Today's post is from Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, a non-profit organization that defends the teaching of evolution in the public schools. With NCSE's executive director Eugenie C. Scott, he edited Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design is Wrong for Our Schools.
When the distinguished philosopher Philip Kitcher recently addressed the creationist movement in his Living With Darwin, he judiciously assessed creationism in its latest incarnation as historically respectable but currently bankrupt, and proposed to describe it as "dead" science. "In light of its shambling tenacity," I replied, "'zombie science' is perhaps a preferable label." (I was writing in a scholarly journal, so I resisted the temptation to add a reference to "Romero 1968" or "Wright 2004".)
I guess that Halloween came early to Texas, for the zombies are out in force. Three creationists were just appointed to a six-member committee to review a draft set of Texas state biology standards, which determine what is taught in Texas's public school science classrooms and the content of the biology textbooks approved for use in the state. And since Texas is one of the largest textbook markets in the country, what happens to textbooks there is relevant to the content of textbooks everywhere.
With all that at stake, why would anyone appoint a creationist, let alone three, to such a committee? Oh, right: the chair of the board, Don McLeroy, is a confessed creationist, who offers folksy criticisms of evolution like, "Given all the time in the world, I don't think I could make a spider out of a rock. However, most of the books we are considering adopting, claim that Nothing made a spider out of a rock." The far-right faction on the state board of education, including McLeroy, presently holds seven of its fifteen seats.
Within sight of a majority, the creationists on the board are aiming to secure a pretext for undermining the treatment of evolution in the draft standards—and thus, down the line, in classrooms throughout Texas and in textbooks across the country. Even though the remaining members of the review committee, talented scientists and educators all, are sure to perform their evaluations responsibly, the best outcome will be a deadlock, leaving the creationists on the board free to ignore their evaluations.
A central issue is that the new draft omits a reference to "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories. Innocuous on its face, the "strengths and weaknesses" language was selectively applied only to evolution in 2003 by members of the board attempting to dilute the treatment of evolution in the biology textbooks then under consideration. After a concerted effort by scientists, teachers, parents, and others to defend evolution, all eleven books were eventually adopted—but it was a long, hard, and unedifying ordeal.
In a 2005 talk at his church, McLeroy was candid about the connection between his religious beliefs and his abuse of the "strengths and weaknesses" language, saying: "It was only the four really conservative, orthodox Christians on the board [who] were willing to stand up to the textbooks and say they don't present the weaknesses of evolution." (If you're a Christian who accepts evolution, like the over 11,000 signatories of this open letter, you're apparently not "orthodox" enough for him.)
Also under attack is the new draft's explanation of the limits of science, which notes, "If ideas are based upon purported forces outside of nature, they cannot be tested using scientific methods." McLeroy is digging in his heels here too, wanting to open the science classroom door to the supernatural—and not just the costumed trick-or-treating variety. As he told The New York Times, he thinks there are two types of science: "a creationist system and a naturalist system."
Supporters of the integrity of science education, including the Texas Freedom Network, Texas Citizens for Science, and the newly formed 21st Century Science Coalition, already numbering over 1300 Texas scientists in its ranks, have praised the treatment of evolution in the draft standards. So have newspapers such as the Austin American-Statesman and the Waco Tribune, which noted that "strengths and weaknesses" is "code for those who want religion to have a foot in the door when Darwin comes up."
But the creationists on the board aren't interested in heeding the advice of qualified experts, whether scientific (such as the National Academy of Sciences or the Texas Academy of Science) or educational (such as the National Association of Biology Teachers or the Science Teachers Association of Texas), about the importance of teaching evolution properly. They're interested in wedging that foot in the door, and they're apparently not too worried about looking silly while doing it.
According to a 2004 article by Josh Levin in Slate, which my colleague Josh Rosenau brought to my attention, "It wasn't long ago that the cinematic undead obeyed the first law of corpse locomotion: A zombie might bleed on you, bite you, or rip out your ribcage, but wouldn't beat you in the 40-yard dash." They've adopted new tactics, apparently: with the remake of Dawn of the Dead, Levin complains, "the plague of the fast zombies is upon us. Beware!"
Well, it wasn't long ago that creationists were trying to have intelligent design taught in the schools, and not so long ago that creationists were trying to have creation science taught in the schools, and really not all that long ago that creationists were trying to ban the teaching of evolution. After a string of defeats in the courts, they've adopted new tactics, trying to disguise their religious objections to evolution with a veneer of appealing secular language, like "strengths and weaknesses." So beware!
You might also be interested in reading Glenn Branch's previous posts at Beacon Broadside about the teaching of evolution in Florida and the firing of an education official in Texas. Be sure to check out the National Center for Science Education's blog.