So the vote was made, the standards were set, and now the dust is settling. And what do we see?
I see Texas being the laughing stock on a world stage, finally replacing the Kansas fiasco from the 1990s.
First, a brief intro: this last week, after months of discussion, the Texas State Board of Education voted on the science standards, the baseline scientific knowledge students going through school should know. They vary across grade level, of course, and while there are national standards, states set their own. In general, they use experts in both science and education to advise them, and many states simply adopt or adapt the national standards (I have some experience here– for six years I developed educational activities based on NASA science, and did lot of work with educators and the standards).
States should have this right. The problem is, school boards can easily get packed with creationists. And that’s where we get back to Texas.
Ignoring or even outright denouncing the advice of experts, creationists have been trying in any way they can to attack evolution in the standards. The latest gambit has been what’s called a "strengths and weaknesses" clause in the standards, which sounds reasonable on the surface: when learning scientific theories, students should understand both where the theory is firm and where it needs work.
The problem, of course, is that creationists are using this as a wedge to lie about evolution. And yes, I mean lie: they hammer away with old, outdated, and easily-disproven ideas in an attempt to make evolution look weak. But let’s be clear: evolutionary ideas are the very basis of modern biology, and are as solid a fact as gravity is. If you think otherwise, you are wrong. This is not just a theory. It’s fact.
The good news from Texas is that the "strengths and weaknesses" clause did not pass the vote. The sad news is that science and reason did not prevail because they are right and the creationists had a change of heart: it didn’t pass because the vote was a tie, 7-7, and it needed a majority to win. So basically, the creationists lost by forfeit.
After that, the news sinks rapidly. The far-right Republicans on the Board were not finished. They put in language to weaken the Big Bang theory, saying that there are different estimates for the age of the Universe. You can try to be coy and say this is also strictly true, but again that’s a cheat and a lie. The woman who proposed this is obviously a young-Earth creationist, and when she says "different ages", she means 6000 years. This belief in a young Earth, is, simply, dead wrong. We know the Universe is 13.7 billion years old, and the Earth, while younger than that, is still 4.55 or so billion years old itself. This is not some random guess, this is rock-solid (literally) science, confirmed independently from such diverse scientific fields as astronomy, physics, chemistry, anthropology, archaeology… and even the study of how languages change over time shows the humanity is older than 6000 years.
These same people on the Board added language to the standards to weaken teaching about global warming. Don McLeroy, who is a creationist and also the Chairman of the BoE, said that climate change is "hooey". They also attack the science on the complexity of the cell, and the initial genesis of life (called abiogeneisis; life from non-life). These are all standard creationist tactics.
With all this, I’m surprised they didn’t add standards about how the tooth fairy is real, the Alamo siege was won using prayer, and Hitler and Darwin were secretly married in New Hampshire by a crocoduck.
Do I sound unhappy? Yeah, damn straight I am. These creationists are trying to destroy science in Texas. And they’re succeeding. They are imposing their narrow religious and ideological views on reality, and it’s the schoolchildren in the state who will suffer.
And they’re not alone. Think you’re safe from creationist nonsense because you live in Vermont, or Illinois, or Oregon? Think again. Texas is so big and has so many students in it that they have a huge amount of leverage on the textbook industry. This means that the creationists will put their weaselly language into the textbooks, and those will get sold all over the country.
A couple of months ago I took a look at my daughter’s Earth Science book, and it has a decent chapter about evolution in it, hitting all the right notes: descent with modification, common ancestors, the fossil record, and so on. But how long will that last? I wouldn’t be at all surprised if her next textbook says that scientists disagree about evolution (they don’t disagree at all that it happens, just on some details of how it happens), that some people disagree that the Universe is billions of years old, and that the environment is just hunky-dory, so let’s go drill some more, mmmmkay?
It seems incredible that here we are, in the 21st century, and a group of less than a dozen religious zealots has the kind of power to affect millions of children across the country, but there you have it. One problem with a democracy — and it’s a doozy — is that it’s possible to game the system, and give far too much power to people who are far too unqualified for it.
And it’s brought us here.
Now, the good news: it’s not entirely too late. If you live in some other state, find out who is on your school board [Edited to add: go here for that information]. Find out when they hold meetings, and find out when they adopt their standards. And if it’s soon, or even if it’s not for a while yet, make your voice heard. And even better, when elections come up for the board, find out where the candidates stand. Ask them point blank: do you think evolution is true? Do you think creationism is true? How would you vote on science standards for our state?
Don’t be shy. I did this right after moving to Boulder, and found out what was what. Don’t assume someone else will do it for you!
Because if you do, you’ll get a Board of Education like the one in Texas. And as for them, well, you’ve seen this before:
The bad guys never give up, and neither should we.