A Response to the 21st Century Science Coalition Standards of Science Education
[EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article was written by two A.P. auxiliary staff scientists. Dr. Brooks holds a Ph.D. in Cell Biology from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Dr. Deweese holds a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from Vanderbilt University.]
Lines have been drawn and sides have been taken in Texas as scientists and educators battle with one another over whether the weaknesses in evolutionary theory should be taught in the public school system. Since 1998, the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) curriculum for the sciences has remained unchanged. Now, 11 years later, revisions and updates are being made regarding many points within this curriculum, including how evolutionary biology should be taught in the public school system. The 1998 TEKS for high school reads:
The student knows the theory of biological evolution. The student is expected to: (A) identify evidence of change in species using fossils, DNA sequences, anatomical similarities, physiological similarities, and embryology; and (B) illustrate the results of natural selection in speciation, diversity, phylogeny, adaptation, behavior, and extinction (“Comparison of Current...,” 2009).
A few points can quickly be drawn from this excerpt. First, the opening sentence states that students are expected to know the theory of evolution. It does not state or even directly imply that evolution is the single true explanation for the origin of life. Second, nowhere in the statement or the remainder of the 1998 TEKS are students indoctrinated with the idea that evolution is scientific law; although, students are still expected to recognize that similarities among different species are evidence of change rather than a common creator. For 11 years, the above standard for biological education has guided middle and high school teachers in their pursuit to educate young minds. But now, evolutionists have made dramatic pushes to change what was once taught as an alleged explanation for life into nothing short of fact.
In support of the proposed changes to TEKS, the 21st Century Science Coalition has formulated five principles that they believe must be adopted into the Texas science curriculum. The Coalition’s Web site reads: “We will not allow politics and ideology to handicap the future of our children with a 19th-century education in their 21st-century classroom” (“Welcome,” 2009). The five principles are:
Scientifically sound curriculum standards must:
acknowledge that instruction on evolution is vital to understanding all the biological sciences;
make clear that evolution is an easily observable phenomenon that has been documented beyond any reasonable doubt;
be based on the latest, peer-reviewed scholarship;
encourage valid critical thinking and scientific reasoning by leaving out all references to ‘strengths and weaknesses,’ which politicians have used to introduce supernatural explanations into science courses; and
recognize that all students are best served when matters of faith are left to families and houses of worship (“Scientist Statement,” 2009, emp. added).
As of the writing of this article, over 600 men and women who currently hold faculty positions at Texas colleges and universities have signed a petition in favor of implementing these standards into Texas public school curricula. The signers include faculty members from several universities affiliated in some way with Christianity, including Baylor, Texas Christian, and Abilene Christian, among others. By signing the petition, these men and women are indicating a personal conviction that evolution is essentially scientific law and believe it should be taught as fact to middle and high school students. Further, they intend to remove from the classroom any and all references to the weaknesses of the evolutionary hypothesis. In effect, this petition and its signers are attempting to force onto unsuspecting youths an unproven idea as pure, clear fact.
The principles endorsed by the Coalition manifest several flaws. First, the Coalition claimed that “evolution is vital to understanding all the biological sciences” (“Scientist Statement”). This echoes the modern push for evolutionary thought to permeate all areas of science. By interpreting all things in terms of an evolutionary history, the influence of evolution becomes widespread—particularly in the biological sciences. However, there is nothing about biological science that requires macroevolutionary explanations (see discussion of macroevolution below). In fact, science can be taught without invoking macroevolution—despite what we are bullied into thinking. The biochemical, structural, developmental, and functional similarities between organisms can be explained in terms of a common Designer without the need for common descent. Both authors acknowledge that their own research in biochemistry and molecular biology is conducted without consideration of macroevolution with absolutely no detriment to its quality or its conclusions. So, biology can be understood—even researched—without requiring a context of Darwinian macroevolution. In fact, postulating common design by a Designer is a more effective working model than assuming biological structures are the result of accidental, random processes.
Second, the Coalition wants to “make clear that evolution is an easily observable phenomenon that has been documented beyond any reasonable doubt” (“Scientist Statement”). This is a very misleading statement. By using the common term “evolution,” the authors avoid clearly defining what the “easily observable phenomena” are and claim the evidence is “beyond any reasonable doubt.” (Of course, the implication is that if you doubt it—you obviously are not reasonable). This is a frequent tactic of those who would like us to assume that “all” evolution is the same.
Interestingly, the Coalition did not acknowledge the difference between microevolution (changes at or below species level using existing genetic information) and macroevolution (large-scale changes requiring new genetic information, taking place over long periods of time) in their statement. Some claim that creationists invented these terms, but they are commonly used in the scientific literature and textbooks (e.g., Erwin, 2000; Starr, 2006). While microevolution is an “easily observable phenomenon” and well documented, macroevolution is not. The term “evolution” is routinely used to refer to the combination of the two processes, and this quickly leads to misunderstanding, because while microevolution is clearly documented, the same cannot be said for macroevolution. It has been assumed by some evolutionists that the mechanisms responsible for microevolution could account for macroevolution given enough time (e.g., Erwin, 2000). However, there is much disagreement on this point. The development of new organisms requires more than changes in existing genetic information—it requires the generation of new information altogether in order to form new organs and body structures. There is no known mechanism for the spontaneous generation of new information. [NOTE: There are mutagenic processes which result in random insertions, deletions, duplications, and rearrangements. But these undirected events are typically deleterious and always insufficient for generating the information needed for macroevolution.] The situation is far more complex than the Coalition’s second statement implies.
Third, there is no argument about whether education should be based on peer-reviewed scholarship. However, there probably would be disagreement over the definition of “scholarship.” The modern “peer-review” process is not without bias. Searches of manuscript databases display a marked bias against questioning Neo-Darwinism. We completely agree that students should be kept current on the latest science, but we must remember that teaching biological science is distinct from teaching about evolution.
Fourth, the Coalition wants to change a statement in the 1998 TEKS standards calling for students in science to “analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information,” to “analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing” (“Comparison of Current...,” 2009, emp. added). It is argued that language mentioning “strengths and weaknesses” can be used to “introduce supernatural explanations” (“Scientist Statement”). It is interesting that this change is intended to “encourage valid critical thinking and scientific reasoning.” So, are we to assume that valid critical thinking excludes taking account of the strengths and weaknesses of a given theory or hypothesis? In our scientific training as graduate students in the biological sciences, we were routinely encouraged to be skeptical and to question existing ideas and conclusions. This proposed change does not reflect the type of critical thinking we expect of graduate students. Why is the Coalition afraid of leaving theories open to question?
Fifth, the Coalition’s effort to ban all religious ideas from the classroom is actually a veiled attempt to dismiss the possibility of a Creator as a rational explanation of life and to keep students from analyzing the faults of evolutionary theory. Their desire to teach children that life originated via evolution goes beyond science into the realm of subjective beliefs—beliefs that cannot be tested or validated scientifically. We are told, “science must be taught in a science class”—which is precisely what those of us who believe in the Creator do—we teach science in our science classrooms. The fact is that the Universe and even life must have had a Cause and cannot be explained by “natural” means.
What effect would these proposed standards have on education? Young minds are very pliable. When scientists holding Ph.D.s in biology claim certain theories as fact, young minds are very likely to believe that those theories are, indeed, fact. And, why shouldn’t they? When the most educated, best-trained men and women speak, many teenagers cannot but listen and assume truth is being conveyed. The problem with making unsubstantiated statements (such as “evolution...has been documented beyond any reasonable doubt”) is that such statements inherently exclude alternate explanations for the origin of life. The Coalition conveniently ignores the fact that hundreds of credentialed scientists are skeptical of evolution. Proponents of evolutionary theory have bullied their explanation for life’s origin into education to the exclusion of all other explanations. They use propaganda techniques to indoctrinate young minds early in order to perpetuate this ill-conceived idea.
Science education has always been a two-faceted approach. On one side, students are taught facts, equations, and principles that research has shown to be true. For example, physics equations regarding force and acceleration (e.g., F=ma), proven biological facts such as that DNA is the genetic material, and universal principles such as that energy can be neither destroyed nor created. The other, equally important aspect of science education is instruction in the scientific method and critical analysis of information. This second facet of education has traditionally been applied in the laboratory, where students conduct experiments and evaluate their results. Both the learning of information and the development of critical thinking skills are fundamental to education at levels of both secondary and higher education. One vital component to the critical evaluation of data is the analysis of both its strengths and weaknesses. If weaknesses in data were ignored, untold numbers of incorrect scientific ideas would have been propagated over the years. The Coalition is in favor of removing discussion of strengths and weaknesses of evolutionary biology from the classroom. This very idea is in stark contrast to the scientific method and the principle of critical evaluation. If this standard is put into effect, it would undermine an educator’s ability to teach these aspects of science to the students. In order to properly train students, they must be allowed to use their minds, to weigh the positive and negative data, to analyze, and to think for themselves.
The 21st Century Science Coalition is not the only voice in this fight. Texans for Better Science Education is offering an alternative to the changes recommended by the Coalition (Texans for Better..., 2009). Furthermore, hundreds of scientists from universities around the world have signed Discovery Institute’s “Dissent from Darwinism” which states, “We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged” (“A Scientific Dissent...,” 2009). Contrary to the opinion of the Coalition, there are many scientists who recognize the failure of Darwinism to explain the “origin of species” (and the origin of life!).
On March 27, 2009, the Texas State Board of Education approved a final draft of changes to the TEKS, which will be implemented with the 2010-2011 academic year. Who won the battle is still a matter of debate. The new TEKS, which can be accessed through the Texas Education Agency’s Web site, reads:
In all fields of science, analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing, including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations, so as to encourage critical thinking by the student (“Texas Essential...,” 2009).
Noticeably, the terms “strengths and weaknesses” do not appear in the new curriculum standards. However, the phrase “examining all sides of scientific evidence” was included. It appears that Texas education officials have attempted to keep both sides happy by straddling the fence on this issue. In another excerpt regarding the changes in Earth’s atmosphere, the phrase “that could have occurred” was added to produce the following final statement:
Analyze the changes of Earth’s atmosphere that could have occurred through time from the original hydrogen-helium atmosphere, the carbon dioxide-water vapor-methane atmosphere, and the current nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere (“Texas Essential...,” 2009, emp. added).
We may never know the true motivations for these changes—political, scientific, or other—but whatever the reasons, educators are left with this manuscript, the 2009 TEKS, to guide their curricula in the sciences.
“Comparison of Current 1998 Science TEKS with Proposed 2009 Recommendations to Science TEKS—Grades 9-12” (2009), TEKS, [On-line], URL: http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/teks/science/SciTEKS_9_12_Comparepdf.pdf.
Erwin, Douglas (2000), “Macroevolution is More Than Repeated Rounds of Microevolution,” Evolution and Development, 2:78-84.
“A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism” (2009), Discovery Institute, [On-line], URL: http://www.dissentfromdarwin.org/index.php.
“Scientist Statement” (2009), The 21st Century Science Coalition, [On-line], URL: http://www.texasscientists.org/sign.html.
Starr, C. (2006), Basic Concepts in Biology (Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole-Thomson Learning Publishing), sixth edition.
Texans for Better Science Education (2009), [On-line], URL: http://www.strengthsandweaknesses.org/.
“Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for Science Subchapter C. High School” (2009), TEKS, [On-line], URL: http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/teks/science/ch112c_as_approved032709.pdf.
“Welcome” (2009), The 21st Century Science Coalition, [On-line], URL: http://www.texasscientists.org/index.html.