Comment on Today's Austin American-Statesman News Report

Steven Schafersman, Ph.D.
Texas Citizens for Science
2009 January 19

Today the Austin American-Statesman contained an article (reprinted below) about the upcoming State Board of Education meeting that will concern the new science standards adoption among many other topics. The article unfortunately contains an error and some ambiguities. I tried to leave a comment on the website, but could not for some unknown reason, so I am commenting here to preserve accuracy.

First and most important, I was misquoted. I did not say, "The scientific theory of evolution is complete." This is an obviously untrue statement. In fact, I said "the scientific theory of evolution is incomplete," as are all scientific theories. I don't know if the misstatement was the result of a typo or mishearing, but it was certainly not intentional. I did say, as the article correctly reports, that scientific theories do not have weaknesses. Scientific hypotheses have weaknesses, but these hypotheses are tested by experiments and repeated observations to remove the weaknesses. Ultimately, scientific hypotheses are corroborated (or confirmed, verified, proved, etc.). At this point, the hypotheses become reliable knowledge and are incorporated into scientific theories. Scientific theories do not contain weak, untested hypotheses, but only strong, tested, and corroborated ones. Thus, scientific theories contain only strengths, not weaknesses. They should be subject to investigation and analysis for their incompleteness, but not for their weaknesses.

Second, the first two paragraphs of the article are ambiguous. The "panel of experts" is a six-person panel of expert reviewers who evaluated the science standards written by numerous panels of science teachers, professors, and scientists. Three members of the "panel of experts" do indeed recommend that the science standards be adopted unchanged, as they are written. The other three members--all anti-evolutionists and Creationists and two associated with the Discovery Institute--recommend that the standards by changed by inserting the anti-scientific "strengths and weaknesses" language back into the standards. The "strengths and weaknesses" language had been a notorious feature of Texas science standards for the last ten years.

The science standards as recommended by the many science panels that wrote them do all contain the phrase "analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence, logical reasoning and experimental and observational testing." Again, the three legitimate Texas scientists recommend that this language be accepted and adopted by the State Board of Education, but the three Creationist "experts" recommend that this phrase be removed and replaced by the original "strengths and weaknesses" phrase.

Let me comment on Ken Mercer's remarks quoted in the news article. He uses his usual specious reasoning about freedom of speech and academic freedom, trying to persuade listeners that student rights depend on keeping the "strengths and weaknesses" language. Students today have the freedom of speech to ask questions in classrooms, and academic freedom doesn't apply to K-12 schools, but it sounds good so Mercer uses the term. Contrary to Mercer, students will not be deprived of freedom of speech if the "strengths and weaknesses" language is removed from science standards. Having "strengths and weaknesses" in no way promotes either freedom of speech or academic freedom. In fact, it accomplishes the opposite: it destroys them by potentially forcing textbook publishers to include false information that will confuse and mislead students, thus giving them the freedom to learn false and misleading science, which of course is the goal of "strengths and weaknesses" advocates.

If students are confused and misled about the accuracy and reliability of science, they will tend to believe more strongly in Young Earth Creationism, which is what they are taught in thousands of Texas churches and Sunday schools. The purpose of the phrase is to try to force bogus weaknesses into biology textbooks when they are next up for adoption.  Authors and publishers must follow the science TEKS when they produce biology textbooks, so the opponents of accurate and reliable science education are attempting to set the groundwork for that day, about two years from now, when the biology textbook adoption process begins. This time, they hope, unlike 2003, they will have the eight votes necessary to inflict a severe blow to science by forcing the publishers to include specific but false "weaknesses" of evolution and other topics controversial to them.

Finally, one commenter said this: "Scientific theories do not have weaknesses" if so, then wouldn't they be called "fact." My response: Scientific theories are very much like facts, which can be defined as "statements or claims backed up by so much evidence that it would be perverse or irrational to deny them." If you accept that definition for "fact," then scientific theories are facts. Science does not promise ultimate, cosmic, absolute truth; religions promise that, which in reality is a very subjective truth. Science promises a proportionate, limited, proximate truth, but one that is objective and is enormously successful and beneficial. Scientific truth is proportional to the amount of evidence available: the more evidence, the better the truth. Scientific truth is limited to the natural world, but within that world, scientific truth is better than any other truth. Scientific truth is proximate to the human capacity for discovering reliable knowledge using epistemologies that are well-understood--logical rationalism, empiricism, and skepticism--not ultimate epistemologies such as revelation or idealism. Finally, scientific truth acknowledges the existence of an objective reality filled with mysteries that can be solved, not a subjective world filled with mysticism that is celebrated or worshipped. Scientists don't call their theories facts because "fact" is a popular word that is loaded with several meanings that do not correspond to a scientific understanding. But scientific theories are as factual as anything humans know and are certainly the most factual and reliable knowledge humans have about the natural world. Isn't that factual enough?


State ed board to vote on evolution instruction

Public hearing on hot topic planned for Wednesday.

By Joshunda Sanders
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Monday, January 19, 2009
http://www.statesman.com/news/content/news/stories/local/01/19/0119science.html

The State Board of Education will meet this week to vote on how to teach evolution in the classroom and take up other changes to the Texas public school science curriculum that have been recommended by a panel of experts.

Science students should be expected to "analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence, logical reasoning and experimental and observational testing," according to the final recommendations by the six-member panel, which were made public earlier this month.

Since 1988, the state has required that students learn the "strengths and weaknesses" of all scientific theories. Though some critics say that has opened the door to teaching creationism alongside evolution, those who believe that the strengths-and-weaknesses language should remain say it encourages open discussion and critical thinking in classrooms.

As recently as November, the panel of experts was effectively trying to reintroduce the requirement to teach the weaknesses of scientific theories by mandating that students "analyze and evaluate strengths and limitations" of scientific explanations.

The expert panel, appointed in October, included one of the leading proponents of intelligent design, which holds that the origins of the universe stem from a higher power, and two scientists who have said they have doubts about the theory of evolution.

Steve Schafersman, president of Texas Citizens for Science and a curriculum expert who is part of a separate group responsible for writing the earth and space science standards for the state, said the new language that will be discussed this week includes a more accurate description of what schoolchildren in Texas should be expected to know about science.

"Scientific theories do not have weaknesses, and high school students do not have the skills to critique theories; they need to learn them," Schafersman said of the potential change to the curriculum. "The word 'weaknesses' has been removed because it's very limited in that context. The scientific theory of evolution is complete."

But Ken Mercer, a member of the State Board of Education, says that excluding the phrase about strengths and weaknesses "raises a huge red flag about academic freedom and freedom of speech" by essentially telling students that they are not qualified to ask questions about scientific theories, he said.

"I'm hoping for a 10-5 vote, with a strong majority on whatever we go with, whatever's best for the kids," Mercer said.

"I know the kids of today, and if you tell kids not to ask questions, you lose your credibility," he said.

The board will hear testimony Wednesday, vote Thursday and prepare a final vote on the recommendations Friday, Schafersman said.

Board members will also talk this week about mandating more science experiments and fewer lectures in classrooms, but the evolution discussion has been the most controversial and drawn the most attention from educators and activists.

joshundasanders@statesman.com; 445-3630


Texas Citizens for Science
Last updated: 2009 January 19