Primer: ‘All Sides of Scientific Evidence’

This is Part I in a series of four posts in which TFN Insider had university scientists analyze problematic changes the State Board of Education made to science curriculum standards for Texas public schools in 2009. This year publishers will submit — and the state board will approve or reject — instructional materials based on these flawed standards. The following entry examines the current version of Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (3)(A), which reads as follows:

(3)  Scientific processes. The student uses critical thinking, scientific reasoning, and problem solving to make informed decisions within and outside the classroom. The student is expected to:

(A)  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;

(Other entries in series: TEKS (7)(B) — Sudden Appearance; TEKS (7)(G) — Complexity of the Cell; TEKS (9)(D) — Self-Replicating Life)


Background

The wording of this standard was at the center of the controversy surrounding the 2008-09 revision to science curriculum standards at the Texas State Board of Education. The existing standard – which had been in place since 1998 – was worded as follows:

(3) Scientific processes. The student uses critical thinking and scientific problem solving to make informed decisions. The student is expected to:

(A) analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including the hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using evidence and information; (emphasis added)

Even before the board began the revision process, the wording of this standard came under heavy criticism from the scientific community, which observed that the phrase “strengths and weaknesses” had been misused by evolution opponents to single out evolution for special and unfair criticism. More troublingly, evolution opponents used “strengths and weaknesses” as a way to introduce creationist/intelligent design arguments into science class. As a result, board-appointed curriculum writing teams — mostly classroom teachers and scientists — proposed more rigorous scientific language to replace the old standard:

(3) Scientific processes. The student uses critical thinking, scientific reasoning, and problem solving to make informed decisions based on laboratory and field investigations.

(A) analyze and evaluate scientific explanations by using empirical scientific data, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing;

This draft language was initially approved by a narrow vote of the state board at the January 2009, meeting – over loud objections from the block of evolution-deniers on the board.

However, on March 27, 2009 – the final day of the 18-month long debate – new “compromise” language was cobbled together by a handful of board members in an impromptu meeting during a short break of the board. The resulting 13-2 vote inserted this new compromise language – which had not been vetted or even discussed with scientists, teachers or curriculum experts – into the Texas science standards at the eleventh hour. That compromise language is current standard (3)(A).


Scientific and Pedagogical Problems with Standard

By Dr. John Wise, Research Associate Professor of Biological Sciences and Adjunct Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at Southern Methodist University in Dallas

While the removal of the “strengths and weaknesses” language from the previous version of TEKS (3)(A) represented a nominal defeat for evolution opponents in Texas, the revised wording of this standard – the expectation that students will examine “all sides of scientific evidence” – still leaves open the possibility that some school districts or publishers will emphasize nonscientific or pseudoscientific alternatives to sound science in our children’s science classrooms. As noted by the United States National Academies of Science, “the pressure to downplay evolution or emphasize nonscientific alternatives in public schools compromises science education.” 1

The “strengths and weaknesses” phrase found in the previous TEKS was used extensively in the past by organizations opposing evolution to promote the teaching of intelligent design/creationism. See for example “The Theory of Intelligent Design: A Briefing Packet for Educators,” where this phrase is used 11 separate times in language that encourages educators to teach nonscientific alternatives like intelligent design/creationism instead of sound science.2 Additionally, the Science Teachers Association of Texas pointed out that “the ‘strengths and weaknesses’ language as stated in the [previous] TEKS was vague and misleading” and that “some groups … with distinct religious views would have used this language to insert their religious beliefs … which could have detrimental effects on not only what students learn in school, but on the quality of textbooks.” 3

History suggests that promoters of intelligent design/creationism – and their allies on the Texas State Board of Education – will view the currently adopted language of TEKS (3)(A) “to examine all sides of scientific evidence” as an opportunity to introduce non-scientific materials into classrooms.


How Publishers Can Responsibly Address Standard

By Dr. Ben  Pierce, Professor of Biology and holder of the Lillian Nelson Pratt Chair at Southwestern University in Georgetown

Publishers should recognize two important aspects of this new standard. First, the requirement to analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations applies to all areas of science, not just evolution.  Thus, publishers should not single out evolution for special treatment with regard to this standard. Second, the standard calls for examination of all sides of scientific evidence. There is no requirement to examine or discuss nonscientific ideas. This means that creationist and intelligent design arguments, which have been defined as nonscientific by the courts, need not be introduced.4

To meet this standard for evolution, publishers should present scientific evidence and reasoning for evolution, which is abundant and comes from multiple sources. Evidence for evolution comes from direct observation, DNA sequences, the fossil record, comparative anatomy, the geographic distribution of plants and animals, embryology, and many other sources. Succinct presentations of the evidence for evolution can be found in modern textbooks of evolutionary biology. 5, 6 More extensive but still accessible treatments are also available. 7, 8, 9

Endnotes
1
National Academy of Sciences.  2008.  Science, Evolution, and Creationism. National Academies Press, Washington, D.C. p.43
2 See for example, http://www.intelligentdesign.org/education.php, accessed on February 18, 2011 at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture webpage.
3 From the STATellite 52 (4) 16-17 2008 (online at http://www.statweb.org/statellite/dec-08) accessed Feb. 18, 2011.
4 http://www.pamd.uscourts.gov/kitzmiller/kitzmiller_342.pdf
5
Futuyma, D. J.  2009.  Evolution, 2nd Edition.  Sinauer Associates, Sunderland, MA
6
Freeman, S. and J. C. Herron.  2007.  Evolutionary Analysis, 4th Edition.  Pearson Benjamin Cummings, San Francisco.
7 Carroll, S. B.  2007.  The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution.  W. W. Norton and Company, New York.
8 Coyne, J. A. 2008.  Why Evolution Is True.  Viking, New York.
9 National Academy of Sciences.  2008.  Science, Evolution, and Creationism.  National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.

This article was posted in these categories: evolution, Science adoption (2011), science and religion, Science materials primer. Bookmark the permalink. Follow comments with the RSS feed for this post. Post a Comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


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6 Comments

  1. Troy Hibbitts
    Posted March 31, 2011 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    “to examine all sides of scientific evidence” DOES NOT imply “discuss creationism” or “intelligent design”, since these notions are fundamentally NOT SCIENCE.

    furthermore, since TESTING drives the curriculum, one should be aware that this SE will not be directly tested – all of the “process” SEs will be tested indirectly and embedded within content area questions. This should also serve to minimize any negative effect that the wording of this SE may potentially have. Under the old TEKS, the same SE (different wording) was tested with a single test item over the course of 7 years of testing (and the question did not address evolution, it gave an example of a hypothesis, an experiment, and some data, and then asked what was a strength of this hypothesis. (ans. it was supported by data).

    Joe’s statement “Teachers tend to teach from the textbook.” is largely inaccurate as well – teachers are continually expected to not teach from textbooks but to teach from the TEKS, and to use textbooks as supplementary materials. Although I’m currently teaching physics and Anatomy (but have taught biology in the recent past), I rarely use the textbook or text-supplementary materials. If you teach straight from the text, you are almost guaranteed poor TAKS scores, if nothing else. You HAVE to use a strong TEKS-based curriculum written by someone who has intimate knowledge of the test in order to be successful in the high-stakes testing environment.

  2. Troy Hibbitts
    Posted March 31, 2011 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    I don’t see ANYWHERE in the TX science TEKS where it suggests that ANYONE teach Creationism.

    “to examine all sides of scientific evidence” DOES NOT

  3. Posted March 4, 2011 at 12:32 am | Permalink

    I’m with Joe, since they demand that we cover their side of the argument then by all means let’s do, then proceed to show it for the garbage that it is.

  4. Joe Lapp
    Posted March 3, 2011 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

    I think Dr. Pierce missed the big opportunity. The TEKS now require that teachers bring up specific creationist arguments. The TEKS do not require that textbooks argue for creationist stance. This is an opportunity to introduce and address the many “misconceptions” about evolution. Addressing them directly may the only way to help the world move away from today’s gross misunderstandings and towards a world in which students can spot pseudoscientific chicanery.

    Teachers tend to teach from the textbook. Creationists think this is their opportunity for indoctrinating students in Biblical literalism, but it could just as easily be our opportunity to explain what science is and what it is not. Let’s not blow the opportunity.

  5. Charles
    Posted March 1, 2011 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

    The above statement made by Dr. Pierce is singularly unhelpful and grossly naive. Thomas Dolby said it best in the early 1980s, “…blinded by science.” He apparently expects the textbook companies to deluge their books with evolution arguments so multiple and thick that they will somehow blind the opposition. Wrong!!!!!

    He is making the assumption that business executives in textbook companies actually listen to scientists when $30 million is at stake. The flip side of this is my personal experience that “business people” are second only to engineers in having a Christian fundamentalist/creation science/ID mindset. I think the textbook executives will ignore the scientists and give the Texas SBOE extremist faction exactly what they want. They are business people and business people care about only one thing…money. In their mind, the customer is always right, even when he is wrong. Therefore, they will give the customers whatever he/she requests.

    The only way to stop this is a nationwide campaign of intimidation against the textbook companies that puts their monetary bottom line on the ledger at extreme peril. If Don Wildmon can do it to the Walt Disney Company, I see no reason why the same thing could not be done to the textbook moguls.

    Personally, just sayin’, if Dr. Wise and Dr. Pierce cannot be anymore helpful than this bland pablum, I would ask for my money back. If they are doing it for free, I would simply ask them to go home.

  6. Coragyps
    Posted March 1, 2011 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    Thus, publishers should not single out evolution for special treatment with regard to this standard.

    But you can bet next month’s rent that they will do exactly that, anyway. Bubba from Big Spring is not even a fraction as concerned about whether dark energy is driving the expansion of the universe as he is in assuring himself the he “ain’t related to no damn ape!!” Textbook publishers may be a bit more aware of the facts of biology (not to mention cosmology) than Bubba is, but they are also very aware of the profits they could potentially lose by not playing the creationists’ game.

    I look for it to be an interesting spring……

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