Don't mess with science standards

Don't mess with science standards
By ALAN I. LESHNER - Ft Worth Star-Telegram - 12/11/2007 - original
As Texas prepares to reconsider what youngsters statewide should know about science, the forced ouster of science curriculum director Chris Comer of the Texas Education Agency, apparently for standing up for the integrity of science education, stands as both shocking and sad. Even more disturbing, perhaps, is the official explanation for it.

Comer's forwarding of an e-mail about a lecture by Barbara Forrest, author of the book Inside Creationism's Trojan Horse, apparently rubbed some TEA higher-ups the wrong way. The agency must, after all, "remain neutral," according to a memo calling for Comer's termination. Agency spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe later went on to explain how "there's been a long-standing policy that the pros and cons of scientific theory must be taught."

These comments -- suggesting that scientific facts based on indisputable physical evidence are somehow subject to debate on nonscientific grounds -- are especially troubling in a state known for its innovation and filled with high-quality research universities.

Everyone has a constitutional right to interpret the origins of life based on Christian or any other doctrine. Religious discussion might be perfectly appropriate in theology or philosophy classes.

But scientific theory is based on facts, and creationism and intelligent design are not. If educators remain neutral about sticking to science in science classrooms, they will surely wind up confusing students about the nature of science versus religion.

Evolution describes how Earth's life forms gradually arose from common ancestors, beginning with one-celled organisms billions of years ago. It is a core concept, based on robust evidence such as radiometric measurements of the ages of Earth's rocks as well as meteorites and moon rocks. These tell us that our solar system formed 4.55 billion years ago, probably after a major supernova explosion. The first life on Earth emerged between 3.5 billion and 3.8 billion years ago.

Intelligent design advocates hypothesize that some natural events and structures are so complex that they must have been the work of an intervening supernatural agent. Others believe that the universe and all its inhabitants appeared in their current forms within the past 10,000 years.

In a free country, there's room for both religion and science. The scientific acceptance of evolution is compatible with the religious views of many Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu believers.

As geneticist Francis Collins, an evangelical Christian and director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, has said, "Faith is the way to understand questions that science can't answer, like 'Why are we all here? Why does it matter? Is there a God, and does he care about me?'"

Did Comer show poor judgment in forwarding that e-mail? Possibly -- if only because former Bush administration official Lizzette Reynolds immediately demanded Comer's termination. But, the more important question is this: Should anyone in charge of science curriculum be expected to remain neutral regarding efforts to insert religious viewpoints into science classrooms? The answer is "no."

American competitiveness depends upon providing the best possible science education for all students. This point seems well-understood by business leaders and by policymakers such as U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who helped pass the America COMPETES Act, authorizing the recruitment of 10,000 science and math teachers.

If today's students are to thrive, education leaders cannot pick and choose which scientific facts they want to accept. We urge the state's education leaders to help prevent children from becoming stragglers in this age of science and technology.

Alan I. Leshner is the chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and executive publisher of the journal Science.