Experts, Shmexperts. Who Needs ‘Em?

Was anyone else appalled by Monday’s guest column from Perry Glanzer and Wesley Null in the Austin American-Statesman?

Glanzer and Null, education professors at Baylor University, were sharply critical of the new 21st-Century Science Coalition. The coalition of more than 1,000 Texas scientists insists that the State Board of Education shouldn’t water down instruction on evolution when it adopts new science curriculum standards for Texas public schools. Glanzer and Null, however, suggest that readers discard scientists’ opinions on what should (evolution) and should not (“intelligent design”/creationism) be taught in public school science classes. Really.

They write:

Many questions remain unanswered by the biologists who seem most interested in trying to control curriculum. Why do biologists assume they are experts in curriculum when they are not? Why are biologists afraid to broach the exciting intellectual problems surrounding the relationship between faith and science? Why not discuss the history of biology as a discipline and how the field’s approach to this problem has evolved over time? Why not discuss with students why biologists tend to operate within a naturalistic framework, including the benefits and limitations of the framework?

Well, here’s a question they should have asked: Why not teach Texas schoolchildren sound science that prepares them to succeed in college and the jobs of the 21st century? No? Sorry, but we thought that’s what public schools were supposed to be doing. Carry on, then.

Seriously, though, biologists are “trying to control curriculum”? Actually, biologists and other scientists are reacting to actions by the far-right faction on the State Board of Education, which has politicized not only science classes, but also health, reading, math and other subjects. Scientists are the experts in their fields. The members of the State Board of Education, particularly when it comes to matters of science, are not.

Further, science class isn’t the place to discuss religion, which is really what Glanzer and Null want. Such a discussion would be more appropriate in a social science or humanities course with a qualified teacher. Science teachers should focus their limited classroom time on teaching students the mainstream scientific consensus on matters such as evolution. Spending time teaching nonscientific ideas, such as “intelligent design”/creationism and phony “weaknesses” of evolution, will not help prepare students for college and the jobs of the 21st century. As University of Texas professor Sahotra Sarkar said at the coalition’s press conference last week:

We should teach students 21st-century science, not some watered-down version with phony arguments that nonscientists disingenuously call “weaknesses.” Calling “intelligent design” arguments a “weakness” of evolution is like calling alchemy a “weakness” of chemistry, or astrology a “weakness” of astronomy.

Refreshingly, we suppose, Glanzer and Hull at least are clear about their desire to promote religion in public education. It’s not an agenda they make much effort in trying to hide — unlike many State Board of Education members. The two Baylor professors put it out there:

Why should we trust biologists over religion professors, curriculum professors and others who spend their lives studying and teaching these subjects?

But what an odd question. Would the state board’s chairman, dentist Don McLeroy, R-Bryan, trust someone not trained in dentistry to work on his patients’ teeth? Of course he wouldn’t. But that doesn’t mean McLeroy has much respect for experts anyway. Recall that earlier this year, he voted with a majority of board members to cast aside three years of work on new language arts curriculum standards crafted by teachers and reading experts. The McLeroy majority instead adopted a standards document the board’s far-right faction had patched together the night before the final vote. Teachers — as well as most other thinking folks — were appalled.

In reality, the two Baylor professors are simply looking for a way to excuse the state board for rejecting the strong advice of science experts once again. They want to open the door for the board’s ideologues to once again promote their own personal and political beliefs ahead of the education of Texas schoolchildren. The question right now is whether they’ll again get away with it.