Primer: ‘All Sides of Scientific Evidence’

by TFN

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.

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