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Our Day in Austin, Defending Critical Analysis of Evolution

Jonathan Witt

The Dallas Morning News has a piece on the latest round in the battle over evolution education in Texas — a hearing Tuesday in Austin I participated in. The article’s reporting was better than some, but still a mixed bag.

Here’s my quick take on the goings on, and on the Dallas Morning News story.

The Texas State Board of Education heard testimony over proposed changes to the state’s curriculum standards for public high school evolution education. I testified along with CSC Fellows Ray Bohlin and Walter Bradley. We were three of about 26 who did, though probably no more than half of these were focused on the evolution issue. Each of us spoke for a couple minutes, and then answered any questions put to us from the board.

The Texas governor had earlier instructed the board to streamline the state curriculum standards. A committee tasked with suggesting cuts and clarifications for the biology standards recommended deleting various parts that called on biology classes to evaluate evolutionary theory instead of simply memorizing its claims and the evidence for it.

This committee argued that there wasn’t time to evaluate evolutionary theory, and besides, that kind of critical thinking about evolution isn’t “developmentally appropriate.” We disagreed.

Tuesday was the third round in the tug-of-war. The first round was last fall. The second round was early this year.

Don’t Push the Mystery into the Shadows

We assured the board that there were age-appropriate ways for teachers to get their students to wrestle with some of the peer-reviewed scientific evidence against evolution, and that they could do so without taking weeks and weeks. They can open a door to the sort of mysteries that the scientists wrestled with at the Royal Society meeting last year. And no, the ninth-grade biology classes don’t have to go through the door and on a weeks-long journey for it to be educationally valuable. Just knowing the doorway is there; just knowing there exists a realm where origins scientists grapple with some big unsolved mysteries — that’s enough.

While I was at the hearings, I met the Dallas Morning News reporter assigned to cover the event, Eva-Marie Ayala. She had the challenging task of boiling down to a few hundred words the parade of speeches pro and con, along with the Q&A among board members and testifiers.

She rightly underscored the controversy over a single word in the biology standards. One of the standards, 6a, calls on biology classes to “evaluate” theories about the origin of DNA. And a majority of the biology committee recommended changing the word “evaluate” to “identify.” In my testimony I urged the board not to adopt the word “identify,” but to go with “evaluate” or some similarly strong term.

When you identify a theory, you merely regurgitate information about it. There’s a place for that, of course. But when you evaluate you critically analyze. That’s a skill essential to doing good science.

Also, we want to make sure high school biology teachers have some cover from the state curriculum standards for critically analyzing evolutionary theory. As the movies Expelled and Icons of Evolution showed, biology teachers brave enough to question Darwinism can use all the cover they can get from enforcers of evolutionary orthodoxy.

Ayala accurately quoted from my testimony. I appreciate that. But one part of her reporting that I think leaves a poor sense of the hearings is where she makes the clash sound like something out of Inherit the Wind. She does so with her lead sentence, and then a bit later she has this:

The standards say students should “evaluate” certain scientific explanations in the biological processes. But critics say that kind of language comes from those pushing creationism because it opens the door to allow questioning of scientific explanations.

The board voted in February to scale back language that would have required students to consider “all sides” of evolution science. But some say the compromise still includes wording along the lines of “investigate” or “examine” that could encourage creationism.

Of the more than two dozen people who testified, I think only two leveled this charge. It wasn’t a primary point of discussion. Also, the CSC position is against pushing for intelligent design in public school science classes, and certainly not for creationism. Just expose students to the peer-reviewed scientific material underscoring some of the glaring weaknesses in evolution, and let students critically analyze. Yes, we want this because we are convinced that modern evolutionary theory is bankrupt. But we also support this approach because it’s good science education.

My friend Ide Trotter (pictured above), a chemical engineer with a PhD from Princeton University, had this to say in a letter he submitted to the Dallas Morning News:

Twenty-nine individuals were registered to testify, I among them. Twenty-six did testify. In contrast with previous Board meetings on this topic, only two focused on the long discredited argument that it is all about creationism vs. evolution. How in the world could that be your article’s lead sentence?

SMU’s Dr. Ron Wetherington, who chaired the panel that made the recommendations to be discussed, presented well-balanced opening remarks. Creationism was never mentioned. Nor did he suggest that the issue was denial of evolution.

Three areas came in for most of the testimony. Quite a bit was very helpful review and critique of the need for improved coordination of proposed TEKS, (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) for progressive levels of science instruction related to biology. This was uncontentious and understandably not exciting enough for your reporter to mention.

That’s not to say there were no contentions. There was serious discussion of the appropriateness of the term “evaluate” as employed in several of the biology TEKS. But this was not debated in the context of evolution denial. Evolution was not being denied at all. However, given the current lack of understanding of the detailed chemical steps required for evolution to take place, there were two fundamental issues addressed.

First, there was limited discussion of the real scientific challenges to understanding how fast and far evolution can progress when limited to material explanations.

Also, biology is now taught in the ninth grade where students are not yet well prepared to appreciate the underlying scientific issues. Then too, and most important, was the pedagogical issue. How should current evolutionary understanding be appropriately presented to ninth grade biology students? Those on my side argued against overstating the plausibility of any of the various postulated explanations currently on offer for a material origin and further diversification of life.

My sense is that there are members of the biology committee who are not interested in opening that door wide. Some of these may be teachers who feel overwhelmed with curriculum demands and simply want as many things as possible taken off of the high school biology table. It may be that some of the committee members don’t want evolutionary theory questioned or challenged.

The motives, though, are less important than the effect. What is the effect of watering down the language that encourages critical analysis of modern evolutionary theory? The effect would be to impoverish science education in Texas, and enhance the teaching of modern evolutionary theory as unquestionable dogma.

Video of the testimony is here. Ide Trotter begins speaking at around -2:28:30. Walter Bradley, who co-authored the seminal 1984 work The Mystery of Life’s Origin, testifies beginning around -2:21:10. My testimony begins around -0:49:40. And biologist Ray Bohlin’s begins is at -0:23:20.

Ray delivered mostly prepared remarks, but they were an eerily fitting rebuttal to the two people who testified immediately before him. Their testimony begins at around -0:28:12, in case you want to compare and contrast.

One other piece of testimony I want to highlight: Sherry Joslin, a mom and former teacher and NASA engineer. Her testimony starts around -1:46:50.

The board will take a final vote this Friday.

Photo: Ide Trotter, PhD, Princeton-trained chemical engineer and Darwin skeptic, delivers testimony before the Texas State Board of Education.