Open Letter To The Texas Board Of Education

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | March 26, 2009 7:42 pm

Dear Texas Board of Education,

Our colleague Phil reports that one Ms. Barbara Cargill proposed an amendment to the Texas science standards so that teachers must tell students there are different estimates on the age of the Universe.  After passing 11 – 3, it goes to final vote tomorrow.

The problem with this is that there is just no way the Universe could possibly be 6000 years old.  I’m certain.  You see, I used to study horseshoe crabsneat little critters–and they’ve been poking around the planet for hundreds of millions of years. So you realize the inherent problem…  Even if there’s fuzzy math going on, it’s simply not a possibility.

Now I drove across Texas earlier this year and it’s a pretty nice place with terrific BBQ and a great big open blue sky. I even met some good folks in Austin working hard to get a planetarium going at HAM’s night.  Thing is, we’ve been discussing science literacy today here at The Intersection and especially when it matters.  Clearly now is one of those instances.

Please vote wisely.

Sheril Rose Kirshenbaum

p.s. This outstanding resource may help with the decision.


Comments (11)

  1. So now would you say that someone who thinks the universe was created after humans domesticated the dog is…from Mars? :)

    However, I protest, but not for the usual reasons. There is as much evidence to support the Judeo-Christian creation fact as there is to support the African Boobjub creation fact and the Hindu serpent-Lord Vishnu creation fact. Being a democratic country Ms. Cargill must protect the interests of minorities and include these facts too.

    On another note, I am sure Ms. Cargill will now be eager to include different estimates of the number of Jews who died in the Holocaust, including an estimate of zero?

  2. pete

    Nice! Now how do we get this distributed?

  3. Jon

    But there *are* multiple estimates for the age of the universe:

    Different methods given slightly different mean and error values, all in the approximate range of 13.7 billion years.

  4. But there *are* multiple estimates for the age of the universe

    Of course. I meant specifically the 6000 years old nonsense and should probably have quoted more from Phil’s post to be clearer:

    So Ms. Cargill is right, if she means that “different estimates” range from 13.58 to 13.82 (given one standard deviation) billion years old.

    But she doesn’t mean that at all, does she?

    See her website and you’ll understand why we’re concerned.

  5. Let me be so bold now as to say that Ms. Barbara Cargill is…ignorant.

    “For example, when evidence for universal common ancestry in the fossil record is taught (i.e. scientific strength), then the contradictory evidence showing the huge gaps of missing transitional fossils in the record must also be presented (i.e. scientific weakness)”

    Ah, the old God of the Gaps argument. How endearing. Does the lady not understand that the “weakness” of science is precisely its strength? That was a rhetorical question obviously.

  6. Matt

    Seriously? Not even a nod to the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

  7. Jon


    I try to avoid being traumatized while sick, so I’ll avoid following the link. But it was rather clear that the proposal wasn’t talking about that level of variation.

    A former labmate grew up in Texas. From what she said, the state of education was already rather scary when she was still in the public school system there, and she started grad school in 2006.

  8. james wheaton

    We will see in the coming days if not hours if the Texas science book standards will indeed be highjacked by these religious zealots.

    I for one am trying not to get too upset over this. If the worst comes to pass, it will be most interesting to see how quickly the first lawsuit appears, and watch with joy as the next major legal smack-down occurs (Dover was just too fun). Also, if biology text books (or other science text books) are revised to include such bunk, and those text books find a wide usage outside Texas, it will be interesting to see the reaction from other more reality-based school boards across the nation. I expect actions will be taken to correct the wrongs in one way or another. News of that will also be delicious.

    I think in the end reasons will prevail.

  9. Please- go crash this poll in favor of ‘evolution only’… it is being hosted by the home town television station of Dr. Don McElroy- the Chair of the Texas State Board of Education, and creationist radical. It would be awesome to tip it in favor of ‘evolution only’ . Since this morning it has tipped far in that direction, but a little more would be better!

    Poll is on the left side of the page….

  10. While we are focused on evolution and time scales million of years, okay some are talking thousands, there is something else going on right under our nose. Evolution that apparently happens in time frames of years if not months – the common flu. Is it that one cell of the virus mutates and then replicates to manifest itself all over the world or are changes happening in disparate colonies. If so how is the communication and co-ordination taking place. Then, what about the threat analysis of capacity the virus? Some element of the process may be random, but to see repeated outbreaks that span the globe requires some investigation. Science is simply one branch of knowledge not necessarily the most authoritative. And, science has been wrong many, many, many a times. The saving grace is that science is and should net be based on ideology. The only thing we should be saying is that we simply don’t know and may be in due time we will. And in the mean time keep cool and not be so eager to bash each other on the head or else where.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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