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Strengths and Limitations

Strengths and Limitations

TEA LogoThe Texas State Board of Education had their first hearing on school science standards. There's a lot of hoopla over a certain phrase that's been in the standards since 1988, to teach the "strengths and weaknesses" of all scientific theories. When the draft science standards were released in September, which were, according to the Dallas Morning News, created by "review committees of teachers and academics," the wording had been removed. Now, the new Science Standards Review Panel, a six member group containing three ID supporters, one of whom is even the director of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture from Washington state, have unsurprisingly put that language back into the standards, slightly reworded as "analyze and evaluate strengths and limitations" of scientific explanations, along with a recommendation for middle school students to "discuss possible alternative explanations" for scientific concepts (source).

Before I begin discussing this, since I realize that around half the population of the U.S. doesn't accept evolution, let me make it clear that evolution has, in fact, happened, and our knowledge of the history of life on this planet, although incomplete, is still pretty good. I've already posted A (Somewhat) Brief Introduction to Evolution explaining much of this, which also has links to much more in depth material on evolution. Moving on...

On the face of it, teaching strengths and weaknesses of any theory sounds like a great thing. After all, there are weaknesses in our current understanding of evolution: which is more accurate - gradualism or punctuated equilibrium; what is the relative importance of natural selection versus genetic drift versus sexual selection versus other forms of genetic change; what are the relative importances of allopatric, peripatric, parapatric, and sympatric speciation; how do epigenetics contribute to evolution; etc. But, understanding the larger debate, and recognizing that organizations like the Discovery Institute try to use this language to inject pseudoscience into students' education is what makes it worrying. I mean, just take a look at what the inappropriately named organization, Texans for Better Science Education, considers weaknesses of evolutionary theory (most of these are covered in Talk Origins' Index to Creationist Claims). If the language in the science standards opens the door to drivel like that, we're definitely doing our children a disservice.

There's also the question of what is the proper role of a pre-college education. You only get the students for 12 years, and there're a lot of knowledge and skills that they need to be taught in that time. There's one school of thought that says that it's more important to teach students how to think than what to think. I agree with this to an extent - critical thinking skills are essential to evaluating all the information the students will receive outside school. It's not as if school can cover everything, or as if our body of knowledge as a civilization is static. There will always be new challenges and new information that these students will face once they become adults, and they need to know how to approach those. However, evaluating claims about the world also relies on a strong foundation of knowledge. It's hard to evaluate someone claiming the Earth is flat without a working knowledge of at least geography, and maybe a little bit of astronomy and physics. So, it is up to schools to find the proper balance of teaching that foundation along with critical thinking skills.

And this is where the "strengths and weaknesses" or "strengths and limitations" requirement as part of the science curriculum comes into question. How much can actually be covered in a high school biology class? Can we really give students the good strong foundation they need in evolutionary theory before addressing some of those weaknesses I listed above? Should it just be a token paragraph as part of the lesson plan about future research opportunies? Think about another high school science topic - physics (since this requirement is about all science topics, not just biology). There's so much to teach students as is (universal gravitation, forces, vectors, friction, etc.). How much time do you think teachers should be devoting to describing the weaknesses in the classical (Newtonian) model, other than maybe a brief, single day lesson about Einsteinian relativity?

Out of all the controversies about teaching evolution in the various states of this country, this current one in Texas, other than generating some heat in the blogosphere and among a few interested parties, is probably pretty mild. After all, it's only a short phrase that's already been in place for the past 10 years, and not even one that explicitly requires teaching of creationism or Intelligent Design. With competent teachers, evolution will still be taught well. And with the creationist teachers, I don't know that the phrase would make much of a difference, anyway. The place where I see this having the biggest impact, and which will probably turn into a bigger battle, is when it comes time to choose the new textbooks. I'd hate to see our state waste taxpayer money on a book like Explore Evolution: The Arguments For and Against Neo-Darwinism.

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