For two decades, critics have argued that the Texas Board of Education's science standards have allowed creationism to creep into public schools and textbooks. Last week the board changed the language, creating the latest arena in the clash between creationists and the scientific community. Both sides explain why the subtle language change may greatly affect how evolution is taught in Texas and the rest of the country.
Burned By The ChristiansArtist: Califone
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. A battle over religion and science policy ended last Friday with the Texas Board of Education voting to change its standards for the science curriculum, which includes biology, which includes evolution, which means:
MALE CORRESPONDENT: A final vote is expected today on new rules concerning the teaching of evolution in Texas public schools, a decision that could impact what your children learn in science class.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: For 20 years, Texas has required teachers to explore the, quote, “strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories.” But critics argue that the phrase blurs the line between church and state.
BOB GARFIELD: The Texas Board of Education voted to do away with the “strengths and weaknesses” clause, a clause many argued permitted the teaching of creationism by playing up the so-called “weaknesses” of Darwin’s theory. But Chairman Don McLeroy, who has publicly declared that the universe is just 10,000 years old, gave an impassioned speech in the hearing, arguing that he had scientific evidence that evolution is flawed and that these flaws should be highlighted in the science curriculum.
DON McLEROY: It’s not complicated. It doesn't take mathematics. I disagree with these experts. Somebody’s got to stand up to experts.
BOB GARFIELD: And so, they amended the standards to encourage students to analyze, quote, “all sides of scientific theories.” Seems fair, but --
EUGENIE SCOTT: The devil is in the details.
BOB GARFIELD: Eugenie Scott is executive director of the National Center for Science Education.
EUGENIE SCOTT: The standards that were adopted are going to be used just like the previous standards, to try to convince publishers to change their books.
BOB GARFIELD: Previous standards caused textbook publishers to change wording about the last Ice Age, so as not to conflict with creationist timelines. All textbooks bought by Texas public schools must comply with the standards, and since Texas buys more high school textbooks than any other state, it influences books everywhere. Tiny changes in Texas standards have become the front lines for those like Scott, who are trying to get creationism out of schools.
EUGENIE SCOTT: It used to be much clearer because anti-evolutionists argued that you should just bring creationism into the classroom. But, of course, in the United States that doesn't work because the First Amendment says you can't advocate religion in the public schools, so they had to give up on that strategy. We're seeing creationism evolving in response to the legal environment, if you will. It’s a very – it’s a very [LAUGHS] evolutionary system in that regard.
BOB GARFIELD: No one on the Texas board, not even Don McLeroy, was arguing that creationism should be in the science curriculum, but Eugenie Scott says that’s just a tactic.
EUGENIE SCOTT: You don't actually mention creationism ‘cause that gets you in trouble with the courts. But if you just bash evolution, just convince students that evolution is not valid, then the students will say, well gee, teacher, what did happen. And that gives a creationist teacher an opportunity to say, well, you know, perhaps you should just read Genesis. So it’s a creationism by the back door.
BOB GARFIELD: The front door was slammed most recently in 2005, with the federal case of Kitzmiller v. Dover in Pennsylvania. Kenneth Miller is coauthor of one of the most popular biology textbooks in the country and he testified in Dover as an expert witness.
KENNETH MILLER: And at the end of that trial the judge, whose name is John Jones III and, I should point out, a lifelong Republican and an appointee of President George W. Bush, ruled a couple of things, first of all, that intelligent design simply wasn't science, that intelligent design was actually nothing more than creationism relabeled, and it had been relabeled in a deliberate attempt to conceal its religious identity. As the judge pointed out, this kind of concealment basically violates the First Amendment, which requires that the state, even a local school board, be neutral in matters of religion.
BOB GARFIELD: This brings us to the Discovery Institute. Can you tell me about that organization and how it played into Dover and similar cases around the country?
KENNETH MILLER: Well, the Discovery Institute is a very well-funded think tank that has several groups within it. And they have a group within them called the Committee on Science and Culture, which is headed by Stephen Meyer, the coauthor of a pamphlet entitled Intelligent Design in Public School Curricula. It’s clear that their arguments and their publications and their ideas were very much behind what the school board wanted to do and were part of the reason for the trial happening, in the first place.
BOB GARFIELD: It seems like the controversy is rooted in the word “theory” which means one thing in common language – I suppose the synonym would be ”a supposition” – and a very different thing in scientific parlance.
KENNETH MILLER: In science what the word “theory” does is it means a unified testable explanation that actually explains how different facts, how observations, how fossils, how facts about genetics or molecular biology, how these can all fit together. So the interesting thing is that theory actually represents a higher level of understanding and fact. Fact is just a single isolated, repeatable observation. A theory is something that explains how all these facts fit together. And we use the word “theory” like atomic theory, for example, not because we're [LAUGHS] not sure that atoms are real – we're pretty darn sure – but rather because atomic theory explains all these isolated observations and facts.
BOB GARFIELD: You’re an author.
KENNETH MILLER: Correct.
BOB GARFIELD: What happens when your publisher says to you, we -- we're faced with these guidelines, we've got to kind of massage the language to accommodate the Texas Board of Education? What do you say?
EUGENIE SCOTT: My coauthor, Joe Levine, and I, when we embarked on this project of writing a textbook, we each made a promise to each other that we would never write anything that we, as scientists, would be ashamed to show to our scientific colleagues. And in the more than 20 years that Joe and I have worked together, we've never had to violate that pledge to each other. I'm hoping that when we look at the literal wording of the Texas standards, we'll still be able to produce a book that will meet the letter of the Texas requirements and will not compromise anything scientifically. But I can also tell you that if we come to the conclusion that we would have to say things that generally contradict the consensus within the scientific community, we’d have to basically put down the pen, detach the keyboard and say, sorry, we're not going to participate. We're perfectly willing to do that. We just haven't come to that conclusion, yet.
BOB GARFIELD: Kenneth Miller is author of the book Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul. The Discovery Institute says its position is that intelligent design should not be part of the curriculum, but insists that there are serious weaknesses in the theory of evolution. That’s why the Discovery Institute’s Casey Luskin is thrilled with the decision of the Texas School Board.
CASEY LUSKIN: The new Texas science standards require students to analyze, evaluate and critique, you know, some of the core evolutionary concepts, like natural selection, mutation and common ancestry. And we really think that teaching evolution in this manner that allows students to ask hard questions and really investigate and analyze the issues is the best way to teach science.
BOB GARFIELD: What are the issues?
CASEY LUSKIN: Well, the issues are that there is a scientific controversy over evolution. And, of course, some scientists will tell you that there is no controversy, but the reality is that during the hearings of the Texas State Board of Education, we saw a number of Ph.D. biologists from top institutions come and testify about their scientific doubts about evolution.
BOB GARFIELD: Are you familiar with the fallacy of favorable enumeration? It says that you find a handful of examples that support your premise and you focus on them to the exclusion of the vast preponderance of circumstances that don't support your premise.
CASEY LUSKIN: Cherry picking is what you’re saying.
BOB GARFIELD: That’s called cherry picking.
CASEY LUSKIN: Okay, got it.
BOB GARFIELD: And was not the assembly of five Ph.D. evolutionary biologists who have issues with the Darwin theory not just cherry picking from the whole universe of science on this subject?
CASEY LUSKIN: There’s a list of over 750 Ph.D. scientists who have scientific doubts about neo-Darwinian evolution, and there’s a heck of a lot more who, I think, would be willing to sign that list if they weren't fearing for their jobs and what would happen to them if they were to, you know, basically come out of the closet and voice dissent from Darwinism.
BOB GARFIELD: So it’s the position of the Discovery Institute that this consensus, this worldwide scientific consensus on evolution, is a function of intimidation of dissenting voices.
CASEY LUSKIN: The term “consensus” is a term that’s used basically as a club to shut down scientific dissent. I've seen the National Academy of Sciences make assertions to the effect that all biologists support evolution. When you hear those kind of statements being made, what that creates is a climate of intolerance that chills academic freedom for scientists to discuss their doubts about evolution in their labs, in their classrooms, in their research. And it really – I mean, this climate of intolerance really does exist, because we've seen the carnage from it.
BOB GARFIELD: Casey Luskin is a policy analyst with the Discovery Institute. Christine Castillo Comer could be labeled a victim of the culture of intolerance, but not for being a creationist. In 2007, she was the Texas Education Agency’s director of science, a position she’d held for nine years, when she happened to forward an email announcing a talk by Barbara Forrest, a pro-evolution author and expert witness in the Dover trial. She forwarded the email to a list serve of local scientific teachers with three letters. FYI.
CHRISTINE CASTILLO COMER: And within two hours I was called into not my direct supervisor but rather the top supervisor of the division, and she gave me a piece of paper. In there it said that I had just done something that was a fireable offense, that I was not allowed to give my opinion on creationism. And I thought to myself, wait a minute, I didn't give my opinion. She said, well, I'd like for you to send out an email that tells people this is not the position of the agency.
BOB GARFIELD: So Comer immediately sent off another email telling the list serve to ignore her previous one. The issue resolved, she took a few days off to celebrate the birth of her first grandson, but when she returned she was told she could resign and get a month’s pay or else be fired immediately, with no severance. She chose the former.
CHRISTINE CASTILLO COMER: I was shocked, to say the least, and I very quickly said, I can't believe this, you’re actually firing me over evolution?
BOB GARFIELD: Comer was told misconduct and insubordination was the official reason, but it might as well have been plague.
CHRISTINE CASTILLO COMER: They said, by the way, you are not to speak of this to anyone. And then they escorted me to my office and they actually had evacuated the entire floor. There were coffee cups on desks, you know, still with the steam rising, but no one on the entire floor. It was – it was as if I had committed murder.
BOB GARFIELD: So what does this defrocked director of science think of the recent ruling?
CHRISTINE CASTILLO COMER: It’s going to be difficult for teachers, because I think this opens the door for students to bring in anything into the classroom and say, well, here’s my side and I want to talk about it. The teacher that feels confident, that has a good administrator, will say, wait a minute, that’s not scientific, you can't bring that in. But the teacher that is not so well versed and who has a board and an administrator that is openly hostile, that teacher is going to be bound to just have to teach any kind of pseudo-science. A very sad day for Texas.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, that’s just one side of the story.
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