Live Blogs of the Texas State Board of Education Meeting
2008 November 19
Steven D. Schafersman, Ph.D.
Texas Citizens for Science
2008 November 23
Archived Audio Files of State Board of Education Meetings
Archived Minutes of State Board of Education Meetings
Texas State Board of Education Live Blog, Wednesday, 2008 November 19
This is the first live, on-site blog from the Texas State Board of Education. I am writing this from the State Board of Education (SBOE) hearing room in the William Travis Building in Austin on Wednesday, November 19. I will periodically update this column during the day.
I arrived early this morning. I park in the underground parking garage of the Texas State Museum. I walked across the street to the Travis Building, 1701 N. Congress Avenue. We are only two blocks from the Texas Capitol:
I enter the Travis Building:
The Travis Building has a large lobby that I will photograph later when we participate in the Texas Freedom Network Press Conference.
I enter the SBOE hearing room which is empty at 8:30 a.m.
After the meeting starts at 9:00 a.m., the seats fill up.
Soon, speakers are in position to address the Board.
The meeting follows an agenda which is available at http://www.tea.state.tx.us/sboe/schedule/2008/november/full_board.html.
You can listen to the meeting via a Web audio feed by accessing the link at http://www.tea.state.tx.us/sboe/mtg_mat_current.html.
The first item on the agenda, which is still being addressed at 10:00, concerns the distribution of investments of the Permanent School Fund. This fund was worth about $23 billion several months ago, but has lost many billions of dollars since then.
The public testimony about the science standards or TEKS won't begin until after lunch. This is item 7 on the agenda.
10:00 a.m. now. More later.
SBOE Chair McLeroy has just announced that Item 7, the science standards testimony, will definitely not start until after lunch. The hearing room has filled up considerably.
The SBOE is still listening to talks about investments of the PSF.
I now have a copy of the speaker's list for the science standards testimony. There are 92 speakers, so it is likely the testimony will continue into the evening. There will probably be a break for dinner. I am now number 4 on the list, Kathy Miller of TFN is no. 8, Francis Eberle of the National Science Teachers Association is no. 11, and Clare Wuellner of the Center for Inquiry is no. 12. Ronald Wetherington of SMU and one of the six experts who wrote reviews of the science TEKS is no. 21. Andrew Ellington, a biology professor of UT Austin and an expert in origin of life research, is no. 29. It is important to be among the earliest speakers because the television cameras leave early to prepare the video for evening newscasts.
SBOE members Rene Nunez and Rick Agosto were involved in a traffic accident in San Antonio this morning. Rick Agosto's truck was damaged, but both Board members are okay and are now present at the hearing.
The TFN press conference begins in a few minutes, so I have to run. If you have any questions, please leave comments.
This section is devoted to the 11:00 a.m. Texas Freedom Network press conference in the Travis Building lobby. Many supporters came to stand in solidarity and several had clever signs, such as "Your Weaknesses Are Weak" and "Teach the Weaknesses of Gravity."
The gentleman in the light gray coat is Dr. Joe Bernal of San Antonio, former member of the SBOE and a strong supporter of accurate and reliable science education.
There were four speakers, the first being Kathy Miller, the president of TFN. She addressed the fact that some SBOE members want to keep the unscientific "strengths and weaknesses" language in the science TEKS. She said that three sciences--physics, chemistry, and biology--had changed this to "strengths and limitations," and that was still bad. She concluded: "Texas students need to be educated with 21st Century Science to succeed in today's world."
Kathy Miller, President of Texas Freedom Network, speaking.
Andrew Ellington, the UT Austin biochemistry professor spoke and said that he has formed two biomedical companies that use "directed evolution" (he presumably means gene sequencing techniques) to manufactures and delivers drugs for humans. He started these in Boston, MA, and Durham, NC, not Austin, because he needed to be sure there were plenty of workers properly trained in evolutionary biology that could understand the modern recombinant DNA techniques that are needed to produce and deliver the drugs. He spoke harshly about the "retrograde" Texas SBOE and its interference in accurate and reliable science education.
Andrew Ellington, UT Austin Professor of Biochemistry, speaking.
The press was in attendance at this press conference:
Also in attendance was Barney, the Purple Dinosaur, who demonstrated on the side of science:
How old is Barney in your opinion?
11:55 a.m. and time for a TFN box lunch.
We are back from lunch and just started agenda item 3 about adding the Math College Readiness Standards to the Math TEKS. Chair McLeroy has just stated that we will follow the agenda in order today, so it will be some time before we get to item 7.
The TFN-sponsored lunch was barbeque at Scholz Garten. Good choice.
The SBOE is on agenda item 6, giving high school athletics more credit good for graduation. The comments and debate are vigorous. If it passes, athletics would be allowed more credit for graduation than fine arts, choir, marching band, etc.
To get anything special for your interest group in Texas education, all you have to do is ask the SBOE. If a majority of members are your friends, you will get it.
The Board is still on athletics getting two more graduation credits.
Item 7 is just starting now at 3:50 p.m., but the Chair is rearranging the schedule.
The proposal to allow athletics to have two more credits counted toward graduation, now four in total, passed 10-5.
Discussion of Some of the Public Testimony about "Strengths and Weaknesses"
Dr. Joe Bernal went first. He spoke about adopting good science standards that don't distort the meaning of science. He spoke about his religious beliefs and about how they don't conflict with science. He opposed the "strengths and weaknesses" language because the scientists are opposed to it. He was questioned about what version of C3A he wanted, and he supported the First Draft of September, the one that first removed the term "strengths and weaknesses." He was opposed to the term "limitations."
[My turn to speak. No photo of me. Sorry.]
It is 5:10 p.m. as I write this. My testimony just finished. Afterward, I was grilled by SBOE members Ken Mercer and Terri Leo. They questioned me about the primary theme of my testimony against "strengths and weaknesses." Mercer wanted to know why students couldn't ask questions. I said they could, and teachers could answer them honestly and responsibly. But it was wrong to require that students be required to "critique" the "weaknesses" of "scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories." He also asked me about evolutonary frauds such as Piltdown Man and Haeckel's vertebrate embryos. Students should be able to ask about them. I replied that scientists were the ones who exposed these frauds, most did not believe them in the first place, and they are not relevant to the current debate involving poor and unscientific wording of science standards. I also said that vertebrate embryo similarities provide enormous evidence to support evolution, as do many other hominid fossils found since the Piltdown fraud.
Mercer also brought up a common misunderstanding about the existence of microevolution but not macroevolution. I replied that these were terms used by scientists to distinguish levels of evolution and that evolution is a continuous process in nature. There is no disjunct that actually separates microevolution and macroevolution among evolving organisms.
For some reason, Terri Leo asked me about my scientific qualifications. I later found out that she asked because I had criticized the three Creationist "expert" science standards reviewers in my testimony, whom she thought had excellent credentials (they did, but that is irrelevant in their cases, since they are far outside the scientific mainstream or consensus). I had testified that I had read their reviews and was very dissatisfied with them. She also asked about how I could say that students shouldn't ask questions or criticize scientific explanations. I made a distinction between scientific hypotheses that could be criticized and theories that should not by high school students.
One of the two asked me about the academic freedom of students to ask questions about scientific explanations in science class. I replied that students have the right to ask any question they want and teachers have the right to answer them honestly and responsibly. But there is no need to require that "academic freedom" or "weaknesses" or "both sides of a controversy" be presented in science classes. There are several things unscientific and wrong about such political requirements and they should not be added.
Kathy Miller, President of Texas Freedom Network, spoke calmly about how the words "weaknesses" or "limitations" do not belong in science standards as an object of criticism by high school science students. She spoke about the survey that was conducted by Professor Raymond Eve. This TFN Education Fund survey of Texas biology professors is available online and showed overwhelming opposition to the suggestion that so-called “weaknesses” of evolution are based on science. She asked the SBOE to accept established, mainstream science and to reject the arguments about phony “weaknesses” of evolution. The board should avoid politicizing the issue and ensure that students get a 21st-century science education.
Andy Ellington, UT Professor of Biochemistry, spoke about two topics. First, he described his testimony in 2003 about Stanley Miller's origin of life experiments and how the Discovery Institute criticized it and wanted to remove it. Today, Miller's work is praised more than ever, so their criticism was unsound. Second, he emphasized that a single fact does not overthrow a scientific theory, which is an enormous body of work, so even if Haeckel's fraud was true or Miller's experiment was a failure, this would not overthrow evolution, which is supported by much, much more evidence. Ellington emphasized that scientific theories do not have weaknesses. An individual cannot evaluate or criticize scientific theories on the basis of "weaknesses" or "limitations."
7:30 p.m. I have had frequent interviews, talks, and other interruptions, so I couldn't keep up the blogging. Sorry. Let me advise you that the TFN is also publishing a Live Blog about the meeting. This is at http://tfnblog.wordpress.com/. Dan Quinn of TFN, the person writing this, is keeping up better than me.
Many of my photos taken inside the hearing room are blurry because I am not using a flash.
Let's show a few more pictures of speakers who are friends of TCS.
Clare Wuellner is Executive Director of the Austin (& Texas) Center for Inquiry, an organization that supports good science and skepticism. She has a PhD in biology. She is dressed in a 19th century dress to illustrate what happened to another 19th century theory: germ theory. It was originally derided and criticized, but now is overwhelmingly supported by science. She compared this to the scientific theory of evolution, which had a parallel history.
Southern Methodist University Anthropology Professor Ronald Wetherington spoke in favor of removing "strengths and weaknesses" and using the First Draft September Rule C3A. Ron was one of the six expert science standards reviewers and he supported the good standards. The Discovery Institute falsely and maliciously criticized him for his efforts. After his testimony, the Board Chair thanked him for his efforts.
Wendee Holtcamp, who has an M.S. in Biology, spoke about her Christian faith and how accepting science and evolution is no threat. She bravely named the six Creationists on the SBOE (something even I don't do in testimony because it overly personalizes the issue), but inadvertently left out David Bradley who began to wave his arms asking that he be included. I just refer to them as "the Creationists on the State Board." She described why evolution is so important to learn in biology class.
"Spider Joe" Lapp addressed Board and defended good science education. He spoke about how evolution is an important topic to use in education of children about nature. Joe is an Austin software developer with a fascination for spiders. He helps to teach kids about biology and is a supporter of good science education. He often helps pro-science organizations with websites, including TCS and TFN.
Richard Neavel is a PhD geologist who worked for Exxon for 30 years. He testified against "strengths and weaknesses" and in favor of the good science standards written by scientists and science teachers. He was asked several questions by antagonistic SBOE members. Gail Lowe asked him about polystrate fossils, including a baleen whale found in the Lompoc, CA, quarry. Also, she asked him about coal. Since Richard is a coal expert, he was quickly able to respond.
Paul Murray testified that Stephen Meyer and the other two SBOE Creationist experts did not publish their anti-evolution writings in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. Instead, they were published "in house" and thus had no scientific legitimacy. He explained how science works and how scientists often have disagreements about scientific evidence and tests, but that the scientific method--which includes peer-review--satisfactorily solves disagreements and problems.
Gail Lowe thanked Paul for mentioning that Charles Garner of Baylor did not have any peer-reviewed "anti-Darwinian" publications, and she said she did not choose him because of such literature. Paul said it was true that Garner had no anti-evolution peer-reviewed publications, but his Creationism was well-know among colleagues and students at Baylor. I think Lowe knew this and picked Garner for precisely this reason. As I reported before, Garner was the only Baylor science faculty member who supported William Dembski when he arrived at Baylor under a special arrangement created by its new president to set up an Intelligent Design Creationism program. All the other Baylor science faculty criticized Dembski and, later, the new president.
Cynthia Dunbar said she didn't think Galileo would have been peer-reviewed well by his fellow scientists because he was persecuted by them. Paul corrected her, saying that Galileo was esteemed by his scientific peers and was persecuted by the religious authorities of the day, not the scientists. With this remark, an audience member applauded and cheered and was promptly ejected by Chairman Don McLeroy, who said in a very loud voice, "Sir, you may leave!" The fellow said "Thank you" and promptly left. I felt like joining him but I needed to suffer a few more hours. (Actually, although I was tired, the entertainment and educational value of SBOE public testimony is so high that I was motivated to stay!)
Dunbar next said she only advocates academic freedom, saying that having students learn about both sides of scientific controversies and any problems about scientific explanations faced by scientists is all that she and her colleagues want. "Academic freedom" is the newest ploy of the Discovery Institute to market their nonsense, including in the new "Academic Freedom" bills being introduced by Creationists in state legislatures. One passed in Louisiana, and one will be introduced in Texas this January. High school teachers and students don't really have any academic freedom, which accurately only refers to the research and publication freedom of university professors, so the ploy is ludicrous. Teachers are obligated to teach and students obligated to learn science according to standards
Chair McLeroy quoted Alan Leshner's Houston Chronicle Op-Ed, in which Leshner said that "of course we must teach the strengths and weaknesses" of evolution. The Discovery Institute jumped on this concession two days after the op-ed was published. The DI disagreed with everything else Leshner said in his op-ed, but strongly supported him in this. I have not yet written about this quote in an essay or blog, but I know it was a mistake. Furthermore, Dr. Leshner knows it was a mistake and he wants the totality of his op-ed to be considered, which would make it clear that he totally disagrees with the DI. In fact, Don McLeroy took the quote out of context.
When he wrote his op-ed, Alan Leshner was not aware that the phrase "strengths and weaknesses" was being used to promote anti-evolution in Texas biology textbooks. If he had been, he would not have written what he did. The term "weaknesses" is used by the state to intimidate, warn, and frighten teachers to avoid teaching evolution. The term is used for all the sciences to supposedly make it legal, but it is only enforced for biology during science textbook adoptions. The term is used to attack biology texts that contain good and accurate discussions of evolution, but these attacks have fortunately always failed. The anti-evolutionists on the Board want to keep the term because it intimidates school authorities and placates all the parents in Texas who want to be able to tell their kids not to believe in evolution.
Alan Leshner wanted to say that scientists look at the strengths and weaknesses of scientific hypotheses of evolution and "of course" these must be taught. Right now, there are many major controversies involving evolution, but these are at a very high level, far beyond the high school area, and would require a great deal of basic knowledge to address. Also, many of these controversies involve the application of evolutionary analysis to social and behavioral concerns, including those of humans. And the most important aspect of these controversies is that they are hypothetical, not now part of evolutionary theory. To understand these controversies requires considerable accurate and reliable theoretical knowledge of evolution, precisely the knowledge that the SBOE wants to deny students by confusing them with bogus "weaknesses." So, Leshner's only error was that he was not precise in this shorthand statement. Scientific hypotheses do have weaknesses, which is why they are tested before they are accepted as part of a scientific theory.
Several later scientists who testified (no photos) made a point I have made several times: Students must learn the basics of a science and of scientific theories before they gain the ability to be able to evaluate or criticize anything about them, including hypotheses. Asking them to "critique" the "weaknesses" of evolutionary theory is irresponsible. Not only would they not have the knowledge to do so, but the concept is wrong.
Still here at 10:03 p.m.
It is now 11:00 p.m. and we are almost done. A UT Austin student, Garrett Mize, just gave very good late testimony in defense of science. He also took 30 seconds to defend the TFN survey, which was termed an "advocacy" piece of no scholarly value by Cynthia Dunbar and Terri Leo. Mize reported that the survey's methodology had been approved by a UT Arlington research committee that approves research projects. Several other UT Austin science students gave excellent testimony. I will discuss later why they and the UT professors did so well arguing against the very new and subtle Discovery Institute arguments to teach "strengths and weaknesses."
This live, realtime blog is now concluded. I hope you enjoyed the insight into the life of an advocate for good science education, something I have been doing since 1980.
Texas Citizens for Science Last updated: 2009 April 1