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Panel Assails Afrocentric Science Curricula

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Baltimore

Public schools have too easily accepted Afrocentric curricula based on pseudoscience and myth, a panel of predominantly African-American scientists told their colleagues here last week.

The group of biologists and anthropologists devoted the better part of a day of the six-day annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science to the use of so-called Afrocentric curricula. Such curricula are designed to blend the contributions of blacks--both in the ancient and modern worlds--into the teaching of science and other subjects.

The panelists criticized school districts for adopting Afrocentric science curricula that are less than rigorous and chastised the science community for failing to take a public stand against such studies.

"Their motives are good--to increase the self-esteem of African-American students," said Joseph L. Graves, an associate professor of evolutionary biology at Arizona State University West in Phoenix. "But their methodologies are wrong."

Mr. Graves compared teaching pseudoscience to giving heroin to someone who has a tumor. "It makes them feel better," he said, "but it doesn't solve the problem."

Book Is Planned

The panel, set up in 1994, grew out of discussions among black academics and others at an annual National Science Foundation conference on diversity in the scientific and technological workforce. It includes biologists, anthropologists, zoologists, and experts in the history and philosophy of science, among others.

The group has received a $20,000 NSF grant to hold two conferences on the topic and to make presentations at professional meetings such as last week's AAAS gathering. The alliance of academics also will publish a book on the topic this year called Science, Pseudoscience, Myth, and African-Americans.

Panel members said they hope the book will stimulate the black community to talk about the prevalence of pseudoscience in the classroom and the broader lack of scientific literacy in the general population. They also hope it will catalyze discussions about how to increase the number of minority students who pursue careers in science and technology. For example, Mr. Graves pointed out at the meeting, "there are only four black evolutionary biologists in the nation, and three of them are here in this room."

Mr. Graves said the panelists have been concerned about the growing presence of Afrocentric curricula promoting concepts such as "melanism"--the theory that blacks, because they have more melanin in their skin, are genetically superior to other people--and featuring "unscientific historiography of the origin of the human species and 'races' and exaggerated claims of the scientific and medical accomplishments of ancient African societies."

Moreover, Mr. Graves added, there has been an increase in what he described as "pseudoscientific biological determinism," or efforts to assert that blacks are genetically less intelligent than whites. He cited work such as that of Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray in The Bell Curve, a 1994 book that argued that much of the gap in IQ scores between blacks and whites is due to genes. (See Education Week, Oct. 26, 1994.)

Teaching Pseudoscience

The practice of teaching pseudoscience--scientific-seeming theories or methods that lack a sound basis in science--is fairly widespread, according to organizers of the AAAS symposium, and it began gaining support on school boards in predominantly black districts after the Portland, Ore., schools adopted an Afrocentric science curriculum in 1990.

Districts that have adopted Portland's "baseline essay" for science include Atlanta, Detroit, the District of Columbia, and the Prince George's County, Md., public schools, they said.

"This of course does not mean that the entire curriculum that these students face is based on pseudoscience," Mr. Graves said. "But it certainly indicates the danger and potential confusion that these ideas represent in the curriculum."

The Portland materials tend to blur the distinction between magic, religion, and science, said Bernard Ortiz de Montellana, an anthropology professor at Wayne State University in Detroit.

For example, the materials include descriptions of "psychoenergetics" such as psychokinesis and extrasensory perception. They also promote Egyptian creation theories: "Creation is a dynamic ongoing process, yet God is the evolver of all things, not chance."

"My problem with this is it probably violates the separation of church and state," said Mr. Ortiz de Montellana, who organized a similar presentation at a 1992 AAAS meeting. (See Education Week, Feb. 19, 1992.)

The rapid acceptance of pseudoscientific curricula also points to the dearth of high-quality science curricula that have minority role models, Mr. Ortiz de Montellana said."We have a desperate need for materials that show [minority students] that people who look like them do science."

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