Texas

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The BBC News website reports the adoption of a right wing christian syllabus in Texas (Texas schools to get controversial syllabus).  The article lists a bunch revisions to US history, but not the creationism issue.

Students in Texas will now be taught the benefits of US free-market economics and how government taxation can harm economic progress.

They will study how American ideals benefit the world but organisations such as the UN could be a threat to personal freedom.

And Thomas Jefferson has been dropped from a list of enlightenment thinkers in the world-history curriculum, despite being one of the Founding Fathers who is credited with developing the idea that church and state should be separate.

The doctrine has become a cornerstone of US government, but some religious groups and some members of the Texas Education Board disagree, our correspondent says.

The board, which is dominated by Christian conservatives, voted nine-to-five in favour of adopting the new curriculum for both primary and secondary schools.

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The Times’ website has a profile of Don McLeroy, the Texas dotty dentist who’s been seeking to destroy education in Texas (Don McLeroy, the dentist who wants to drill pupils in Creationism – Times Online) – and, because Texas is the largest textbook market in the USA, thereby influencing education across the USA.  I’ve blogged about the situation in Texas before (e.g. Confused response to Texan science education guidelines).  From the article:

Don McLeroy is generally available to journalists between 12.30 and 1.30pm. The rest of the time he is either fixing the teeth of patients he considers to be direct descendents of Adam and Eve, or making space for his “Young Earth” world view in the textbooks of Texan schoolchildren. [...]  He describes himself as a Christian fundamentalist and believes Earth was created 10,000 years ago.

His views would matter little were he not also chairman of the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE), which oversees the biggest textbook-procurement programme in the United States and for the past two years has been dominated by creationists like himself.

In a classic idiotic creationist argument, which reveals the depths of the man’s scientific illiteracy, the dotty dentist gives an example of a biological problem that he believes cannot be answered by evolutionary biology:

“Take bones,” he says, offering a brief description of the collagen and amino acids in bones as an example of biological complexity. “Intuitively people have a tough time thinking nothing guided this. Are we supposed to believe that all of a sudden, say on April 1, five million years ago, the first bone appeared? The question is, how did evolution do this, and the evolutionists have been painted into a corner. They don’t even have a clue. How did that first piece of bone get there?”

My take on this is that his foolish bronze age belief system, in which things are supposed to happen by divine fiat, and in which miracles really do happen, has influenced his meagre understanding such as to suggest this is what evolutionary biology suggests happens:  it’s not just a reflection of his scientific illiteracy, but of his non-evidence-based belief.

McLeroy and his socially conservative cronies haven’t restricted themselves to demolishing science education, but have also turned their attention to rewriting American history to downplay (or indeed erase) historical figures who don’t align sufficiently with their views.

[...] in the past year they have passed more than 200 amendments to the
state’s social studies standards with the effect of emphasising the role
of conservatives in recent US history and downplaying that of liberals.

The good news is that earlier this year he lost the renomination to the Texas State Board of Education, but possibly not in time to prevent a legacy of stupidity polluting the American education system (and probably beyond).  The wider issue is that when control of apparently minor administrative functions is passed over to the public by election, the tendency is that these positions will be filled by individuals with no professional expertise, and little experience, elected by a minority of motivated voters.  In other words, the extreme positions will tend to wield disproportionate power.

As I wake to a catastrophic election result in the UK (suffice it to say my student years were spent under the vile Thatcher government), I feel concerned that one of the planks of the Conservative party’s policy was to push an increased level of local control to communities.  I fear that we may soon see the unravelling of reason and militant single-issue groups gain control of school boards across the country.  But maybe I’m just a pessimist.

But I understand my MP has been re-elected (in my constituency, a horse would be elected as long as it sported a blue rosette).  This MP is profoundly stupid in matters relating to health and science (which has not prevented her from sitting on Parliamentary science committees), and is a member of the Cornerstone Group of Conservative MPs, of which more in a later article. 

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PZ Myers has posted a link to a blog article (Evaluating Christianity – You Don’t Trust Creationists With Your Science Education… Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Trust Their Lawyers, Either), which dissects the legal action taken by the Institution for Creation Research against the Texas Higher Education Coordination Board (THCB).

Believe it or not, the ICR wish to offer Masters degrees in science.  Quite understandably, since the ICR are barking creationists, this was refused.  As a consequence, they’ve filed suit.  The blog article linked above makes amusing reading, as the filing appears to fail at so many levels. Here’s a nice quote from the blog:

There are no words to describe the vacuity of this argument. It is so preposterously stupid that I cannot imagine any second-year law student who has paid the slightest bit of attention in his Con Law class at a seventh-rate law school would make it.

One is left with the supposition that this is a legal brief filed with the intention of failure, in order to fuel their claims of persecution and cries of discrimination.  Presumably this is part of a longer-term strategy.

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Diagram representing the divergence of species
Image via Wikipedia

The Dallas News website reports (Split vote upholds Texas education board ruling to ax evolution ‘strengths and weaknesses’ rule) that the creationist threat to science education in Texas may have been averted.

A last-ditch effort by social conservatives to require that Texas teachers cover the “weaknesses” in the theory of evolution in science classes was rejected by the State Board of Education Thursday in a split vote.

Board members deadlocked 7-7 on a motion to restore a long-time curriculum rule that “strengths and weaknesses” of all scientific theories – notably Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution – be taught in science classes and covered in textbooks for those subjects.

If true, this means that Don McLeroy’s manipulations may have been thwarted.  Celebration may be premature, as a final vote will be held on Friday (but the news report indicates it’s unlikely to change).

Update: Associated Press reports that

“Publishers are waiting to hear what to put in their textbooks,” said Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the watchdog group Texas Freedom Network.

In approving a handful of amendments Thursday, the board “slammed the door on creationism, then ran around the house opening up all the windows to let it in another way,” Quinn said. “We hope the vote tomorrow will reverse a lot of that.”

In one amendment, the board agreed to require high school biology students to “analyze and evaluate the sufficiency or insufficiency of natural selection to explain the complexity of the cell.”

Board member Don McLeroy said his amendment was intended “to account for that amazing complexity. I think it’s a standard that makes it honest with our children.”

So perhaps Devious Don will get his own way after all…

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Evolution education in Texas
Image by Colin Purrington via Flickr

Dentist Don McLeroy is the chair of the Texas Board of Education, and is actively seeking to ensure that religious creationist claptrap is included in the state’s science curriculum. Actually, to be precise, the creationism he espouses will be Christian creationism rather than the myriad of creation myths devised by primitive cultures over the aeons.

He’s now published an opinion piece (McLeroy: Enlisting in the culture war), which I think illustrates his peculiar flat-Earth world-view.  McLeroy concocts a bizarre scenario in which he says the greatest threat to establishing high standards in education is a culture war over evolution.  What’s even more dumbfounding is that he constructs a bizarre conspiracy theory in which he claims a “cultural war” between science and faith is generated and stoked by “the rejection of the empirical demonstration of science by academia’s far-left and the secular elite opinionmakers”.  This is such an astounding inversion of reality that it almost defies belief.

The controversy exists because evolutionists, led by academia’s far-left, along with the secular elite opinion-makers, have decreed that questioning of evolution is not allowed, that it is only an attempt to inject religion or creationism into the classroom. Even Texas’ 20-year-old requirement to teach the scientific strengths and weaknesses of hypotheses and theories has come under attack. Words that were uncontroversial and perfectly acceptable for nearly two decades are now considered “code words” for intelligent design and are deemed unscientific. The elite fear that “unscientific” weaknesses of evolution will be inserted into the textbooks, leaving students without a good science education and unprepared for the future, compelling businesses to shun “illiterate” Texas.

Actually the issue here is not that there is some shadowy far-left academic conspiracy, rather it is one of teaching science in science classes.  And the conspiracy comes from dimwits like McLeroy forcing a religious agenda where it should not be.  Will McLeroy come clean on which religious creation myths have a place in his ideal Texas science classes?  Just christian?  Or maybe the original American creation myths ought to get look in – perhaps those of the Apache?  Or maybe those of the Indian sub-continent.  But wait, why not Viking myths?  Just because they are pretty much dead doesn’t make them any less valid than those of christianity, surely?

McLeroy writes substantial quantities of rubbish.  He needs to learn some science, particularly what constitutes evidence. He has inadequate scientfic background to understand evolutionary theory (one wonders what background in education delivery he has, that someone thought fit to appoint him to chair the Education Board).  In any case, he shoots himself in the foot, when he points out that

Texas’ standards define science as “the use of evidence to construct testable explanations and predictions of natural phenomenon as well as the knowledge generated through this process.”

By that definition, creationism can not be taught in science classes: it is entirely untestable, and makes not predictions that may be evaluated by experimentation.  In contrast, Evolutionary theory makes testable predictions, and in every case scientific investigation yields supporting evidence.  Perhaps McLeroy should put down his religious texts, and read more widely – Jerry Coyne’s recent book Why Evolution is True” might be a good place to start.  But wait! McLeroy winds up his article with a bizarre claim that

If we are to train our students, engage their minds and, frankly, be honest with them, why oppose these standards? [I think he's referring to the standard of testability above] If the standards do not promote religion and they are not unscientific and they deal directly with the data, then possibly these standards are being opposed for ideological reasons. This supports the argument that this culture war exists, not because of the religious faith of creationists, but because of the rejection of the empirical demonstration of science by academia’s far-left and the secular elite opinionmakers.

An oddly lop-sided world-view indeed – his last sentence is extraordinary – and it reveals him as a bizarre conspiracy theorist for whom illogical topsy-turvy argument holds sway.  But given where he gets his ideas from (Where the creationist chair of the Texas education board gets his information), perhaps we can see where he gets his bizarre conspiracies.  How did this guy get to chair the Texas Education Board?

UPDATE: There is an interesting and very informative dissection of McLeroy’s selective quote-mining at Collapse of a Texas “Quote Mine”, which presents quite damning evidence of selective quotation out of context (and in direct contradiction of the context from which the quotation was drawn), with suggestions of plagiarism.

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