The Rhetoric and History of the False and Unscientific "Weaknesses" of Evolution

An Investigative Report by
Steven Schafersman, Ph.D.
Texas Citizens for Science
2009 January 17

The Rhetoric of "Strengths and Weaknesses"

The controversy about the "strengths and weaknesses" requirement in the Texas science standards has been ongoing for at least six years, since 2003 when the Intelligent Design Creationists of the Discovery Institute tried to use this rule to damage the content of biology textbooks. At that time--and subsequently here, here, and here--I related the history of the phrase "strengths and weaknesses," analyzed the claims of the ID Creationists who challenged the biology texts, and explained why the phrase is unscientific.

The phrase "strengths and weaknesses" is not scientific when applied to a scientific theory. Scientists might use this language to describe a scientific hypothesis, since hypotheses do have strengths and weaknesses, but not scientific theories. If scientific theories really had weaknesses, it would be permissible and even educational to teach them, but it is not. Because scientific hypotheses do have weaknesses, these are tested by experiments and repeated observations to remove the weaknesses. Ultimately, scientific hypotheses are corroborated (confirmed, verified, or proved). 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.

All scientific theories are incomplete, but incompleteness is not a weakness. If incompleteness were a weakness, all scientific theories would be perpetually weak because they are so incomplete, which is nonsense. Incompleteness is better thought of as a strength, since it obliges scientists to keep performing research to find answers. Scientists think of scientific theories as strong and powerful, not weak, because they explain, predict, and unify knowledge about nature in ways that have been extraordinarily successful. This scientific knowledge has been successful in accomplishing so many things, both practical (more food, clothing, shelter, energy, travel, communication, information, computation, etc.) and philosophical (understanding origins, properties, relationships, etc.). Perhaps the best solution is to consider the incompleteness of scientific theories to be inevitable, neither a strength or weakness, but just a property.

Some might ask: If scientific theories do not have weaknesses, why aren't they called "facts?" Actually, 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. Most people think of facts as stronger than this, however, such as "1 + 1 = 2" or that "this page is white with black print." These, however, are definitions of logic and language: they are defined, not discovered. Science deals with discovered knowledge about the empirical world. Others think of facts as ultimate, cosmic, and absolute truth, which is not something that science gives us. Science does not promise ultimate, cosmic, absolute truth; some religions promise that, which in reality is a very subjective truth, since the believer of the facts must personally choose to accept them. What about facts that are subtle or controversial, that are not apparent to common sense, that require great effort to elucidate? These are the types of facts with which science deals. Science uses uncommon sense, and 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. Science uses special methods to discover these truths or facts.

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, which claim to find perfect, transcendental truths. Finally, scientific truth acknowledges the existence of an objective reality filled with mysteries that can be solved, not a subjective reality filled with mysticism that is celebrated and worshipped. Scientists don't call their theories facts because "fact" is a popular word that is loaded with several meanings that do not always 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?

It is no coincidence that when the Creationists actually have to produce examples of the so-called "weaknesses" of evolution, they have to make them up. These were quickly exposed by scientists in books and articles as ad hoc, false fabrications with no scientific value. The had to make up the "weaknesses" because there are no legitimate weaknesses in the scientific theory of evolution for them to use. The alleged "weaknesses" of evolution described in Creationist books such as Icons of Evolution by Jonathan Wells and Explore Evolution by Stephen Meyer, Ralph Seelke, and other Intelligent Design Creationists (IDCs) are bogus. While superficially compelling to individuals whose scientific knowledge is weak, these "weaknesses" are contrivances created by anti-evolutionists to mislead and confuse readers, as over a dozen books and tens of essays written by legitimate scientists have demonstrated. As I am fond of saying, ID Creationism is one of the few scholarly pursuits that tries to fool the individuals it wants to persuade. Intelligent Design Creationism is so successful at this task because it really consists of a type of pseudoscholarship which has mastered specious arguments, rhetorical persuasion, and marketing techniques to sell its product without good evidence, and has made sophistry a virtue. Creationism rejects evolution as a natural process, while science has accepted the fact of evolution since the 1870s.

The theory of biological evolution is far from complete, so here are many uncorroborated hypotheses about the mechanism of evolution. These are sometimes controversial and are still being investigated. High school students, however, are unequipped to deal with these controversial hypotheses until they have mastered the basics of the theory. How will they be able to do this if state science standards mandates that they be instructed about the bogus "weaknesses" of evolution? If this happens--or if, as more commonly occurs, the intimidated teachers avoid or minimize the topic of evolution to avoid expected controversy--how will students become educated in modern biology. They won't, of course, and they will suffer their ignorance for their entire lives. Forcing false and unscientific "weaknesses" into the science curriculum by State Board of Education rules is nothing more than politically-mandated ignorance, not education.

Critical Thinking and "Strengths and Weaknesses"

Creationists and other anti-evolutionists often say that having "strengths and weaknesses" in science standards promotes critical thinking because students would be obliged to study both sides of a scientific question or controversy. If an actual scientific question or controversy exists, that requirement would indeed promote critical thinking. But the requirement in high school science standards begs the question and falsely assumes that a scientific controversy about evolution exists. It does not. The scientific theory of evolution is as well-accepted today within science as any other important scientific theory, such as gravitational theory, relativity theory, quantum theory, plate tectonics theory, thermodynamic theory, genetic theory, cell theory, germ theory, stellar nebular theory, and many other theories. Here, the false hidden premise makes the Creationist argument illogical.

"Teach the controversy" and "promote critical analysis" are Creationist marketing techniques to persuade listeners to buy a bag full of sophistry and pseudoscience. These ploys are by now well-known and have been repeatedly exposed in the scientific literature that investigates American pseudoscience. As attentive readers know, the DI and other Creationist organizations have no scientific evidence to support their claims that IDC is a valid and valuable scientific alternative to biological evolution. Thus, they have to sell their ideas to decision makers and public officials using a series of clever and sophisticated marketing techniques. These include publishing pseudoscholarly papers that mimic legitimate science publications, holding "scientific" (actually, pseudoscientific) workshops, symposia, and conferences, briefing public officials, writing op-eds in major newspapers that publicize their pseudoscience and disparage mainstream scientists that have the temerity to publicly object to wild DI claims (such as the existence of "irreducible complexity" and "specified complexity"), maintaining websites, blogs, and email lists of supporters, and the best one of all, participating in public debates or hearings at which both sides can be heard.

When Creationism-evolution debates occur, it certainly gives the appearance that there are two sides to the question and that a real scientific controversy must exist (why else would a legitimate scientist appear in public to debate a Creationist?). Ordinary citizens and public officials, who are mostly scientifically uninformed, are understandably deceived into thinking there must be a genuine controversy, so you can't fault them. You must fault the public authorities that organize and present these deceptive hearings, which are designed to fool the public and are nothing more than cheap propaganda. Where did the DI get the wonderfully unethical and reprehensible idea to participate in debate spectacles with authentic scientists to have some of their legitimacy rub off onto them? From the Institute for Creation Research, of course. The debate idea has always worked so well for ICR. Stephen Meyer is the reincarnation of Duane Gish!

Having "science experts" appear in public in support of a pseudoscience has another function, well known in junk science circles, such as the tobacco industry and global warming/climate change denial community. For years, the tobacco industry funded questionable scientific studies to cast doubt on the dangers of smoking, even when their earliest investigations showed that smoking caused addiction and cancer. Likewise, the petroleum and coal industries have funded more than a dozen global warming denial think-tanks and advocacy organizations that generate white papers, issue briefs, and scientific studies that first cast doubt on climate change by global warming and then, when the denial of global warming could no longer be sustained, on the reality of human responsibility for global warming (anthropogenic global warming).

The purpose of these bogus or incompetent "scientific" studies is to allow those who profit from continuing the deception, tobacco companies and fossil fuel companies in these cases, to claim that science is on their side or, at least, legitimate doubt or a controversy exists within scientific community that makes a final determination of existing hazards premature, so let us continue to make money by selling our product. The three "science experts" appointed by the SBOE have the same purpose. They are being used, quite willingly, by the Intelligent Design Creationism industry to cast doubt on the reality of evolution and create the fantasy of a "scientific" controversy, where "critical analysis" will expose the "weaknesses" of evolution, reveal the strong likelihood of the existence of the supernatural, and thus hasten the death of materialism--all according to plan.

In reality, there is no scientific controversy; evolution is fully accepted by scientists and Intelligent Design is considered to be a form of modern Creationism, not science. The true controversy is a cultural one: the scientific and realist worldview of logic, empiricism, and skepticism opposed by the Creationist ideology of sophistry, mendacity, and willful ignorance. We will soon experience a contrived debate here in Austin, with the 3 v. 3 format so thoughtfully set up by the leadership of the State Board of Education. A similar debate was held in Ohio around 2004 when two distinguished science professors and defenders of evolution, Ken Miller and Larry Krauss, were pitted against two Discovery Institute speakers (if memory serves, one of them was Stephen Meyer), and one of the two scientists made exactly this point from the podium, saying to the audience, "If you look here at the stage, you will get a very misleading impression about the degree of acceptance of evolution among scientists. There is no even balance, such as the 2 v. 2 you see here, but overwhelming support for evolution among scientists." In Austin, instead of the 3 v. 3 you will see, the reality is many thousands of professional scientists v. 3 Creationist pseudoscientists.

"Academic Freedom" and "Strengths and Weaknesses"

A common argument from Creationists today is that teaching students the "strengths and weaknesses" of a scientific theory (in practice, only one theory, the scientific theory of evolution) promotes students' freedom of speech and academic freedom. Students today of course have the freedom of speech to ask questions in classrooms, and their instructors have the freedom to answer students honestly to the best of their ability. In fact, students will not be deprived of freedom of speech if the "strengths and weaknesses" language is removed from science standards.

What about academic freedom? In reality, academic freedom doesn't apply to K-12 schools, but it sounds good, so Creationists uses the term. Academic freedom is something that university professors possess, not K-12 students or teachers. These individuals possess the obligation to teach and learn the discipline standards written by the state. If one were to falsely define "academic freedom" as the freedom of students to ask questions of their teachers about any subject, then I maintain that students already possess that "academic freedom" now regardless of whether the standards contain the words "strengths and weaknesses" or not. Furthermore, how can they ask intelligent or insightful questions unless they first learn the fundamental basics of a scientific theory? Before questions, there has to be a minimum of education; with "weaknesses" mandated by the State Board, this education will not occur, or more precisely, students will receive a censored education that gives them false knowledge by political force.

Having "strengths and weaknesses" in science standards 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 "strengths and weaknesses" 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.

The "Critique" of Scientific Theories As To Their "Strengths and Weaknesses"

The controversial science standard TEKS §112.43(c)(3)(A) ask students to "analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information" Every educator, including myself, is eager for students to master critical thinking skills, for such skills enable a student to analyze, investigate, reason, and reach reliable conclusions about important intellectual topics, for these educational abilities will be valuable for any person throughout life. I will discuss the history and rationale of the 3A requirement, the reason for its peculiar and rather unscientific wording, the fact that it is really unnecessary, and the problem that if it were to be rigorously enforced it would be pedagogically counterproductive.

For standard 3A to be met in a classroom three factors are necessary: First, to be treated properly in textbooks, all "scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories" must be presented in a fashion that enables students to "analyze, review, and critique . . . their strengths and weaknesses"; it is impermissible to focus on a single explanation or theory--such as evolution--for both pedagogical and legal reasons. Second, since many scientific explanations--specifically scientific theories--do not have "weaknesses," problems, controversies, or disagreements, it is impermissible to fabricate bogus "weaknesses" to force into textbooks using requirement 3A as a justification. Third, requirement 3A explicitly says that the ability to analyze, review, and critique the strengths and weaknesses of scientific explanations be based on "scientific evidence and information" (emphasis added); it is impermissible to use non-scientific or pseudoscientific evidence, information, and arguments for this purpose.

The potential abuse of the process here is that some SBOE members will use TEKS (3)A as a justification to (1) focus only on the topic of evolution as the place to insert "weaknesses," (2) hold up the occurrence of evolution--as the natural process generating ancestral-descendant relationships among taxa--as an explanation to exhibit fabricated, bogus "weaknesses" when in fact it has none (since evolution is completely accepted by all biologists), and (3) use pseudoscientific arguments and evidence from the Discovery Institute to create "weaknesses" to cast doubt on both the occurrence and theory of evolution.

Texas has a very unusual science standard. This is TEKS §112.43(c)(3)(A), fully stated as follows:

The student uses critical thinking and scientific problem solving to make informed decisions. The student is expected to analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information.

Another important fact surrounding TEKS (3)A is that it is illegal for a state government body to adopt any rule that focuses squarely on the topic of evolution (federal courts have ruled that this constitutes establishment of religion), so any rule must be adopted as a general application to all scientific inquiry, one that does not single out for its requirements any single theory or topic of one scientific field (such as evolution in biology). Thus, the (3)A rule is also found in the TEKS textbook requirements for high school physics, chemistry, environmental systems, integrated physics and chemistry, aquatic science, astronomy, and geology, meteorology, and oceanography, as well as biology. This is both appropriate and legal for any rule that requires specific content, but it places the additional burden on those who wish to invoke the rule in biology textbooks that they must do precisely the same for every other science textbook used in Texas. If the SBOE only invokes or enforces the rule for the topic of evolution in biology textbooks, which is precisely what it does, this practice is as illegal as writing the rule only for evolution in biology textbooks. I only point out that the present SBOE is thus acting illegally (violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution) by focusing solely on evolution, and this fact will be an issue in any future litigation.

Now we are at a juncture when we must squarely face the implications of TEKS (3)A. The rule is certainly going to be used by creationists on the SBOE to justify inserting scientifically misleading and unwarranted content about evolution into biology textbooks by claiming that the rule requires that scientific "weaknesses" and well as "strengths" be covered for hypotheses and theories. And if such "weaknesses" are not included, the SBOE will place the offending books on the nonconforming list and they will not be purchased for school districts. For example, SBOE member Teri Leo (SBOE textbook adoption public hearing, July 9, 2003) has stated the following:

There are those today that would censor out all credible science that opposes Darwinian evolution. By presenting scientific controversy realistically, students will learn how to evaluate competing interpretations in light of evidence. However, books reviewed to this day, in my opinion, do not include scientific weaknesses to the biologic theory of evolution. Hence, if no changes are made to the textbooks, the rules of this Board say they must be rejected as nonconforming until such scientific weaknesses can be incorporated into the texts.

In addition, SBOE Chair Don McLeroy (SBOE textbook adoption public hearing, July 9, 2003) stated the following:

Unfortunately, the TEA review panel have certified the books as conforming if just some theories and hypotheses had just some strengths and weaknesses mentioned in the book. This is not the correct interpretation. TEKS 3A requires each and every hypothesis and theory. And each of those must have strengths and weaknesses covered. . . . During a discussion on whether to place a book on the nonconforming list for its failure to present weaknesses of evolution, the minutes record . . . that the State Board of Education expects strengths and weaknesses to be included in books. . . . Since the TEA did not correctly direct the review panels in their proper responsibilities, the Board should not accept the review panels' findings on the biology books. [T]his leaves the responsibility to the State Board of Education, [which] has authority to determine whether the material is sufficient to address the TEKS.

There is no question that TEKS (3)A is going to be the primary means used by Creationists in the future to try to debilitate the coverage of evolution and the origin of life in biology textbooks by attempting to insert "weaknesses" about evolution into them. This action would debilitate, damage, and weaken the scientific coverage of evolution in biology textbooks, ensuring that students would receive a third-rate science education in Texas. The reasons inserting "weaknesses" would damage science education and not--as alleged by anti-evolutionist critics--improve critical thinking are complex but not mysterious. I will list them all here and then summarize them collectively and briefly:

1. "Weaknesses" is not a term that scientists usually use to describe scientific theories. Rather, scientists speak of problems, controversies, disagreements, criticisms, knowledge gaps, and incompleteness. A scientist might casually characterize another scientist's hypothesis as having "weaknesses," but this would rarely be stated formally in a science book or journal. Undoubtedly, scientific hypotheses have weaknesses, which is why they are still hypotheses and not part of a scientific theory. But to claim that all scientific explanations, including scientific theories, have weaknesses using a politically-mandated rule is nonsense. And, since it furthers anti-evolution activity in the public schools, it is illegal because it is an example of sectarian political pressure in a secular government institution.

2. The idea of "strengths and weaknesses" of "scientific hypotheses and theories" is misleading. Hypotheses are tentative explanations that must be tested; their outstanding weakness is that they have not been corroborated or confirmed. Once tested and corroborated, the explanations become reliable knowledge and are no longer hypothetical. They are incorporated into scientific theories which themselves are extremely reliable and have no weaknesses (only gaps in knowledge, i.e. they are incomplete). About the only real hypotheses that one might encounter in an introductory biology book are different hypotheses about the origin of life (there are four or five major ones and about a dozen minor ones). Otherwise, standard high school biology textbooks discuss only the theoretical knowledge of biology, that is, the information that biologists think is highly reliable and accurate. That is the proper content, since in high school students must learn the basics of a science before the small possibility they will learn more in college.

3. Introductory science textbooks rarely contain hypotheses; they almost always only contain reliable knowledge in the form of what would popularly be termed facts, and this includes scientific theories, which are as reliable and factual as anything humans know. Often these books would also discuss gaps in knowledge, unsolved scientific problems, and social controversies involving scientific information, but never "weaknesses" of hypotheses and theories. No doubt knowledge in science is theoretical, and this knowledge started out as hypotheses, but now most of scientific knowledge would be properly termed "reliable knowledge." It is this information--reliable knowledge--that fills introductory science textbooks, and while this information is subject to analysis, review, and understanding, it is not really subject to "critique" by K-12 students.

4. Scientific theories are too massive and established to expect any high school student to critique or question them. The vast majority of high school students would not be able to perform such critiques in a scientific way. Scientific theories should be accepted as reliable knowledge in K-12 classes, and not made the object of questioning until they have the educational training necessary to do so, which consists of years of graduate study at universities.

5. Scientific problems, controversies, disagreements, criticisms, knowledge gaps, mysteries, and weaknesses of hypotheses certainly exist, but they exist at the frontiers of scientific research for which advanced scientific knowledge and experience are required to understand and deal with them. High school students do not have this knowledge, so the requirement to force "weaknesses" into science standards and ultimately textbooks obviously has an ulterior motive: to injure science education about specific topics that are objectionable to certain sectarian religions, specifically those that adopt Biblical Literalism as a theological precept.

6. Real scientific problems, controversies, etc., should not be included in introductory science textbooks, because they are almost always too difficult to understand and their presence would only lead to student confusion and frustration. Such confusion and frustration in science class actually prevents students from learning critical thinking, not help them to learn it. Students can't learn critical thinking if the state education policy is to confuse and mislead students. Such a policy could only result by sectarian political mandate, not by the efforts of science professionals.

7. Introductory science textbooks are written to be used by introductory science students who do not have the technical and conceptual background to understand the complex issues involved. High school textbooks are intentionally simplified by design; students who become interested in science can learn about the complexities, problems, and controversies in college, and can also begin dealing with them there.

8. There are no scientifically-legitimate "weaknesses" about the occurrence of evolution by natural selection, defined as the descent of all living and fossil species of organisms from a common ancestor through time by natural selection acting upon the genetic alleles of species populations. Evolution is as confirmed, reliable, and accepted as anything in science and can be considered to be a fact. Hypotheses about the origin of life, however, all have uncertainties and missing pieces, but I know of no textbook that only presents one solution to the origin-of-life problem. When discussed, several alternate hypotheses are correctly presented along with the reliable theoretical knowledge that is accepted by all, such as the evolution of RNA with enzymatic activity prior to the evolution and appearance of DNA and hundreds of specific proteins.

9. There are certainly problems, controversies, difficulties, and knowledge gaps with the modern theory of evolution--the explanation of how the mechanism of the evolutionary process operates over time--because the theory is incomplete, but for the reasons stated above, these topics are just too complex to be dealt with in high school. They almost never are, and high school biology textbooks need not and do not cover them. The same is true for all other scientific theories in all disciplines. It takes a lifetime of training and study to deal with only a few problems in one science. Trying to cover scientific problems and controversies in all high school science classes, which is what standard 3A with "weaknesses" asks, is impossible. In fact, in practice the rule is only enforced when the topic of evolution in biology textbooks comes up, surely an example of an unconstitutional activity.

10. It is quite true that learning critical thinking skills--an essential educational goal--requires a student to be able to analyze, review, and critique evidence and reasoning used to support simple experimental hypotheses and other elementary knowledge claims. Such critical thinking activities are something students should definitely be doing by the time they are in high school. But the place for this in high school is in the laboratory, where students deal with simple experiments, simple observations, simple hypotheses, and simple tests. Student hypotheses are the proper place to deal with "strengths and weaknesses," and "analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations." Student hypotheses almost always have "weaknesses" that must be analyzed, reviewed, and critiqued. If standard 3A asked for this, there would be no objection.

11. Another opportunity to learn critical thinking skills in science class is when the teacher discusses social issues concerning science with students. Many of these social issues--such as embryonic stem cells, human cloning, genetically-modified foods, environmental pollution issues, biodiversity loss, excessive human population growth, etc.--are properly covered in science classes, are controversial and have difficult solutions, and require critical thinking skills and reasoned judgment to "analyze, review, and critique." There is no scientific or legal difficulty in asking that social issues involving controversial topics be required, but this is not the case with rule 3A.

12. It should thus be clear by now that the concept of mandatory instruction of students about "strengths and weaknesses" of "scientific hypotheses and theories" is not really good scientific language, and the reason the phrase is used is because the 3A rule was written and adopted by non-scientists--without proper scientific input--precisely to placate an obnoxious Creationist minority on the State Board of Education. A scientist would have phrased the 3A rule as follows:

The student uses critical thinking and scientific problem solving to make informed decisions. The student is expected to understand why scientific explanations are so reliable, and be able to analyze, review, and critique experimental results in the laboratory and social uses of scientific data in the classroom as to their strengths and weaknesses using reliable scientific evidence and information.

Another excellent formulation is the one adopted by the state science TEKS panels:

The student uses critical thinking, scientific reasoning, and problem solving to make informed decisions within and outside the classroom. The student is expected to analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing.

13. The inordinate concentration by Creationist critics on the topics of evolution and origin of life in only biology textbooks, rather than on the many other topics in all disciplines of modern science, reveals that their true intention is to weaken all biology textbooks' accurate coverage of these topics alone, thus perverting evolution's important place in modern biological understanding. There is no legitimate reason to focus on only one scientific topic to insert "weaknesses." Such an obsession can only have a religious motivation, not one to improve science education, and if adopted as a formal state rule is illegal as well, since it constitutes an establishment of fundamentalist religion.

14. Anti-evolutionist Creationists are not attempting to remove evolution from the curriculum, force Creationism or Intelligent Design Creationism into the curriculum, or ask for equal time for their pseudoscience to be taught with science. The reason is simple: these things are all illegal. Creationists and anti-evolutionists certainly wish they could do these things, and they have certainly attempted to do them many times in the past, but they have always failed because the courts recognized that their efforts constituted an establishment of religion. Today, rather, they attempt to discourage the teaching of evolution by making the topic controversial in textbooks and thus in the minds of teachers. Their goal today is to discourage and intimidate teachers into avoiding or shortchanging the topic of evolution in the biology classroom, so as to censor the topic of evolution from every students' scientific education, and deprive them of a modern appreciation of science and the scientific method--which is identical to critical thinking.

15. Anti-evolutionist creationists use marketing techniques, argumentative persuasion, and political lobbying and intimidation, not the methods of science to achieve their goals. They go from state to state (Kansas, Ohio, Texas) trying to push their anti-evolution ideology into state curriculum standards and textbook adoption processes. In every state, the legitimate scientists and science educators have opposed them (and ultimately winning in Kansas, Ohio, and Texas in 2003). The fundamental fact is this: If Creationist anti-evolutionist critics really wanted to improve science education, they would leave the science curriculum standards and science textbook content to the scientists, science educators, and science specialists who have been responsible for these in the past, and not attempt to use the political process to force scientifically illegitimate and unwarranted changes into educational standards and materials.

Let's summarize all these arguments briefly. It is both unwise and irresponsible for a politically-elected body of public officials, the State Board of Education, to insert unscientific content into science standards (and ultimately textbooks) over the objections of their own science staff, their own science standards writing panels, and the scientists and science educators who testified against doing it. This would be a gross abuse of the regulatory process, and would be illegal and costly enough to invite litigation from textbook publishers when and if textbooks are ultimately affected by politically-inspired science standards manipulation. Such action--motivated solely by ideological, political, or religious reasons--is unwarranted, unwise, and illegal. While no doubt present-day ideological and religious believers on the Texas SBOE wish to duplicate the fervor, passion, and stubbornness of their historical predecessors, there is no reason for them to emulate their historical dogmatism, ignorance, and bigotry, especially when the victims of the resulting abuse would be millions of school children of Texas, who really need to understand critical thinking and the modern scientific view of the world in order to be good citizens and productive workers in society.

Forcibly inserting unscientific "criticisms" and "weaknesses" into science standards would not improve critical thinking, but destroy it by misleading and confusing students, intimidating teachers to avoid or weaken the subject, and teaching students a perverted view of science. As I explained above, there are few or no hypotheses with genuine weaknesses in introductory biology textbooks; instead, the books are filled with reliable scientific knowledge, including scientific theories that have no "weaknesses." Scientific theories can indeed be criticized, because they are incomplete, but such criticism can only be competently understood and conducted in graduate schools and research universities, not in high schools using introductory textbooks. The concept of students learning about the "strengths and weaknesses" in scientific "hypotheses and theories" in high school is unscientific and pedagogically useless.

The proper meaning of having students learn "critical thinking and scientific problem solving to make informed decisions [by being] expected to analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations . . . as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information" should not be directed at hypotheses and theories (as the TEKS 3A rule unfortunately and misleadingly states), but to laboratory experiments and classroom discussion about topics involving scientific knowledge, social practices, and decisions by public officials. Modern scientific explanations, including theories, should be accepted as reliable knowledge by high school students and teachers without the obfuscation of forcing fallacious "weaknesses" into them.

Finally, as I will show below, the "weaknesses" of the theory of evolution put forward by Creationist critics are in reality bogus; the "weaknesses" don't in fact exist. The efforts by Creationists to prove the contrary are misguided, illogical, and lack empirical validity. This alone should warn SBOE members and the public that something fishy is going on: an out-of-state think-tank--whose stated purpose is to change public opinion about science by lobbying and marketing techniques, not by traditional scientific methods--comes into Texas and finds friendly and sympathetic co-believers on the State Board of Education. This pseudoscientific think-tank produces rhetoric and polemics that claim that the science standards written and recommended by Texas science professionals--teachers, professors, and industrial scientists--are inadequate because they don't require critical analysis of the "weaknesses" of scientific theories. Well, this is certainly news to hundreds of thousands of scientists and science teachers. Whom should one believe?

The History of "Strengths and Weaknesses"

I promised to explain the history and rationale of the TEKS 3A requirement, the reason for its peculiar and rather unscientific wording, the fact that it is scientifically unnecessary in any K-12 educational setting, and the problem that if it were to be rigorously enforced it would be pedagogically counterproductive. TEKS 3A was added to the newly-created curriculum TEKS adopted in 1997 and to be implemented in 1998, but the phrase existed in earlier state curricula, specifically in documents known as Textbook Proclamations and in earlier Texas standards known as the Essential Elements. Let's turn now to its history prior to 1997.

Texas has a long and sordid history of opposition to evolution education. Throughout the 1970's and early 1980's, an earlier SBOE had a textbook rule that mandated that an anti-evolution disclaimer be placed inside the front cover of every biology textbook. Two organizations, People for the American Way and the Texas Council for Science Education (my organization that was the predecessor to Texas Citizens for Science) fought against this rule throughout 1983-1984. We succeeded in 1984 when Texas Attorney General Jim Mattox ruled that the disclaimer rule was a violation of the Constitution and must be removed. The removal of this egregious and scientifically-mendacious rule was the ultimate impetus for the new rule now known as TEKS 3A. This rule was deliberately adopted by the SBOE to deal with the topic of evolution in biology textbooks in Texas, because unlike most states, ours has a high number of citizen religious fundamentalists who object to teaching evolution to students and who frequently find themselves elected to the State Board of Education.

The phrase "strengths and weaknesses" has a long history. In my previous writings, I made three claims about it's origin and existence. First, I said the phrase was added to a textbook proclamation in the late 1980s, 1988 or 1989. Second, I said I was present at the meeting when the phrase was added, and I vividly remember objecting to it when SBOE member Will Davis consulted me about it. Third, the new rule was adopted as a compromise specifically to placate creationist critics and it was needed to move ahead with biology textbook adoption. I objected to its potential adoption, saying that creationists would try to use the phrase to sneak unscientific, anti-evolution content into the books using the requirement as a spurious justification. Mr. Davis replied by saying that the requirement specifically refers to "scientific evidence and information," and that if there is no such scientific evidence against evolution, then creationists would not be able to insert this material, and it would be mine and other scientists' responsibility to make sure this didn't happen.

It now turns out that on the first claim my memory was faulty. Everything above is correct except that the 1988-89 rule I was thinking of was not what is now known as TEKS (or rule or standard) 3A, but was something else. This was a rule that immediately preceded rule 3A. In fact, the "strengths and weaknesses" language, which is at the heart of rule 3A, dates only back to 1991, so while its history is still quite long-standing, it probably does not go back to the late 1980s. Research by Dr. Eugenie Scott, Executive Director National Center for Science Education, has helped me fill in the blanks about the history of "strengths and weaknesses." I am indebted to her for some of the following information taken directly from a letter she sent to me. NCSE has archives of Texas education documents and news articles from the 1980s and 1990s. I do also, but my archives are inaccessible, so the research of Dr. Scott is invaluable at this moment.

Until the 1980s, Texas public K-12 education was essentially ignored by state government. Educational achievement of white students was poor and achievement by blacks and Hispanics was disastrous. Republican Governor Bill Clements appointed an Advisory Committee on Education in 1979 to advise him on public education in Texas, but little was done by this group. Also in 1979, the Texas Legislature appointed a Curriculum Study Panel that recommended the creation of a uniform and balanced K-12 curriculum which would teach students the basic knowledge they needed to succeed. In response, the Texas Legislature passed a law in 1981 that overhauled the curriculum and required the State Board of Education to identify the "essential elements" that students should be expected to master. This was the beginning of state-mandated education requirements in Texas, known as "The Essential Elements." The State Board, under the control of right-wing reactionary Republican and anti-evolutionist Joe Kelly Butler, dragged its feet and did nothing. In 1983, newly-elected Democratic Governor Mark White, wanting to make good on his campaign promise to improve public education, appointed a Select Committee on Public Education chaired by business leader H. Ross Perot. Usually called the "Perot Commission" in press reports, numerous legislative reforms followed: the "No Pass, No Play" rule, standardized achievement tests, teacher competency testing, and inequities in public financing of education were addressed by the new Committee and the Legislature. This was the first serious effort to improve Texas public education in decades.

With his characteristic intelligence, Perot was able to identify perhaps the major problem which, however, did not gain as much publicity as the ones named above. Perot realized that the elected State Board with its large numbers of reactionaries, incompetents, and oddballs--all elected in down-ballot positions--would never be able to properly implement the extensive set of educational reforms that Perot and White had won. So the legislation also called for the State Board of Education to become an appointed Board in 1985. I began my pro-science, anti-Creationism advocacy in 1980, so I remember the State Board of the time. It and the TEA was controlled by a powerful figure, Republican Joe Kelly Butler (1911-1998). Butler was an intimidating and dominating figure who made a fortune founding and running his own petroleum drilling company. He wanted to push his right-wing ideology on public education to promote capitalism and oppose Communism so he ran and won a place on the Houston ISD Board. Butler was mentioned in a book about Texas reactionaries titled Red Scare! Right-Wing Hysteria Fifties Fanaticism and Their Legacy in Texas. Joe Kelly quickly worked his way up to president of the HISD Board. Butler was an authoritarian figure, anti-Communist, anti-progressive, a true reactionary who intimidated his political opponents since he would stop at nothing to win. Most people didn't want to get in his way.

I remember Joe Kelly Butler resigning in disgust before the new State Board was appointed--so he wouldn't be "fired." He was very angry because he understood quite clearly that Perot and White's new law was directly aimed at him, since he literally controlled the State Board in every detail. The current law allowed him to personally appoint the Commissioner of Education, another reactionary named Raymond Bynum, so Joe Kelly controlled the Texas Education Agency as well as the State Board. He ran the entire Texas K-12 public education system as a personal fiefdom. During this period I occasionally had interactions with him. I remember he would sneer at speakers he disliked or disagreed with. He would sneer when I testified, of course, and I always thought of Charles Darwin's remark--in his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals--that a sneer was the uncovering of a canine tooth in defiance or anger by retraction of the "snarling muscles," and exposing a canine is a characteristic feature humans share with chimps and canines when one is angry. If I remember correctly, Darwin said that humans reveal their animal ancestry when they sneer at someone in contempt, and I always found this thought humorous when I watched Joe Kelly in action, because I was always testifying about the subjugation of evolution in textbooks (there were no state curriculum standards at that time). He didn't scare me, but likewise he ignored me. He also had a very high desk or dais that he sat behind, six feet above the floor, so he could look down on everyone like a judge in a courtroom. As soon as he was gone, the next SBOE chairman replaced the seating arrangement with what we have today, individual desks in a circle, and all the same size. I once met with Joe Kelly in his office in Houston, and he claimed that he was an educated person who believed in evolution. I asked him why he then always opposed evolution, and his incoherent reply was something about Texas school students not needing to know about it so why create an unnecessary controversy. I did everything I could to publicize his authoritarianism, contempt for mainstream science, and willingness to keep students ignorant, and I have always believed this publicity came to the attention of Ross Perot who wanted to get rid of Butler.

I remember being surprised that Butler would resign in disgust due to H. Ross Perot and Governor Mark White's success in getting legislation passed to have an appointed SBOE. What I didn't realize at the time is that Joe Kelly had lost his Republican primary election on Saturday, May 5, 1984. A woman named Mary Bishop defeated him with 57% of the vote, a stunning loss to such a long-powerful man. The news reports mentioned that Joe Kelly was "controversial" and implied he was defeated for this reason. So I believe he resigned in disgust after he lost the election and before the SBOE's elected members would be evaluated for appointment to the new Board. Several of the Democratic members I knew were appointed to the new Board by Governor White. I'm sure Butler would not have been appointed.

In 1984, after the anti-evolution textbook disclaimer had been removed by the Texas Attorney General's ruling, an attempt was made at the State Board of Education to introduce evolution into that year’s Proclamation for biology, but this attempt failed because the original elected Board with Chairman Joe Kelly Butler was still in place. Governor White was able to appoint the entire State Board in 1985, which included previously-elected members Will Davis, Geraldine Miller, and Mary Helen Berlanga, the latter two still on the State Board today. The newly appointed Board required in early 1988--for the first time in the history of Texas education--that evolution be included in Geology textbooks for the 1988-89 school year. This change took place with little public notice. Unfortunately, in their collective wisdom, Texas citizens voted in November, 1988, to return to an elected State Board of Education (I voted against that Constitutional amendment), and when this elected board took office in January, 1989, it had the task of considering whether evolution should be included in the Biology standards. What would happen?

The draft for Proclamation 66, prepared by Commissioner Kirby and TEA staff, included evolution by name, but it was quite minimal by educational standards. The standard for evolution, standard 9, read:

9. Theories of evolution

9.1 scientific theories of evolution
9.2 scientific evidence of evolution
9.3 mechanisms of evolution
9.4 patterns of evolution

Creationists strongly lobbied that if evolution was to be required, it was only "fair" to include "alternatives" to evolution, especially creation science. A comment by Creationist David Muralt, of Citizens for Excellence in Education, is typical of this view: "We would like to see either the whole subject of origin deleted or a balanced treatment of evolution and creation science taught" (D. Graves, "Panel Considers Revising texts’ evolution rules", Austin American-Statesman, Feb 10, 1989). Of course, in 1987 the Supreme Court had ruled in Edwards v. Aguillard that the teaching of creation science was unconstitutional, so Creationists were unsuccessful in persuading the board to include this topic explicitly. They nonetheless contended that there existed scientific "alternatives" to evolution, and that these should be taught. Scientists of course denied that such alternatives existed. I, of course, was one of these who appeared before the Board to deny that alternatives to evolution existed and should be included.

At a meeting of the Committee on Students, March 10, 1989, this subcommittee of the Board altered the draft of Proclamation 66 by inserting at statement 9.2, "Scientific evidence of evolution and reliable scientific theories to the contrary". This insertion was praised by Creationists but it generated a firestorm of protest from scientists, editorial writers, and the pro-science public, who believed that it seriously weakened the standards, and opened the door to the teaching of creation science under the guise of (nonexistent) "alternative" scientific theories. Textbook publishers privately objected, since it would require rewriting their books to include information that was not considered accurate by scientists or teachers.

At the meeting of the full State Board the next day, March 11, 1989, SBOE member Will Davis proposed a simple compromise between the two sides: the wording inserted by the Committee on Students would be modified slightly, deleting "to the contrary" and adding "other" and "if any" at the end of the standard. So on March 11, the full board decided the final evolution content standard for Proclamation 66 would read:

9. Theories of evolution

9.1 scientific theories of evolution
9.2 scientific evidence of evolution and other reliable scientific theories, if any.
9.3 mechanisms of evolution
9.4 patterns of evolution

This compromise did not fully please both sides, but both sides nonetheless claimed victory. The Creationists claimed that "other scientific theories"--under which they included creation science, the nascent intelligent design argument, and "evidence against evolution"--were required to be included in the textbooks. Young-Earth Creationist Norma Gabler said, "I think it is a victory....At least we’re going to have more fairness in the books. They will have to put in the scientific evidence against – you know evolution can’t be proved." (Associated Press, "Education board says texts should include evolution", Houston Chronicle, 3/12/89). The pro-science side (and textbook publishers) could argue that "other reliable scientific theories" would be included only if they could be found ("if any"), and they didn't expect any to actually be found. In fact, this was Davis’s intent, as he stated to a reporter:

Mr. Davis said the scientists who write textbooks are better suited than the board members to judge whether there are valid scientific alternatives to evolution. "If you use the words ‘to the contrary,’ you assume that there are some" legitimate alternatives, he said. "If we use the words ‘if any,’ we put it in the hearts and minds of the scientists when they write the book, whether or not there are any," Mr. Davis said. (Siva Vaidhyanathan, "Ruling on evolution in texts is altered; Theories backers, critics take heart", Dallas Morning News, 3/12/90, p. A33)

When biology textbooks were submitted and discussed in 1990, this became the publishers’ position: that after consulting with the scientific community, they could not find any "other scientific theories" other than evolution, hence their books contained only evolution (Terrence Stutz, "Texas school board OKs texts teaching evolution", Dallas Morning News, 11/9/90, p. A1).

Now this is important, for my single memory error has been repeated in subsequent reports by others. The event I remembered from 1989 dealt with adding "other reliable scientific theories, if any," not with adding "strengths and weaknesses." I was opposed to the language "other reliable scientific theories," and I didn't think that adding "if any" improved things that much. I was present at the 1989 March 10-11 meeting, I spoke with Will Davis at some length when he requested my views, and I did object to the new language. Also, the "other reliable scientific theories" phrase was added as a compromise to placate Creationists on the State Board. I remember that when Mr. Davis added "if any" to possibly mitigate the anti-scientific language, a Creationist State Board member--I believe it was newly-elected Republican member (and Creationist) Jane Nelson, who subsequently became a state senator, which she remains to this day--said "I believe that you are editorializing, Mr. Davis." Nevertheless, the amendment passed and that was the textbook requirement for several years.

So where and when did the "strengths and weaknesses" language actually first appear? It does not appear in the next proclamation, Proclamation 67, in 1990 (which includes Applied Biology and Geology). The first time is appears is in the 1991 Proclamation in the section for Chemistry. It appeared in subsequent Proclamations for other science subjects. For example, it is in Proclamation 1994 (dated 1994) for an integrated science (physical sciences plus life sciences) course called Science III. The language appears in a process skill, number 10, as follows (I abbreviate):

Process skills

10.6: analyzing, reviewing, and critiquing the development and modification of hypotheses and theories as to their strengths and weaknesses

There are no special qualifications for evolution, but Science III was something of a "science lite" course, so it would not be expected to have much detail on any specific subject. Science III seems to have had a brief tenure, and does not appear to have continued as a course offering in Texas.

But Proclamation 1995 (including July 12, 1996 amendments) includes Biology I, and the "strengths and weaknesses" language continues from Proclamation 1994, although in altered form. In Proclamation 1995, process skill #11 reads:

11. The student shall be provided content necessary to formulate, discuss, critique, and review hypotheses, theories, laws, and principles and their strengths and weaknesses.

Because the TEKS were being written, there is no specific content for Biology I in Proclamation 1995.

Finally, it is only in Proclamation 1996 for Geology, Meteorology, and Oceanography, we find the "strengths and weaknesses" wording currently used in the 1998 TEKS. The numbering of the process skills is also the same as today:

(c) Knowledge and skills.

(3)       Scientific processes. The student uses critical thinking and scientific problem solving to make informed decisions. The student is expected to:

(A)      analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information;

So "strengths and weaknesses" language appears to have a long history that begins in 1991, not 1989, although the concept of requiring alternatives to evolution certainly begins in 1989 and requiring "weaknesses" two years later is undoubtedly meant to accomplish the same thing. I am afraid it is a mystery at present who first wrote the phrase "strengths and weaknesses." It may have been written by a TEA staff member in the curriculum division. I just don't know, but perhaps more research will throw some light on this problem. But at least we know that the "strengths and weaknesses" language occurs at the earliest in 1991, although not exactly in the same phraseology as in the modern configuration. It isn’t until Proclamation 1996 (dated 1997) that the wording settles into its current phrasing, which is what is used in the 1998 TEKS written in 1997 and which we are arguing about in 2009.


Texas Citizens for Science
Last updated: 2009 February 12