Austin American-Statesman


McLeroy: Enlisting in the culture war


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

What is the greatest challenge facing science education in Texas? The answer is simple: to make sure an excellent teacher is in every classroom. What's the greatest challenge in writing the state science standards? It is identifying appropriate content that builds from grade to grade and leaves our high school graduates college and work force ready. However, the greatest difficulty in writing these standards is the culture war over evolution.

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.

The editorial writers incessantly argue that evolution skeptics are motivated by religion, that they are anti-science and fundamentally dishonest. In contrast, evolutionists are portrayed as sincere defenders of the truth, completely honest and free of any ideological bias. But who is rejecting the empirical demonstration of science, that is, the directly observable and verifiable, for ideological purposes? Let us find out as we take a close-up look at a two-step solution to the controversy.

The first step is to define science in a way that is satisfactory to both sides. Using new wording from the National Academy of Sciences, 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."

This definition replaces the academy's 1999 language that was very controversial; it stated that science was "to provide plausible natural explanations for natural phenomena." The change from "natural explanations" to "testable explanations" is very significant. The old definition was inferior in that it undermined both the philosophy of the naturalist and the supernaturalist. By circular reasoning, the naturalist was prevented from using science to prove that "nature is all there is," and the supernaturalist was prevented from offering supernatural hypotheses. With the new definition, both the naturalist and the supernaturalist are free to make "testable" explanations. The debate can now shift from "Is it science?" to "Is it testable?"

The next step in resolving this controversy is simply to use the scientific method to weigh in on the issue of evolution. Consider the fossil record. What do we actually observe? What are the data?

Stephen Jay Gould stated: "The great majority of species do not show any appreciable evolutionary change at all. [This is called 'stasis.'] These species appear ... without obvious ancestors in the underlying beds, are stable once established and disappear higher up without leaving any descendants."

"...but stasis is data..."

Once we have our observations, we can make a hypothesis. The controversial evolution hypothesis is that all life is descended from a common ancestor by unguided natural processes. How well does this hypothesis explain the data? A new curriculum standard asks Texas students to look into this question. It states: "The student is expected to analyze and evaluate the sufficiency or insufficiency of common ancestry to explain the sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record." It should not raise any objections from those who say evolution has no weaknesses; they claim it is unquestionably true.

And the standard is not religious but does raise a problem for the evolution hypothesis in that stasis is the opposite of evolution, and "stasis is data."

If we are to train our students, engage their minds and, frankly, be honest with them, why oppose these standards? 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.

McLeroy is chairman of the State Board of Education.