Friday, December 07, 2007

Bad News for Science Education in Texas

My folks, who are active in South Carolinians for Science Education, hipped me to this. Political appointees of Bush and Perry have just given the ouster to the director of science curriculum at the Texas Education Agency.

Chris Comer forwarded an email announcing a speech by Barbara Forrest, one of the expert witnesses at the Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District trial which challenged the teaching of Intelligent Design as an alternative scientific theory to evolutionary theory. Within a hour, she'd been called into her superiors' office to be dressed down for sending an email that "implies endorsement of the speaker and implies that TEA endorses the speaker's position on a subject on which the agency must remain neutral." The title of this email was 'FYI'. So forwarding information regarding a speech by a person who has been an expert witness at a trial in which a public school system was forced to change science education policy - which should be a subject of concern for anyone in charge of scientific curriculum in American public schools - is somehow inappropriate behavior.

For Christ's sake, let's not have anyone in the TEA actually familiar with the ID/Evolution debate. When even right-leaning BELO's Dallas Morning News comes out unequivocally against this move, you know the TEA is being boneheaded.

A roundup of rated materials:

Thoreau of Unqualified Offerings fame once tipped me off to this excellent article by Bruce Alberts in the journal Cell. The bulk of the article relates to some ideas on reforming science education, especially at the undergraduate level, but he closes with a passage on Intelligent Design that is the most succinct explanation of why ID isn't science that I've ever seen.

What will it take to grab the attention of science faculty at US colleges and universities and make them understand the urgent need for new ways to teach science? We have recently received a wakeup call. A new survey finds that two-thirds of Americans agree with some of our political leaders that “intelligent design theory” should be taught as an alternative scientific explanation of biological evolution. What does this mean? According to intelligent design theory, supernatural forces acting over time have intervened to shape the macromolecules in cells, thereby forming them into the elegant protein machines that drive a cell’s biochemistry (Alberts, 1998). In other words, at least from time to time, living things fail to obey the normal laws of physics and chemistry.

Teaching intelligent design theory in science class would demand nothing less than a complete change in the definition of science. This definition would give those of us who are scientists an “easy out” for the difficult problems we are trying to solve in our research. For example, why spend a lifetime, constrained by the laws of physics and chemistry, trying to obtain a deep understanding of how cells accumulate mutations and become cancerous if one can postulate a supernatural step for part of the process? Yet we can be certain that, without the deep understanding that will eventually come from insisting on natural explanations, many powerful cancer therapies will be missed.

The idea that intelligent design theory could be part of science is preposterous. It is of course only by insisting on finding natural causes for everything observed in nature that science has been able to make such striking advances over the past 500 years. There is absolutely no reason to think that we should give up this fundamental principle of science now. Two-thirds of Americans might seem to have no real idea of what science is, nor why it has been so uniquely successful in unraveling the truth about the natural world. As I write, the Kansas State Board of Education has just changed the definition of science in revisions to the Kansas State Science Standards to one that does not include “natural explanations” for natural phenomena. What more proof do we need for the massive failure of our past teaching of biology, physics, chemistry, and earth sciences at high schools, colleges, and universities throughout the United States?

For all those who teach college biology, the current challenge posed by the intelligent design movement presents an ideal “teachable moment.” I believe that intelligent design should be taught in college science classes but not as the alternative to Darwinism that its advocates demand. It is through the careful analysis of why intelligent design is not science that students can perhaps best come to appreciate the nature of science itself.

The purging of an ID skeptic from the TEA is a grim sign indeed, and not one to be taken lightly.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007