution is an easily observable phenomenon, and has been documented beyond any reasonable doubt. The 'theory' part of evolutionary theory concerns the experiments, observations, and models that explain how populations evolve."

"At this level of introductory instruction, it is ludicrous to think about teaching what some people disingenuously call 'weaknesses.'" Hillis said. "We teach what is known and has been supported by a huge body of scientific research."


SBOE made right curriculum choice

By Ken Mercer
Op-ed, San Antonio Express-News
Web Posted: 05/30/2008

If you are mean, lie or cheat, you deserve a spanking. That is what happened to the "coalition" lobby at the May State Board of Education meeting.

The coalition supports whole language, holistic scoring of essays, project-based learning, inventive spelling, and no direct systematic instruction of grammar/usage.

The results of that philosophy are devastating. The Commission for a College Ready Texas reported that half of Texas college freshmen are in remedial or developmental education.

SBOE Chairman Don McLeroy, R-College Station, cautioned the coalition to refrain from rude outbursts and intimidating testifiers. A retired educator testified in favor of strong phonics and back-to-basics grammar, only to be met by coalition members who hatefully stuck out their tongues.

What wonderful role models for our Texas children!

Last fall, the Texas Education Agency contracted StandardsWork (SW), a nationwide professional facilitator, to help design the final standards document. The SBOE voted 15-0 to make the SW report the base document upon which teacher work groups were to make final changes.

Thanks to intense questioning the truth came out at the May 22 meeting. The document, passed by the SBOE, was switched to a new, never-before-seen coalition document.

The coalition retained control of its document for several days after the teacher work groups completed their meeting.

Board member Geraldine Miller, R-Dallas, protested that the coalition had "hijacked" the process, and Cynthia Dunbar, R-Richmond, said the coalition had made a mockery and "circus" of it.

Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, said she was ashamed to learn SW had found Texas to be the most difficult state in the nation with which to work.

That is why I made the motion, which passed 9 to 6, to accept the SW document that had two and one-half years of educator input, passed 15-0 at the March SBOE meeting, met the legal requirement of being posted on the Texas Register and allowed 23 million Texans the legally required 30 days to review the proposed new standards.

The "hijacked" coalition document failed to meet any of those requirements.

SBOE member Rick Agosto, D–San Antonio, successfully amended my motion to include the input of previously agreed-upon Hispanic experts.

David Bradley then notified the SBOE he intended to bring on May 23 a substitute amendment, one which was the exact document the SBOE just passed plus the important grammar/usage input from the teacher workgroups.

To ensure a fair and transparent conclusion, I voted for a motion by Lawrence Allen, D-Houston, that resulted in almost three more hours of review before the vote on the final document was taken.

The SBOE voted 9-6 for strengthened phonics, grammar and 10 reading comprehension sections. We soundly defeated desperate pro-coalition amendments to water down phonics and add the failed whole-language reading "strategies" to the main document.

The intimidating actions of the coalition lobby embarrassed the entire education field.

I believe the coalition lobby was mean, they lied and they cheated. In the end, they got a very well deserved spanking; and the school children and educators of Texas have content-rich standards for phonics, reading, writing and grammar.


Letters to the Editor [concerning the above article and op-ed]

Sunday Focus: State Board of Education

San Antonio Express-News
Web Posted: 06/07/2008


Opponents of Evolution Adopting a New Strategy

By Laura Beil
The New York Times
June 4, 2008

DALLAS -- Opponents of teaching evolution, in a natural selection of sorts, have gradually shed those strategies that have not survived the courts. Over the last decade, creationism has given rise to "creation science," which became "intelligent design," which in 2005 was banned from the public school curriculum in Pennsylvania by a federal judge.

Now a battle looms in Texas over science textbooks that teach evolution, and the wrestle for control seizes on three words. None of them are "creationism" or "intelligent design" or even "creator."

The words are "strengths and weaknesses."

Starting this summer, the state education board will determine the curriculum for the next decade and decide whether the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution should be taught. The benign-sounding phrase, some argue, is a reasonable effort at balance. But critics say it is a new strategy taking shape across the nation to undermine the teaching of evolution, a way for students to hear religious objections under the heading of scientific discourse.

Already, legislators in a half-dozen states -- Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri and South Carolina -- have tried to require that classrooms be open to "views about the scientific strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian theory," according to a petition from the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based strategic center of the intelligent design movement.

"Very often over the last 10 years, we've seen antievolution policies in sheep's clothing," said Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education, a group based in Oakland, Calif., that is against teaching creationism.

The "strengths and weaknesses" language was slipped into the curriculum standards in Texas to appease creationists when the State Board of Education first mandated the teaching of evolution in the late 1980s. It has had little effect because evolution skeptics have not had enough power on the education board to win the argument that textbooks do not adequately cover the weaknesses of evolution.

Yet even as courts steadily prohibited the outright teaching of creationism and intelligent design, creationists on the Texas board grew to a near majority. Seven of 15 members subscribe to the notion of intelligent design, and they have the blessings of Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican.

What happens in Texas does not stay in Texas: the state is one of the country's biggest buyers of textbooks, and publishers are loath to produce different versions of the same material. The ideas that work their way into education here will surface in classrooms throughout the country.

" 'Strengths and weaknesses' are regular words that have now been drafted into the rhetorical arsenal of creationists," said Kathy Miller, director of the Texas Freedom Network, a group that promotes religious freedom.

The chairman of the state education board, Dr. Don McLeroy, a dentist in Central Texas, denies that the phrase "is subterfuge for bringing in creationism."

"Why in the world would anybody not want to include weaknesses?" Dr. McLeroy said.

The word itself is open to broad interpretation. If the teaching of weaknesses is mandated, a textbook might be forced to say that evolution has an "inability to explain the Cambrian Explosion," according to the group Texans for Better Science Education, which questions evolution.

The Cambrian Explosion was a period of rapid diversification that evidence suggests began around 550 million years ago and gave rise to most groups of complex organisms and animal forms. Scientists are studying how it unfolded.

Evolution as a principle is not disputed in the scientific mainstream, where the term "theory" does not mean a hunch, but an explanation backed by abundant observation, and where gaps in knowledge are not seen as grounds for doubt but points for future understanding. Over time, research has strengthened the basic tenets of evolution, especially as advances in molecular genetics have allowed biologists to read the history recorded in the DNA of animals and plants.

Yet playing to the American sense of fairness, lawmakers across the country have tried to require that classrooms be open to all views. The Discovery Institute has provided a template for legislators to file "academic freedom" bills, and they have been popping up with increasing frequency in statehouses across the country. In Florida, the session ended last month before legislators could take action, while in Louisiana, an academic-freedom bill was sent to the House of Representatives after passing the House education committee and the State Senate.

In Texas, evolution foes do not have to win over the entire Legislature, only a majority of the education board; they are one vote away.

Dr. McLeroy, the board chairman, sees the debate as being between "two systems of science."

"You've got a creationist system and a naturalist system," he said.

Dr. McLeroy believes that Earth's appearance is a recent geologic event -- thousands of years old, not 4.5 billion. "I believe a lot of incredible things," he said, "The most incredible thing I believe is the Christmas story. That little baby born in the manger was the god that created the universe."

But Dr. McLeroy says his rejection of evolution -- "I just don't think it's true or it's ever happened" -- is not based on religious grounds. Courts have clearly ruled that teachings of faith are not allowed in a science classroom, but when he considers the case for evolution, Dr. McLeroy said, "it's just not there."

"My personal religious beliefs are going to make no difference in how well our students are going to learn science," he said.

Views like these not only make biology teachers nervous, they also alarm those who have a stake in the state's reputation for scientific exploration. "Serious students will not come to study in our universities if Texas is labeled scientifically backward," said Dr. Dan Foster, former chairman of the department of medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.

"I'm an orthodox Christian," Dr. Foster said, "and I don't want to say that Christianity is crazy." But science, not scripture, belongs in a classroom, he said. To allow views that undermine evolution, he said, "puts belief on the same level as scientific evidence."

Dr. Foster is a veteran of the evolution wars. He met with Mr. Perry in 2003 when the "strengths and weaknesses" argument last appeared, and more recently he worked to oppose an application by the Institute for Creation Research, which supports the teaching of creationism, to award graduate degrees in the state. (It was rejected on April 23, but the institute has said it will appeal.)

This time around, however, scientists like Dr. Foster see more reason for worry. Although the process might drag on till next spring, a state-appointed committee of science educators has already begun to review the curriculum requirements. Although the state education board is free to set aside or modify their proposals, committee members will recommend that the "strengths and weaknesses" phrase be removed, said Kevin Fisher, a committee member who is against the teaching of creationism.

"When you consider evolution, there are certainly questions that have yet to be answered," said Mr. Fisher, science coordinator for the Lewisville Independent School District in North Texas.

But, he added, "a question that has yet to be answered is certainly different from an alleged weakness."

Mr. Fisher points to the flaws in Darwinian theory that are listed on an anti-evolution Web site, strengthsandweaknesses.org, which is run by Texans for Better Science Education.

"Many of them are decades old," Mr. Fisher said of the flaws listed. "They've all been thoroughly refuted."


New York Times Gets It Wrong: Teaching Strengths and Weaknesses Is Nothing New

Posted by Robert Crowther
Evolution News & Views
June 5, 2008

The New York Times is reporting on the scheduled review of Texas' science standards later this year by the state school board. Seems like this must be reporter Laura Beil's first rodeo because she gets all excited (mistakenly) about something that is old hat in Texas: textbook wrangling.

Now a battle looms in Texas over science textbooks that teach evolution, and the wrestle for control seizes on three words. None of them are "creationism" or "intelligent design" or even "creator."

The words are "strengths and weaknesses."

Surely Beil did some research and found out that this battle last played out five years ago, so it's hardly new. Back then the issue really was textbooks. This time it's the language of the science standards themselves.

According to the critics, (of which Beil interviewed quite a few, as opposed to the one single person she spoke to that favors the current science standards, but balance and accuracy aren't exactly currency of the realm in the Times' news rooms, either Dallas or New York) the Texas science standards need to be revised to remove the phrase "strengths and weaknesses." They make the claim, and Beil runs with it, that this is a brand new idea cooked up by Discovery Institute.

As they say in Texas, "you can put your boots in the oven but that doesn't make 'em biscuits."

The central premise that teaching "strengths and weaknesses" of Darwin's theory (and chemical origin of life theories) is a new, post-Dover innovation is flagrantly false.

That this is false can be proven with only a minimal amount of research, which makes it so much more surprising that Beil would blindly follow the assertions of the NCSE and others without bothering to call the people they're attacking – Discovery Institute and Texans for Better Science Education.

Let's review. In 1998, the Texas Board of Education adopted the current set of science standards calling on students "to analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information." You can read the standards for yourself here. This is the language that the New York Times now insists is a new development!

But there's more. The year 1998 was also when Discovery Institute began defending the academic freedom of high school teacher Roger DeHart to teach the evidence for and against Darwin's theory. (You can see his story told in the DVD "Icons of Evolution.")

In 2002, the Ohio State Board of Education adopted a policy calling for students to be able to "critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory." During the same year there were hearings before the board in which the strengths and weaknesses of evolution were discussed, and dozens of scientists petitioned the board to include critical analysis of evolution in the curriculum.

In 2003, the Texas Board of Education was asked to enforce its previously adopted "strengths and weaknesses" language in the adoption of biology textbooks that year. Unfortunately, the Board didn't do that, although it did insist that numerous errors overstating the evidence for Darwin's theory be corrected in the textbooks.

In 2004, Alabama introduced an academic freedom bill to protect the right of teachers to teach the scientific evidence for and against Darwin's theory. The Alabama bill has served as a model for many of the academic freedom bills on evolution that came later.

During the same year, a school district in Grantsburg, WI adopted the following science standard:

Students are expected to analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information. Students shall be able to explain the scientific strengths and weaknesses of evolutionary theory. This policy does not call for the teaching of Creationism or Intelligent Design.

All of this happened before anyone skeptical of Darwin's theory ever had the misfortune of even hearing about the squabbles of folks in Dover, PA.

Following Dover, the effort to protect the right of teachers to cover the strengths and weaknesses of Darwin's theory continued. In 2006, Oklahoma's legislature considered an academic freedom bill, and local school boards in Louisiana and California adopted academic freedom policies dealing with covering the strengths and weaknesses of evolution and other science issues.

The story that critically examining the strengths and weaknesses of Darwin's theory in the classroom is some newfangled idea is absurd. This is just another attempt of Darwinists to ignore the facts—which is certainly something they have a lot of practice doing.


New York Times Error about “Strengths and Weaknesses” Mutates and Spreads

Posted by John West
Evolution News & Views
June 5, 2008

As previously pointed out, the New York Times botched its recent story about the science standards debate in Texas, implying that support for covering the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution is supposedly a new strategy on the part of Darwin critics. The only problem is that the “strengths and weaknesses” language in the Texas Science Standards was adopted some 10 years ago in 1998, and so there is nothing new about it. More importantly, the debate over whether to teach both the strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian evolution has been going on across the nation for the past decade.

[The rest of this article is not reprinted since it refers to Celeste Biever's article below, which was updated the next day to clarify its intended meaning and to correct the timeline error pointed out by John West and others. West's article itself was updated without indication to add information. The original June 5 paragraph is reprinted above; access the link on EN&V to see the revised paragraph and complete article. - SDS]


Darwin still under attack after 200 years

Celeste Biever, biomedical news editor
New Scientist
Thursday, June 05, 2008
Updated 06 June 2008

On Tuesday night I found myself under a dinosaur, sandwiched between one of Charles Darwin's great-great-grandsons and a giant, talking dodo.

It sounds like a bizarre dream but I was in the main hall of the Natural History Museum in London to celebrate the kick-off of Darwin's 200th anniversary celebrations, which begin in earnest next year (he was born in 1809).

Aside from an actor in a dodo suit, the entertainment at Darwin 200 included speeches from Margaret Hodge, the British government's Minister for Culture and Martin Rees, head of the Royal Society, artwork to commemorate Darwin and readings from four young poets.

But the highlight for me - and in my view the ultimate biological tribute to Darwin - was chatting to two of his direct descendants, a man who studies information theory in his spare time and a female opera singer.

They weren't my first taste of the modern-day Darwin family. That came in 2005, when I met another great-great-grandchild, Matthew Chapman, a film maker and journalist, at a trial about the teaching of intelligent design held in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

At that time in the US, Darwin's legacy seemed uncertain (although months later federal court judge John Jones ruled that teaching intelligence design was religion, not science, and that teaching it violated the separation of church and state as laid out in the First Amendment).

In complete contrast, on Tuesday night in London, his legacy was being celebrated in the museum that houses not only dinosaur bones, but specimens collected by Darwin himself during his famous voyage around the world aboard The Beagle.

But across the pond, the anti-evolution movement is threatening to undo Jones's good work, by infiltrating the biology classrooms in a new guise. According to the New York Times, this summer, the Texas state education board will decide whether the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution should be taught in public schools.

If you think "so what?" then read on:

The "benign-sounding phrase, some argue, is a reasonable effort at balance. But critics say it is a new strategy taking shape across the nation to undermine the teaching of evolution, a way for students to hear religious objections under the heading of scientific discourse.

Although "strengths and weaknesses" have been in the school standards since the 1980s, they have "had little effect because evolution skeptics have not had enough power on the education board to win the argument that textbooks do not adequately cover the weaknesses of evolution." Now, however, "seven of 15 members subscribe to the notion of intelligent design".

The worry is that as a result, the teaching of "weaknesses" could be mandated, allowing an unscientific amount of doubt to be heaped on evolution in the biology classroom. Similarly subtle language was introduced into the Kansas science standards in November 2005, after anti-evolutionists gained a majority on the state school board.

The term "intelligent design" itself is an attempt to find an alternative to the word "creationism". This was most deliciously illustrated during the ID trial, where early edits of pro-ID book Of Pandas and People were unsealed. The edits revealed that after 1987 (before the book had been published) references to creationism and creationists were systematically removed and replaced with the word "intelligent design", while the surrounding text remained largely unchanged.

These changes exactly coincided with a 1987 Supreme Court ruling that outlawed teaching creationism in US schools, helping Judge Jones to come to his final decision.

Now that teaching intelligent design has been similarly outlawed, it appears that "strengths and weaknesses" are all the movement has left. How long can the cat-and-mouse game go on? Given that the anti-evolutionists are forced to constantly water down their language to dodge the law, surely at some point, whatever phrase they finally come up with will be meaningless.

Creationism, ID, now strengths and weaknesses - what benign-sounding words could they come up with next?


Battle Over Teaching 'Weaknesses' of Evolution Moves to Texas

By Lawrence Jones
Christian Post Reporter
Friday, June 06 2008

Darwinists in Texas are seeking to remove a science standard that requires schools to teach both the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution.

Under current standards for the state's science curriculum, students are expected to "analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information."

But when the Texas Board of Education look to update state science standards this summer, some committee members will ask the board to remove the "strengths and weaknesses" phrase, according to The New York Times.

Among those requesting the board to drop the phrase is Kevin Fisher, a committee member who told the NY Times that questions left unanswered by evolution shouldn't be regarded as its weaknesses.

Other critics include Texas Freedom Network, a group that has opposed state proposals for Bible classes and Bible textbooks in the past.

Several board members appear to favor the current standard, saying it maintains a balanced debate on evolution.

"Evolution is not fact. Evolution is a theory and, as such, cannot be proven," Board Vice Chairman David Bradley told The Houston Chronicle. "Students need to be able to jump to their own conclusions."

Bradley also dismissed concerns by critics over the board's intention to sneak religion into the classroom.

"The only thing that this board is going to do is ask for accuracy."

Barbara Cargill, the vice chair of the board's Committee on Instruction, said giving students the freedom to discuss both sides of evolution will ensure them a "well-rounded education."

"It prompts them to be critical thinkers, and it also helps them to respect the opinions of other students even if they disagree," she told The Houston Chronicle.

Meanwhile, Discovery Institute, an intelligent design think tank, has rejected allegations that the group is using the "strength and weaknesses" rhetoric as a new strategy in pushing intelligent design in schools following the 2005 Dover case – when intelligent design was barred from being taught in Pennsylvania's Middle District public school science classrooms.

On the organization's blog site, staff member Robert Crowther points out that the "strengths and weaknesses" language was adopted by the Texas Board of Education over a decade ago, long before the Dover case, and that debate over it has been going on across the nation since then. In 2003, the Texas Board of Education was asked to enforce its previously adopted "strengths and weaknesses" language in biology textbooks but has yet to fully comply, according to Crowther.


The Cons of Creationism

The New York Times
Published: June 7, 2008

When it comes to science, creationists tend to struggle with reality. They believe, after all, that evolution by means of natural selection is false and that Earth is only a few thousand years old. They also believe that students who are taught a creationist view of biology -- or who are taught to disregard the Darwinist view -- are not being disadvantaged.

The Texas State Board of Education is again considering a science curriculum that teaches the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution, setting an example that several other states are likely to follow. This is code for teaching creationism.

It has the advantage of sounding more balanced than teaching "intelligent design," which the courts have consistently banned from science classrooms. It has the disadvantage of being nonsense.

The chairman of the Texas board, a dentist named Don McLeroy, advocates the "strengths and weaknesses" approach, as does a near majority of the board. The system accommodates what Dr. McLeroy calls two systems of science, creationist and "naturalist."

The trouble is, a creationist system of science is not science at all. It is faith. All science is "naturalist" to the extent that it tries to understand the laws of nature and the character of the universe on their own terms, without reference to a divine creator. Every student who hopes to understand the scientific reality of life will sooner or later need to accept the elegant truth of evolution as it has itself evolved since it was first postulated by Darwin. If the creationist view prevails in Texas, students interested in learning how science really works and what scientists really understand about life will first have to overcome the handicap of their own education.

Scientists are always probing the strengths and weakness of their hypotheses. That is the very nature of the enterprise. But evolution is no longer a hypothesis. It is a theory rigorously supported by abundant evidence. The weaknesses that creationists hope to teach as a way of refuting evolution are themselves antiquated, long since filed away as solved. The religious faith underlying creationism has a place, in church and social studies courses. Science belongs in science classrooms.

Texas Citizens for Science
Last updated: 2008 July 21