Live Blogging: Texas SBOE Science Debate

by TFN

Texas State Board of Education members are beginning debate on new public school science curriculum standards. The board will likely take a preliminary vote (or votes) today on whether to amend the draft standards submitted by teacher writing teams and then post them for public comment. A formal vote on posting the standards comes on Friday, but we’ll get the main debate today. The final vote to adopt the standards will come in March. We’ll keep you updated over the next couple of hours on the action here.

1:17 p.m. – Board member Cynthia Dunbar, R-Richmond, moves to put “strengths and weaknesses” back in the standards. She argues that “strengths and weaknesses” hasn’t been challenged in two decades (we assume she means in the courts).

1:21 – Board member Mavis Knight, D-Dallas, opposes the motion: “Longevity is not an indication of the quality of something.”

1:23 – Bob Craig, R-Lubbock, also speaks in opposition, arguing that the board should approve what the writings teams — made up of teachers and academics appointed by the board — have drafted over the past year. “Some (here) think they know better how to teach than the teachers.” “‘Strengths and weaknesses’ has taken on a different connotation from what it was 20 years ago.”

1:26 – Pat Hardy, R-Fort Worth, joins in opposition. “I think the clarification made by the teacher groups is very good.”

1:28 – Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, speaks in support of Dunbar’s amendment. She argues that not all the members of the writing teams (the members who want “strengths and weaknesses”) had their concerns heard and properly considered. She wants teachers to have “the freedom to talk about these things” (“weaknesses”).

1:34 – Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, supports Dunbar’s amendment. “The sons and daughters of Texas must be able to discuss the ‘strengths and weaknesses’ of any theory.” He points out that three of the six “experts” on the state board’s review panel wanted to teach “strengths and weaknesses.” (Of course, one of those three is a co-founder of the anti-evolution pressure group Discovery Institute. The other two are also opponents of evolution.)

1:37 – Mercer mocks the warning that students who don’t have a sound education on something as important to science as evolution will be at a disadvantage in getting into the best colleges and succeeding there. He portrays that as discrimination against people whose religious beliefs lead them to reject evolution. (So much for the argument that this debate isn’t about religion.) Now he’s on to “Piltdown man” and a list of other phony “weaknesses” of evolution.

1:40 – Terri Leo, R-Spring, speaks in support of Dunbar’s amendment. “The way we do it here is the correct way in applying “strengths and weaknesses” to all theories,” not just evolution. (That’s blatantly false.)

1:43 – Lawrence Allen, D-Houston, speaks against Dunbar’s amendment. He notes that his constituents (“every one”) who have talked to him about this issue want him to vote against “strengths and weaknesses.”

1:46 – Mary Helen Berlanga, D-Corpus Christi, speaks against Dunbar’s amendment. “We’re not talking about faith. We’re not talking about religion. We’re talking about science.”

1:48 – Gail Lowe, R-Lampasas, supports Dunbar’s amendment. “There is no one opinion from science teachers or from science experts.”

1:49 – Problem. Rene Nuñez, D-El Paso, is missing from the floor. Very strange.

1:52 – David Bradley, R-Buna, supports Dunbar’s amendment. “This one word ‘weaknesses’ is just kind of baffling.” (Yes, Mr. Bradley, it’s baffling why you’re so determined to keep it.) Bradley says the writing teams the board appointed came up only with recommendations. “It’s our decision. I wasn’t given a rubber stamp when I was sworn in.” (That’s fancy way of saying that it really doesn’t matter what the experts say.)

1:55 – Rick Agosto, D-San Antonio, is stalling.

1:56 – Agosto: “We have several camps here. Both are highly qualified in academia.”

1:57 – Agosto: He opposes Dunbar’s amendment. “I’m listening to my district.”

1:59 – Geraldine “Tincy” Miller, R-Dallas, says “real science is truly debate over all issues.” She says the experts the board put on the writing teams came to a consensus after such debate. Miller opposes Dunbar’s amendment.

2:02 – Craig: Nobody on the board wants anybody to be discriminated against because of their religious beliefs. “But we’re talking about science.” The new standards, he argues, do not restrict discussion but, instead, actually do a better job of encouraging it.

2:04 – Dunbar says the teacher writing teams are just some of the people board members need to be listening to. She says her constituents want her to support “strengths and weaknesses.” She accuses opponents of “strengths and weaknesses” of supporting using intimidation to stifle debate and questions in classrooms.

2:08 – Dunbar says supporters of evolution “are afraid of what weaknesses will show.” Students, she says, should have the right to “pursue academic freedom” in their courses.

2:09 – Knight takes issue with the suggestion that she is “rubber-stamping” the draft from the writing teams.

2:12 – Mercer argues again about “intimidation” against people of faith who question evolution.

2:17 – Nuñez is still missing. Dunbar’s amendment fails on a 7-7 tie vote. Now they move on to a motion of adopting the standards.

2:18 – Dunbar offers a new amendment replacing “strengths and weaknesses” with “evidence supportive and nonsupportive” of scientific explanations.

2:29 – We won’t go through all of the arguments being made on this. Essentially, “supportive and nonsupportive” is just another way to say “strengths and weaknesses.”

2:39 – Things are getting heated, with board members disagreeing on what the board’s six expert panels have said and support on this issue.

2:40 – Nuñez is back. Dunbar’s second amendment fails 8-7!

2:43 – The board is discussing specifically the standards for Earth and Space Science, a high school course. Some board members apparently have objections to various parts, but it’s unclear what those objections are. The board has yet to vote on the overall standards draft.

2:47 – Cargill wants what she calls “some qualifying language” in the ESS standards:
– She wants students to learn “differing theories” about “the structure, scale, composition, origin and history of the universe.” This is a stealth effort to allow “intelligent design” into classrooms. Craig, Miller and others don’t seem to be buying into it.

3:06 – Cargill’s amendment passes 8-7, with Hardy voting in favor.

3:07 – Cargill is proposing another amendment, but the wording isn’t available for the public to see at this time. Motion fails.

3:09 – Cargill is making a series of other motions. The thrust seems to be to add tentativeness to some of the standards, raising the possibility that scientific explanations suggested by those standards may or may not be accurate. This seems to be a subtle attempt to call scientific explanations into questions. It’s all rather confusing to folks in the audience.

3:15 – Most, but not all, of Cargill’s amendments are failing. We remain confused by Hardy’s vote in favor of Cargill’s first amendment and will try to clarify her position on this. It’s possible that she was unclear about Cargill’s intent at first.

3:33 – One of Cargill’s amendments calls into question the validity of radiometric dating methods used to calculate the ages of igneous rocks. This seems a clear effort to call into question the way scientists date the age of the earth. (Young earth creationists think the earth is only 6,000-10,000 years old.) That amendment fails to pass.

3:36 – Now Cargill offers an amendment directly attacking the concept of common descent through evolution. This passes, with two abstaining: Hardy and Miller. It looks like we have clean-up work to do before tomorrow.

3:58 – Now Leo is offering amendments for the biology course standards. As with Earth and Space Science, these amendments seem intended to add tentativeness to the standards, particularly standards regarding evolution. They may be setting their own trap: these amendments are efforts to treat evolution in a special way not applied to other scientific theories (something their own legal counsel advised them earlier not to do). It’s possible that they are leaving the standards vulnerable to a legal challenge.

4:07 – McLeroy is now offering amendments. One amendment: “Know the definition of science and know its limitations.” This is an attempt by McLeroy to make his point that natural phenomena aren’t the source of all explanations. He has argued in the past that science should be redefined to include supernatural explanations, even if he’s not offering that specific recommendation here. The overall standards already include a definition of science from the National Academy of Sciences noting that “some questions are outside the realm of science.”

4:23 – McLeroy wants to amend the section on biology dealing with evolution, calling into question common descent through evolution. This is a very bad amendment. Good heavens. McLeroy is a dentist, and he’s trying to argue against the heart of evolution right here. He has absolutely no qualifications here.

4:32 – We’re reeling here at the absurdity. McLeroy has launched a broadside against a core concept of evolution — common descent. This is like an army losing a battle (“strengths and weaknesses”) and then launching a nuclear strike.

4:45 – Good God. It passed. Board members surely don’t understand what they’ve done here. Certainly not all of them. Strengths and weaknesses is out, but McLeroy has succeeded in using the standards to raise doubts about a core concept of biology.

4:48 – The board has voted 9-6 to give preliminary approval to the standards. UPDATE: In the confusion at the end, we missed the final vote count. But the board did give preliminary approval to the standards draft.

5:04 – Time for deep breaths. One: The failure of creationists to reinsert “strengths and weaknesses” into the standards is a huge victory for sound science education. We need to fight to keep it out in tomorrow’s formal vote and again in the final March votes on the standards.

Second: Board members — none of whom are research scientists, much less biologists — appeared confused when they were asked to consider amendments with changes to specific passages of the standards. That’s why it’s foolish to let dentists and insurance salesmen play-pretend that they’re scientists. The result is that the standards draft includes language that is more tentative. Not good, but not necessarily disastrous overall.

Third, and this is more of a problem, McLeroy has succeeded in inserting language that would have students waste time evaluating evidence on a concept that is established science — in fact, it’s a core concept in the study of evolution, common descent. Even worse, it’s such a complicated and bizarre standard that teachers will have a very difficult time even translating it, much less teaching about it. (TEA has not yet posted it.) What we saw is what happens when a dentist pretends that he knows more about science than scientists do.

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