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In Texas, a Line in the Curriculum Revives Evolution Debate

Thanks to Mark for the link.

Reposted from:
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/22/education/22texas.html?_r=1

AUSTIN, Tex. — The latest round in a long-running battle over how evolution should be taught in Texas schools began in earnest Wednesday as the State Board of Education heard impassioned testimony from scientists and social conservatives on revising the science curriculum.

The debate here has far-reaching consequences; Texas is one of the nation’s biggest buyers of textbooks, and publishers are reluctant to produce different versions of the same material.

Many biologists and teachers said they feared that the board would force textbook publishers to include what skeptics see as weaknesses in Darwin’s theory to sow doubt about science and support the Biblical version of creation.

“These weaknesses that they bring forward are decades old, and they have been refuted many, many times over,” Kevin Fisher, a past president of the Science Teachers Association of Texas, said after testifying. “It’s an attempt to bring false weaknesses into the classroom in an attempt to get students to reject evolution.”

In the past, the conservatives on the education board have lacked the votes to change textbooks. This year, both sides say, the final vote, in March, is likely to be close.

Even as federal courts have banned the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in biology courses, social conservatives have gained 7 of 15 seats on the Texas board in recent years, and they enjoy the strong support of Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican.

The chairman of the board, Dr. Don McLeroy, a dentist, pushed in 2003 for a more skeptical version of evolution to be presented in the state’s textbooks, but could not get a majority to vote with him. Dr. McLeroy has said he does not believe in Darwin’s theory and thinks that Earth’s appearance is a recent geologic event, thousands of years old, not 4.5 billion as scientists contend.

On the surface, the debate centers on a passage in the state’s curriculum that requires students to critique all scientific theories, exploring “the strengths and weaknesses” of each. Texas has stuck to that same standard for 20 years, having originally passed it to please religious conservatives. In practice, teachers rarely pay attention to it.

This year, however, a panel of teachers assigned to revise the curriculum proposed dropping those words, urging students instead to “analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence.”

Scientists and advocates for religious freedom say the battle over the curriculum is the tip of a spear. Social conservatives, the critics argue, have tried to use the “strengths and weaknesses” standard to justify exposing students to religious objections in the guise of scientific discourse.

“The phrase ‘strengths and weaknesses’ has been spread nationally as a slogan to bring creationism in through the back door,” said Eugenie C. Scott of the National Center for Science in Education, a California group that opposes watering down evolution in biology classes.

Already, legislators in six states — Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri and South Carolina — have considered legislation requiring classrooms to be open to “views about the scientific strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian theory,” according to a petition from the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based strategic center of the intelligent-design movement.

Stephen C. Meyer, an expert on the history of science and a director at the Discovery Institute, denied that the group advocated a Biblical version of creation. Rather, Mr. Meyer said, it is fighting for academic freedom and against what it sees as a fanatical loyalty to Darwin among biologists, akin to a secular religion.

Testifying before the board, he asserted, for instance, that evolution had trouble explaining the Cambrian Explosion, a period of rapid diversification that evidence suggests began about 550 million years ago and gave rise to most groups of complex organisms and animal forms.

Of the Texas curriculum standards, Mr. Meyer said, “This kind of language is really important for protecting teachers who want to address this subject with integrity in the sense of allowing students to hear about dissenting opinions.”

But several biologists who appeared in the hearing room said the objections raised by Mr. Meyer and some board members were baseless. The majority of evidence collected over the last 150 years supports Darwin, and few dissenting opinions have survived a review by scientists.

“Every single thing they are representing as a weakness is a misrepresentation of science,” said David M. Hillis, a professor of biology at the University of Texas. “These are science skeptics. These are people with religious and political agendas.”

Many of the dozens of people who crowded into the hearing room, however, seemed unimpressed with the body of scientific evidence supporting evolution.

“Textbooks today treat it as more than a theory, even though its evidence has been found to be stained with half-truths, deception and hoaxes,” said Paul Berry Lively, 42, a mechanical engineer from Houston who brought along his teenage son. “Darwinian evolution is not a proven fact.”

Other conservative parents told board members that their children had been intimidated and ridiculed by biology teachers when they questioned evolution. Some asserted that they knew biology teachers who were afraid to bring up theories about holes in Darwin’s theory.

Business leaders, meanwhile, said Texas would have trouble attracting highly educated workers and their families if the state’s science programs were seen as a laughingstock among biologists.

“The political games we are playing right now are going to burn us all,” said Eric Hennenhoefer, who owns Obsidian Software.

TAGGED: -, EDUCATION


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