Adapting to Survive
Adapting to Survive

From The Texas Observer - 11/28/2008 - original
They came before the Texas State Board of Education on November 19 ostensibly to debate the science curriculum and how evolution should be taught in Texas schools. But after nearly 90 witnesses had testified over seven hours, it was clear the discussion was more suited for English class: The hearing was a textbook exhibition of word choice, rhetoric, false analogies, symbolism, metaphors, unreliable narrators and more than a few fascinating characters.

State education boards have provided a last redoubt for creationists hoping to slip a few words about God into the teaching of evolutionary theory. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1987 that creationism couldn't be taught in science class. Then, in the 2005 Dover decision, a federal judge scuttled the pseudo-creationist theory of intelligent design. Following these defeats, the anti-evolution forces have adopted a "teach the controversy" argument. So when the state board began revising Texas' science curriculum this year, creationists hoped to require that textbooks include a discussion of the "strengths and limitations" of evolutionary theory.

Proponents of evolution see the "strengths and limitations" argument as a loophole big enough to house the Garden of Eden. And they said as much at a packed pre-meeting press conference outside the hearing room that featured someone in a purple Barney the Dinosaur outfit, with a sign asking board Chair Don McLeroy, an avowed creationist, "How old am I? 4,000 [years] or 64,000,000?" (Actually, it's neither; Barney first appeared in 1992.)

When the hearing began, many on the 15-member board feigned surprise that anyone would think the "strengths and weaknesses" language had anything to do with religion. "We're talking about scientific weaknesses and scientific strengths," said Terri Leo, a board member from Spring. "We're not talking about religious issues. ... All this hysteria has no basis in fact." Leo said that "strengths and weaknesses" has been part of the state's science standards since 1988 and applies to all theories, not just evolution. The board simply wanted to change "weaknesses" to "limitations." And what, Leo wondered, could possibly be wrong with that?

"People who are militant Darwinists"—at this, members of the crowd chortled, and Leo shot back with a defensive, unapologetic "sorry" and continued—"they want to pull out that language and treat evolution separately than we treat all other theories."

What Leo didn't mention was that a panel of science experts who wrote the first draft of the new standards earlier this year removed "strengths and weaknesses" because they found it misleading. As many witnesses later pointed out, scientific theories, technically speaking, don't have weaknesses.

Dissatisfied with that first draft, the board appointed another panel to review the standards, and this time the lineup was stacked: Three of the six reviewers were well-known creationists, including two who work for the Discovery Institute, the Seattle think tank that promotes intelligent design. And wouldn't you know it, they reinserted similar language, this time with the word "limitations."

For Ken Mercer, a board member from San Antonio, it was an issue of academic freedom. "There's no religious connotation there," he said. "I took weaknesses to mean academic freedom—question this, question that."

When another witness, paleontologist Steven Schafersman, pointed out that high school students lack the expertise to critique scientific theory, Mercer was incredulous. "You think students have no business critiquing scientific theories?" he said. "What about academic freedom? What about classroom freedom?" Schafersman, delicately parsing Mercer's rhetoric, explained there's a difference between students asking questions in class and students trying to critique evolutionary theory.

The board has scheduled a final vote for next March on the science standards that textbook publishers must use for Texas schools. Because the state is the second-largest buyer of textbooks in the nation, publishers use the Texas version in many other states. That means whatever curriculum the board decides to impose will likely be taught all over the country.

—Dave Mann