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Texas: Two Major Attacks on Science
State Education Standards for Science Undermine
Christine Comer Case: Undermines Educators' Ability to Defend Science
Two important decisions have just been announced in Texas, one a court case and the other setting
state standards for science education for the next 10 years.
Both represent serious attacks on science and scientific thinking and both are inter-related.
Texas Educational Standards for Science
A huge battle has been taking place centering on what standards for teaching science would be set by the Texas State Board of Education. These standards are meant to dictate what is taught in science classes in elementary and secondary schools, and also are meant to provide the material for state tests and textbooks for the next decade. And the implications of these standards go beyond Texas itself. As Texas is one of the largest markets for school science textbooks, these Texas standards could have a major effect on new textbooks used across the country.
The basic, scientific standards that apply here are clear:
evolution is true and should be taught as such;
creationism in any form is not science and should not be taught in science classrooms
The current tactics of intelligent design creationists do not currently openly call for ID to be taught. This has been ruled illegal in court cases including Dover, PA. What they do instead is to attempt any way they can to raise bogus “doubts” and “objections” to evolution, to paint it as a “theory in crisis”, all as a wedge to confuse people about what science is, what the scientific method is, and how to distinguish science from anti-science so that their “alternative theories” (based on religious dogma) can be smuggled in.
Some accounts of the decision of the Texas Board of Education interpreted its decisions as a “setback for the creationists”. Language which had been in the standards previously calling for students to be taught the "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories was removed. “Strengths and weaknesses” has been a code phrase used by the creationist forces to allow and promote “doubts” about evolution to be pushed into science classrooms and promote other anti-scientific “theories” like intelligent design.
So yes “strengths and weaknesses” was no longer allowed in the standards (by a 7-7 tie vote). But creationists did push through the requirement that students examine "all sides of scientific evidence."
People who are not following closely what is really going on here might wonder what is so bad about phrases like these. In the context of continuing, unrelenting attacks on science, against evolution – arguably the most proven scientific theory of all time - these phrases provide the continuing loopholes to inject unscientific “theories” into the science classroom. This plays right into the creationists' strategy – and undermines science and science education.
These Texas standards also do not stop at attacking and weakening the teaching of evolution. Astronomy and cosmology are also on the right-wingers’ radar – language was put in to weaken the Big Bang theory, saying there are different estimates for the age of the universe. To be clear this is not about 14 billion years vs. 14.5 billion years – this language was introduced by a committee person who is a young-earth creationist who believes the universe was created less than 6000 years ago. Other amendments were adopted that might allow the presentation of a creationist alternative “theory” about the complexity of the cell (a famous and scientifically discredited pseudo-argument of the ID forces claiming that some complex structures and chemical processes in cells are “irreducibly complex” and therefore cannot be explained by evolutionary theory), and the beginning of life.
In short, these new standards weaken and undermine science. The creationists are continuing to attack science. Anyone who is thinking that with the departure of Bush that “the enlightenment is back” - should take pause and take a serious look at what is happening in Texas. These new standards in fact represent a renewed attack on science and open the door to further attacks ahead.
The Christine Comer Case
The week of Nov. 20, 2007, Christine Comer who served for 27 years as a science teacher and 9 years as director of science for the Texas Education Agency was attacked and forced to resign. Why? Because she forwarded an email about a lecture by Dr. Barbara Forrest. Dr. Forrest is co-author of “Inside Creationism's Trojan Horse” (an important book that exposes the tactics of creationists and their attempts to inject religion into science classes) and was an expert witness in the Dover, PA trial that ruled against the teaching of “intelligent design” in science classrooms. Dr. Forrest is also a signatory of the Defend Science statement. In the dismissal letter received by Comer, it referred to the issue of evolution and creationism as “a subject on which the agency must remain neutral”. Remember this is talking about the state agency in charge of science education.
Comer stated at the time “how could I remain neutral on something that is non-science”.
Comer subsequently filed a lawsuit stating that her firing by state Education Commissioner Robert Scott in November 2007 was improper because she was accused of violating an "unconstitutional" policy. The Texas Education Agency requires that employees to be neutral on the subject of creationism, the biblical interpretation of the origin of humans. Her suit made clear that "the Agency's firing of its Director of Science for not remaining 'neutral' on the subject violates the Establishment Clause, because it employs the symbolic and financial support of the State of Texas to achieve a religious purpose, and so has the purpose or effect of endorsing religion. By professing 'neutrality,' the Agency credits creationism as a valid scientific theory.” In other words it is a clear violation of the separation of church and state.
The judge ruled against Comer, specifically saying that the “neutrality” policy is not unconstitutional. The implications of this are chilling – those responsible for the teaching of science must not (upon pain of being fired) defend science against the attacks of creationists!
As Comer also stated “I used to think it was just a radical fringe group but it seems like now it is part of the political scene to back a group that is anti-science.” The linkage to the battle over science education standards in Texas is all too clear.
for additional background on Comer's dismissal and some history of the efforts of the ID creationists to undermine the teaching of evolution in Texas see:
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