The Revisionaries

If you haven’t seen The Revisionaries from the PBS series Independent Lens, find an hour soon to watch it.* The one-hour program documents the 2010 proceedings of the Texas School Board where a small group of conservatives inserted requirements into the state science and social studies curriculums that fit their religious and political beliefs.

A professor lobbying against the changes in science describes the problem.

There are not many board members who say ‘I am an expert in string theory’ or ‘I am an expert in gravitational theory and I will talk to you about that’. But they’ll sure talk to you about evolution. And that is a mixture of ignorance and arrogance that’s a flammable mixture.

Adding even more to the atmosphere of anti-intellectualism surrounding this process, the former chair of the board and a centerpiece of this film, declared that “someone has to stand up to experts”, like scientists, and he was leading the charge against facts he disagrees with. I don’t envy the people in Texas who have chosen to battle back against that kind of thinking (if you can apply that term here).

To say that “the schoolboard in Texas has been a mess” is an understatement. Unfortunately, that mess slops over into other parts of the country since textbook publishers write to satisfy the largest customers, and in the process they dumb down the materials used by tens of thousands of students. One more reason to support the open textbook movement.

* It’s only free online until February 27th. After that it will probably be available for purchase from iTunes and other outlets.

The Right Answer

Florida Senator Marco Rubio, someone who is supposed to be a front runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016*, was asked in an interview “How old do you think the Earth is?”.

His answer:

I’m not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that’s a dispute amongst theologians and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States. I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow. I’m not a scientist. I don’t think I’m qualified to answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says. Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries.

I’m also not qualified to answer a question like that but I know how to locate the best information available, so as most intelligent, non-scientists would tell you, the correct reply is “I’ll have to Google that.”

There may be “multiple theories” on the age and origins of the universe, but the only ones that should be taught in science classes are those backed by evidence, not myths and legends.

* The fact than anyone is making that assessment two weeks after the previous election is very depressing.

Just Ignore The Evidence

I think I’ve figured out one big problem with science education in some parts of this country: we have too many people who know nothing about science trying to write the curriculum.

The latest case in point comes from Texas where the State Board of Education has just approved new science standards containing all kinds of non-scientific crap.

However, it’s this attitude from the board chair that highlights an unfortunate distain for the whole concept of education in the first place.

Board Chair Don McLeroy did not disappoint, as evidenced in this YouTube video in which he makes an impassioned plea for two amendments to the standards that would undercut instruction on evolution. Mystified as to why the scientific community didn’t see things the way he did and apparently unable to contemplate the possibility that he has things wrong, McLeroy urges the board to join a crusade against the scientific community. “Somebody has to stand up to these experts,” he said, while expressing incredulity about their opposition, stating, “I don’t know why they’re doing it.” Elsewhere, he argued that evolution isn’t science, saying, “it’s an ideology” and “evolution goes back to someone who came up with a philosophical speculation.”

Those “experts” he wants to stand up to are, by definition, people with a “comprehensive and authoritative knowledge or skill in a particular area”. Also known as scientists in this particular area.mad_scientist.png

Oh, but the chairman does approve of genetics which “goes back to a Christian monk” (that would be Gregor Mendel – even I remember that from my science classes :-).

Anyway, the primary focus of the new standards would have students “analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations” based in part on “examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific experiments”.

Which, of course, says that “all sides” should have equal weight in the discussion even if they don’t provide equal evidence.

More generally, this focus on multiple theories makes frequent appearances when elected bodies, like school boards and state legislatures, attempt to modify science education. It suggests that, when faced with the fact that science has adopted a theory that the officials dislike, they assume there must be another, competing theory that is more amenable to their beliefs. In reality, having an explanatory model reach the status of scientific theory by necessity means that it explains the scientific data better than competing ideas, so there rarely are competing theories.

But the bottom line here is that the Board in Texas wants their kids to get a good science education, possibly even a “world class” science education (to use the popular political modifier), as long as the scientific evidence doesn’t get in the way of Mr. McLeory’s beliefs.

And we don’t need no stinkin’ experts to do it.

Something That Needs Changing

I wonder if having an intellectually curious president who accepts the evidence of science will help to reverse this kind of crap.

Some students burst into tears when a high school biology [teacher] told them they’d be studying evolution. Another teacher said some students repeatedly screamed “no” when he began talking about it.

Other teachers said students demanded to know whether they pray and questioned why the had to learn about evolution if it was just a theory.

“I’ve seen churches train students to come to school with specific questions to ask to sabotage my lessons,” said Bonnie Pratt, a biology teacher at Northview High in north Fulton County. “We need parents and the community to understand why and how we teach evolution.”

Probably not.

But at least it will be wonderful not having the leaders of the federal government trying to write “intelligent” design into public policy.