Our Day in Austin, Defending Critical Analysis of Evolution

The Dallas Morning News has a piece on the latest round in the battle over evolution education in Texas — a hearing Tuesday in Austin I participated in. The article’s reporting was better than some, but still a mixed bag.

Here’s my quick take on the goings on, and on the Dallas Morning News story.

The Texas State Board of Education heard testimony over proposed changes to the state’s curriculum standards for public high school evolution education. I testified along with CSC Fellows Ray Bohlin and Walter Bradley. We were three of about 26 who did, though probably no more than half of these were focused on the evolution issue. Each of us spoke for a couple minutes, and then answered any questions put to us from the board.

The Texas governor had earlier instructed the board to streamline the state curriculum standards. A committee tasked with suggesting cuts and clarifications for the biology standards recommended deleting various parts that called on biology classes to evaluate evolutionary theory instead of simply memorizing its claims and the evidence for it.

This committee argued that there wasn’t time to evaluate evolutionary theory, and besides, that kind of critical thinking about evolution isn’t “developmentally appropriate.” We disagreed.

Tuesday was the third round in the tug-of-war. The first round was last fall. The second round was early this year.

Don’t Push the Mystery into the Shadows

We assured the board that there were age-appropriate ways for teachers to get their students to wrestle with some of the peer-reviewed scientific evidence against evolution, and that they could do so without taking weeks and weeks. They can open a door to the sort of mysteries that the scientists wrestled with at the Royal Society meeting last year. And no, the ninth-grade biology classes don’t have to go through the door and on a weeks-long journey for it to be educationally valuable. Just knowing the doorway is there; just knowing there exists a realm where origins scientists grapple with some big unsolved mysteries — that’s enough.

While I was at the hearings, I met the Dallas Morning News reporter assigned to cover the event, Eva-Marie Ayala. She had the challenging task of boiling down to a few hundred words the parade of speeches pro and con, along with the Q&A among board members and testifiers.

She rightly underscored the controversy over a single word in the biology standards. One of the standards, 6a, calls on biology classes to “evaluate” theories about the origin of DNA. And a majority of the biology committee recommended changing the word “evaluate” to “identify.” In my testimony I urged the board not to adopt the word “identify,” but to go with “evaluate” or some similarly strong term.

When you identify a theory, you merely regurgitate information about it. There’s a place for that, of course. But when you evaluate you critically analyze. That’s a skill essential to doing good…

Read the full article from the author…

Join The Discussion