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Texas science debate ends in split decision

AUSTIN, Texas (BP)–The Texas State Board of Education voted to remove language that required students to examine the strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories including evolution, but the board also added amendments calling for students to evaluate key components of the theory.

Darwinists had assailed the 20-year-old “strengths and weaknesses” clause as a back door to teaching biblical creationism, but during a public hearing on the new standards at the state capitol, that claim repeatedly was disputed by those on the board who say they want to keep scientific inquiry alive on all theories, including evolution.

With one member absent, the 15-member board fell short in a 7-7 vote to retain the strengths and weaknesses language. The board’s final vote on the new science curricula and standards is scheduled for March 26-27, with much lobbying expected as the dates approach.

Texas science standards are revised every 10 years, which makes the Texas decision important for textbook publishers, who are reluctant to publish multiple editions for different states, and for smaller states that must buy available textbooks.

The amendments would require students to use logic, empirical evidence and observational testing to analyze and evaluate the Darwinian tenets of common ancestry and natural selection in light of the fossil record — additions submitted largely by social conservatives on the board during the Jan. 21-23 sessions.

Evolution advocates, who have vowed to work to remove the new language calling for evaluation of the theories of common ancestry and natural selection, criticized the amendments.

The National Center for Science Education hailed the removal of the strengths and weaknesses language as a “tremendous victory for science education.” Eugenie Scott, executive director of the NCSE, testified that there are no weaknesses in the theory of evolution.

“[The board] didn’t, however, have time to talk to scientists about the creationist-inspired amendments made at the last minute,” she said. “Once they do, I believe these inaccurate amendments will be removed.”

Kathy Miller of the Texas Freedom Network, which describes itself as “a mainstream voice to counter the religious right,” said the new amendment calling for evaluation of common ancestry “could provide a small foothold for teaching creationist ideas and dumbing down biology instruction in Texas.” She also vowed to help see the common ancestry and natural selection language reversed when the board meets again in March.

Meanwhile, the Discovery Institute blog evolutionnews.org said evolution-only scientists were acting like stereotypical dogmatists.

“How does it promote creationism to insist that students ‘analyze and evaluate’ all the major parts of evolutionary theory? … They claim to support critical inquiry in science, but whenever it gets applied to evolution, they suddenly expose themselves for the dogmatists they are,” a Jan. 23 blog post said.

Don McLeroy, the board’s chairman and a dentist from College Station, submitted the amendment calling for students to “analyze and evaluate the sufficiency or insufficiency of common ancestry to explain the sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record.”

Other new amendments pertaining to evolution call for students:

— to “analyze and evaluate how the elements of natural selection including inherited variation, the potential of a population to produce more offspring than can survive, and a finite supply of environmental resources results in differential reproductive success”;

— to “analyze and evaluate how evidence of common ancestry among groups is provided by the fossil record, biogeography, and homologies including anatomical, molecular, and developmental”;

— and to “evaluate a variety of fossil types, proposed transitional fossils, fossil lineages, and significant fossil deposits and assess the arguments for and against universal common descent in light of this fossil evidence.”

Michael Keas, professor of the history and philosophy of science at the College at Southwestern, the undergraduate school at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, was among those who testified at committee hearings in Austin.

In a written testimony to the board Jan. 21, Keas said even Darwin wrote in his “Origin of Species” that “a fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question.”

Keas referred to the Tennessee law restricting the teaching of evolution that prompted the 1925 Scopes trial and urged the board to pursue a policy that enables students to learn more about evolution, not less, noting that students would benefit from access to the range of criticisms of the various evolutionary theories as they are currently being debated in scientific journals.

“What should science teachers do when experts disagree about whether evidence supports a theory, as they do in the case of evolution? As a science educator and historian of science my answer is: teach the arguments on both sides, as Darwin himself challenged us to do,” Keas wrote.

Others who encouraged the board to retain the strength and weaknesses clause were Stephen Meyer, a Cambridge-trained philosopher of science who directs the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture; Baylor University chemistry professor Charles Garner and University of Wisconsin-Superior biology professor Ralph Seelke.

Board member Bob Craig, who voted to omit the strengths and weaknesses language, said the board shouldn’t backtrack over the new wording because it was submitted by teachers who are in classrooms and know more about teaching than board members. Craig and fellow board member Mavis Knight said the phrase “strengths and weaknesses” has taken on a new connotation in recent years. Board member Patricia Hardy concurred and added that the confusion of the current standards extends beyond just the strengths and weaknesses phrase.

“It never really says what theories you are supposed to be referencing …,” Hardy said. “There’s no way any textbook can reflect the strengths and weaknesses of ‘the theories.’ What theories are you talking about?”

John West, associate director of the Center for Science and Culture, said the Texas Board of Education “took one step back and two steps forward” in its most recent deliberations.

“While we wish they would have retained the strengths and weaknesses language in the overall standards, they did something truly remarkable today,” West said in a news release Jan. 22. “They voted to require students to analyze and evaluate some of the most important and controversial aspects of modern evolutionary theory such as the fossil record, universal common descent and even natural selection…. Analyzing, evaluating, any additional scrutiny of evolution can only help students to learn more about the theory.”

The struggle between advocates and critics of evolutionary theory has been waged in multiple states, including Kansas, Pennsylvania and Alabama, with evolution-only advocates winning most of the battles. Last July, though, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal signed the Louisiana Science Education Act, which protects teachers who wish to encourage critical thinking on issues such as global warming, human cloning and Darwinian evolution.
Tim McKeown is a correspondent for the Southern Baptist TEXAN, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.

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