Live Blogging: The Texas SBOE vs. Science

by TFN

3 p.m. – Texas State Board of Education members are gathering for the second part of today’s hearing — the evolution “show trial” the folks at the Discovery Institute have been salivating over. The board will hear from a panel of six “expert” reviewers, three of whom are creationists who want Texas public school science classes to challenge evolution. Among those three is Stephen Meyer, co-founder of the anti-evolution pressure group Discovery Institute. The other panelists —

Supporters of teaching evolution: David Hillis, professor of integrative biology and director of the Center of Computational Biology and Bioinformatics at theUniversity of Texas at Austin; Ronald K. Wetherington, professor of anthropology at Southern Methodist University and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence; and Gerald Skoog, professor and dean emeritus of the College ofEducation at Texas Tech and co-director of the Center for Integration of Science Education and Research.

Opponents: Meyer from the Discovery Institute; Ralph Seelke, a professor of the department of biology and earth sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Superior; Charles Garner, a professor of chemistry at Baylor University in Waco.

Click here to read more about the lead-up to today’s science smackdown.

3:11 – It’s hard to relate all the details here, but it appears the board is deeply split over how committee assignments for the next two years were decided. There has been a heated discussion over the refusal of the board’s majority to follow established rules in deciding the assignments. In short, it looks like the ideological split on the board is deepening, with bitter feelings all around.

3:14 – Review panel members will each have 15 minutes to speak to the board and then will answer any questions board members have. Stephen Meyer from the anti-evolution Discovery Institute is the first on the panel to speak.

While creationists on the board have been careful to say that they want the “strengths and weaknesses” requirement to apply to all scientific theories, Meyer just swept that contention aside. He argues that the standards should require students to learn “strengths and weaknesses” of the theory of evolution especially. This is no surprise to us: the creationists who are determined to keep that language in the standards rarely if ever argue about other scientific theories. They focus like a laser beam on evolution.

3:24 – Meyer is trying to make the case that there is substantial serious research (published in peer-reviewed science journals) that show evidence of “weaknesses” of evolution. This is, needless to say, news to biologists in the room. (Meyer’s doctorate is in the philosophy of science.)

3:26 – Meyer is clearly enjoying this opportunity. Armed with a PowerPoint presentation, he’s making all he can from the opportunity to share a stage with real scientists.

3:27 – Among the “weaknesses” Meyer is pushing: the Cambrian explosion.

3:28 – Meyer argues that exempting evolution from critical analysis (which, of course, no one has recommended) would make presentations of evolution “dogmatic or quasi-religious.” In fact, however, the teacher writing teams have proposed standards that encourage students to critically analyze scientific theories. What Meyer objects to is the removal of “weaknesses” from the curriculum standards. What’s so sacred about that one word? Is it because the Discovery Institute has latched onto that word as a political strategy?

3:31 – Interesting. Board member Bob Craig asks whether Meyer’s doctorate is in biology. Meyer acknowledges that it is not. Craig then asks Meyer whether it would help him sell his anti-evolution textbook Explore Evolution if the standards including “strengths and weaknesses.” Meyer says he doesn’t know. “I’m not here to make money, if that’s what you’re asking.”

3:37 – Prof. Gerald Skoog of Texas Tech University is now speaking, although Meyer may still take questions later. Skoog argues against any attempt to broaden the definition of science in the standards to include “supernatural” explanations.

3:40 – Skoog makes the case for keep the standards as the writing teams have drafted them. The standards, he argues, have a strong critical-thinking component, regardless of the arguments by creationists. Skoog also takes on the argument that removing “strengths and weaknesses” would in any way threaten the academic freedom of students or the freedom to question. Moreover, “academic freedom” means the freedom of educators and researchers to do their work without interference from government bodies. He notes the state board’s refusal, for example, to adopt health textbooks that include any information on responsible pregnancy and disease prevention (such as condoms and other contraceptive methods) other than through abstinence-only until marriage. That’s a true example of interference with academic freedom, Skoog notes.

3:51 – Skoog: It’s time for the state board to stop spending so much time worrying the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution instead of the “strengths and weaknesses” of science education in Texas.

3:52 – Board member Terri Leo attacks TFN’s survey of biology faculty at colleges and universities in Texas. Leo says the survey was of a selective group of folks. Well, yes, it was. We wanted to know what biology faculty thought about this issue. So what’s the point, Ms. Leo?

3:56 – Leo argues that strengths of evolution are too often over-emphasized while “weaknesses” are left out. Skoog isn’t buying it. The “weaknesses” promoted by creationists on the board “don’t hold water.”

3:59 – We’re getting the same feeling we did November. What a crazy world in which nonscientists on the State Board of Education feel competent to challenge scientists on science.