To the Editor:
What an irony that at a time when many are calling for the development of students’ critical-thinking skills, voices in the Texas science-standards debate are worried that students might be misled with tricky wordings such as “proposed transitional fossils” and “examining all sides of scientific evidence” (“Retooled Texas Standards Raise Unease Among Science Groups,” April 8, 2009).
We may choose by definition to limit “scientific” explanations to observable, reproducible, measurable processes, but in public school science classrooms, discussions about science should not be constrained by self-imposed definitions within science. If we design a scientific experiment to determine why milk droplets keep appearing on the kitchen floor and then exclude any discussion of cats, we can generate an explanation that is purely “scientific,” but may be dead wrong. After all, like Benjamin Bunny of the Peter Rabbit tales, some folks have “no opinion whatever of cats.”
Even if the majority of scientists may wish a priori to believe Carl Sagan’s dogma that the cosmos is all there is and all there ever will be, that belief system itself should certainly be fertile ground for critical-thinking skills. And precisely because the discussion is about assumptions of science, it belongs in the science classroom, not in a philosophy or religious-studies or literature class.
Various groups in Texas seem to be worried that students might draw “wrong” conclusions just by considering alternative explanations for what appears (even to many brilliant thinkers) to be design in nature. Galileo, because of the theological implications of his heliocentric view of the universe, got in trouble with the scientific establishment of his day. Apparently, members of the scientific establishment of Texas want to limit students’ critical thinking about the cause(s) of life, to exclude any notion of design and by implication a designer, because they too do not like the theological implications. They want to hide their belief system behind a smoke screen of claiming that only theirs is “pure” science.
Will Texas science teachers, like Galileo, be put under house arrest for what Francis Q. Eberle, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, describes in your article as “wander[ing] into other areas”? Perhaps having ruled out “intelligence” in nature, some scientific organizations would also like to eliminate it from the classroom.
Lenoir City, Tenn.
A version of this article appeared in the April 29, 2009 edition of Education Week as Do Texas Science Standards Hinder Critical Thinking?