Science-based Education Critical for Students' Future

Steven Schafersman, Ph.D.
Texas Citizens for Science
2008 December 31

Well, that's reasonable: science-based education is critical for students' future. Who would object to that? Anti-evolutionists, Biblical Literalists, and Young Earth Creationists would object, that's who. A friend of mine, Jan Artley of Midland, Texas, former director of K-12 Science and Health at Midland ISD, wrote an op-ed column in the Midland Reporter-Telegram on 2008 December 14 with the same title as this news report. She criticized some members of the Texas State Board of Education for their efforts to use the science standards revision to undermine evolution instruction. Then two Midland Biblical Fundamentalists wrote replies.

Jan Artley is a Texas Master Naturalist and a member of the Midland Naturalists, the pioneer ornithology organization in West Texas. So am I. We both love birds, plants, insects, and nature in general. Little did I know that Jan was a former science teacher, science supervisor, and now a pro-science activist. In her op-ed, she simply pointed out that some members of the Texas SBOE want to damage science education by "undermining instruction on evolution, a unifying concept critical to the understanding of all biological science." She criticized Young Earth Creationists Don McLeroy and Cynthia Dunbar by name. She pointed out that Intelligent Design Creationism cannot be tested, "as it is not a scientific theory screened by peer-reviewed publications, tested or researched." Artley concluded by saying that "supernatural explanations have no place in the science classroom," and asked readers to write the SBOE members and ask them to adopt scientific science standards.

Jan was probably not expecting to being reviled in print by ignorant, anti-scientific Biblical Fundamentalists, but in Midland that's what happens. My city has a large contingent of religious-right, Creationist, Fundamentalist Christians who have no knowledge about science, but think they do. Two wrote back the next week, December 21. The first, Becky Lofton, made the usual ignorant statement, that "evolution is theory and not 'scientific' in the true sense of the word." She explained: "Science deals with what can be observed and reproduced by experimentation." She thinks evolution does not qualify as science by this definition. Evolution, she says, "is grounded in unproven 'beliefs' that are no more 'scientific' than the set of beliefs on which creationism and intelligent design are based. If science textbooks include one, they must give equal time to all three!" Finally, she admits she beliefs only in the Genesis account of creation.

Joseph Castillo is even worse. An educated person, with degrees in biochemistry and petroleum engineering, he defended his belief in Creationism by disparaging evolution. Making the same ignorant claim as other Creationists, he said the "basis of science is a consistent methodology of testing and proof which the 'theory' of evolution fails to achieve." He claimed that evolution "violates the second law of thermodynamics, and the law of biogenesis." Nowhere, he claims, does "evolution theory" document a single case "where one species has ever given rise to another species." Castillo states that "evolution is religion, not science." Then he got personal, accusing Jan of "censorship" and "scaremongering," finally claiming that "Our educators must recognize the difference between science and the religion of evolution. Teaching evolution alongside of creationism is consistent with the philosophy of modern education, and disregarding the creationist view is wrong."

Needless to say, I was appalled by such amazing ignorance, misunderstanding, and confusion about science. But these two represent many thousands of individuals where I live. Fortunately, others here asked me to write a reply, which I did on December 28. The scanned op-ed and letters can be found here (the Midland Reporter-Telegram does not archive letters on its website). Here is my letter:

Evolution not debatable; it's scientific fact

It is unfortunate that Midland citizens write disparagingly about biological evolution. The past and present occurrence of evolution has been uncontroversial among biologists since the 1870s and is considered as factual as the existence of gravity, atoms and genes.

The understanding of evolutionary principles is essential to understanding modern biology, and our Texas students are at a significant disadvantage in the technical global marketplace when parents and Sunday School teachers tell students untrue information about evolution. Last week's letters continue the misguided effort to damage science education by stating very untrue things about evolution. Individuals that believe in Biblical Literalism consider evolution a threat and actively oppose the idea, and the two letter-writers make clear that this is their religious belief.

Fortunately, most religions have no trouble accepting evolution as a natural process as part of their theologies. The majority of religious individuals and many scientists believe in an ultimate, cosmic creation by a Creator God, but view biological evolution as part of God's plan to begin and diversify life, including human life. Biological evolution can be actively observed in nature and has been well-documented in both living organisms and the fossil record.

Speciation can be observed in living populations and transitional fossils are well-known. Biologists routinely test evolutionary hypotheses in both the field and laboratory, and biologists in our state's universities are actively conducting such research. Common evolutionary processes such as speciation, diversification and common descent are not controversial and are accepted as completely factual. Evolution is perfectly consistent with thermodynamic theory and biogenesis. The Web contains an immense amount of documentation and evidence about these facts, so there is no excuse for continuing to confuse readers with misrepresentations, as the letter-writers do.

The claim that evolution is a religious belief is both laughable and untrue. Evolutionary biology is mainstream science and based on empiricism, logic and skepticism, not on metaphysics, so no "presuppositions" are needed. Our state's science standards require high school students be taught about biological evolution, but often teachers fail to do this because they are unfortunately intimidated by ignorant, anti-scientific critics.

Another writer, Ken Andersen, wrote a letter published next to mine that vividly and unexpectedly illustrates the hypocrisy and shortsightedness of Creationists. Andersen said he agrees with the two December 21 letters, but they did "not go far enough." He continues: "The real debate or struggle is not about 'evolution' vs. 'creationism' but about teaching our children how to think (education) by presenting both sides of an issue with the pros and cons vs. teaching our children what to think (indoctrination) by teaching only one side (opinion) as 'fact'. We as parents should be concerned when we have public officials who think the latter."

What a wonderful suggestion. We should teach our children about both the flat Earth and spherical Earth, so by presenting both sides of an issue we wouldn't teach only the spherical Earth as a "fact." We should teach both the germ and humoural theories of disease, both the geocentric and heliocentric models of the solar system, both voodoo medicine and modern medicine. Of course, if Ken Andersen really gave his suggestion some thought, he would immediately see the frightening consequence--for him--of always presenting both sides. His church--in fact all churches--would have to teach evolution in addition to Creationism, teach both the creation of the universe by God or its eternal and continuous existence, and even teach the existence or nonexistence of God.

Then Mr. Andersen's church's Sunday School--in fact, all Sunday Schools--could teach the pros and cons of all the various Christian theological tenets through history, such as the existence of Original Sin or not, eternal infinite punishment for the finite acts of sinners or the universality of redemption, the human vs. Godly nature of Jesus, the factuality or mythology of the Resurrection, and the possibility or impossibility of life after death. After all, we would want our children to learn critical thinking, not indoctrinate them by teaching only one side--"opinion"--as fact. Indeed, parents should be concerned when their children have Sunday School teachers who think the latter.

In science, we don't waste time teaching students things that scientists long ago disproved, but provide them with accurate and reliable knowledge so they will be able to practice logical and critical thinking from sound premises.

Texas Citizens for Science
Last updated: 2009 January 18