Evolution in Play in Texas

By Sean Cavanagh — September 24, 2008 2 min read
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Texas officials are embarking on a revision of their state’s science standards, a process that has generated a furious debate in several states in recent years—most of it focused squarely on the topic of evolution.

A first draft of the new standards, released this week, seems likely to please the scientific community. The new document removes language from the current document that says students should study the “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific theories. Many scientists consider that to be code language used to suggest—falsely, they say—that the theory is pocketed with holes, rather than being one of the most well-supported theories in all of science.

The new document describes evolution as an explanation for the diversity of life on Earth. The committee that drafted it also seemed intent on providing a thorough definition of what science is, and what it is not. It says that ideas “based upon purported forces outside of nature” are not scientific, because they can’t be tested through science. Many scientists make that same point when they rejected alternative explanations for life’s development, such as intelligent design and creationism.

Here’s the section on the definition of science. It cites the National Academy of Science as a source:

“Science uses observational evidence to make predictions of natural phenomena and to construct testable explanations. If ideas are based upon purported forces outside of nature, they cannot be tested using scientific methods. Scientific explanations are open to testing under different conditions, over time, and by independent scientific researchers. Many theories in science are so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter them substantially; however, they are subject to continuing refinement as new areas of science emerge or as new technologies enable observations and experiments that were not possible previously.”

Public dramas over how to define and discuss evolution in state academic standards have played out memorably in Ohio, Kansas, and Florida in recent years. The discussion in Texas is likely to unfold over several months. The state’s board of education is scheduled to accept public comments and discuss the document in November. A final vote could occur in March of 2009, Suzanne Marchman, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, told me.

Board members’ initial reaction to the draft document seemed fairly muted, judging from this story in the Austin American-Statesman.

The draft includes language on another topic that will probably please scientists: climate change, which has been largely absent from many state standards and textbooks to date.

“The interacting components of the Earth system change by both natural and human-influenced processes,” the draft says. “Natural processes include hazards such as flooding, earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, meteorite impacts, and climate change. Human-influenced processes, such as pollution and nonsustainable use of Earth’s natural resources, may damage the Earth system. Examples include climate change, soil erosion, air and water pollution, and biodiversity loss. The time scale of these changes and their impact on human society must be understood to make wise decisions concerning the use of the land, water, air, and natural resources. Proper stewardship of Earth will prevent unnecessary degradation and destruction of Earth’s subsystems and diminish detrimental impacts to individuals and society.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.