Friday, January 17, 2014

Creationism Versus Science Education

Texas has been a battleground state for some time now in the conflict between "creation science" and actual science. Much of the conflict has focused on textbook standards, because Texas is a large enough state to influence the kinds of books that are written and home to many evangelical Christians who support creationism. Creationists have tried to place majorities on education committees, but have been thwarted by legal rulings that teaching creationism in place of science is unconstitutional. Whether or not that's the case, attending a creationist school puts students at a severe disadvantage in terms of understanding everything from biology to medicine to just about any form of advanced technology.

Even though the Texas school board did wind up approving textbooks that support modern biology and evolutionary theory, charter schools are still allowed to choose other textbooks that may support creationism. Slate has an article up today about Responsive Education Solutions, a network of Texas, Arkansas, and Indiana charter schools with more than 17,000 students that is one of the worst offenders. Under the guise of "teaching critical thinking," the biology textbooks used by Responsive Ed schools "teach the controversy" by pointing out supposed flaws in evolutionary theory that have long been fully addressed by punctuated equilibrium and epigenetic models.

Last month, science won the day in the battle over textbooks, and Texas adopted texts that teach evolution. But schools don’t necessarily have to adhere to this list of textbooks. They can choose, as Responsive Ed does, to use alternative textbooks, which may teach creationism.

Policymakers must understand that on a fundamental level teaching creationism is still unconstitutional. The Texas Legislature could take action to regulate these charter schools. The state Senate Education Committee is currently investigating another charter program due to its ties to the Pelican Educational Foundation, which has been under FBI investigation for alleged financial improprieties and alleged sexual misconduct. Sen. Dan Patrick, chair of the Texas Senate Education Committee and a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, told the Austin American-Statesman that “legislative scrutiny is necessary to ensure quality in Texas charter schools.”

It’s high time for Patrick to give some legislative scrutiny to Responsive Ed. But in reality, he is a big fan of the program, which he “lauded in particular” at the Responsive Ed Charter Conference. It’s no wonder; he’s also a creationist. In a recent debate, Patrick said that he would help pass a law to allow creationism to be taught in public schools because, "We need to stand for what this nation was founded upon, which is the word of God.”

As something of an odd aside, one of the ways in which the Responsive Ed textbooks try to discredit evolutionary theory is to link it with social Darwinism. The text asks students, “With regards to social Darwinism, do you think humans who are not capable should be left to die out, or should they be helped?” which implies that the abandonment of those who are "less fit" by society is part of evolutionary theory. It is not, but what's odd about the whole thing is that social Darwinism is pretty much the exact political ideology of "Green Gospel" Christians who support creationism.

It is possible to make the argument that failing to understand how species evolve doesn't necessarily impede the ability of students to make a living or hinder them outside of careers in the biological sciences, but unfortunately this doesn't hold up because creationism is a case where the slippery slope is real. If you give these clowns an inch, they'll do everything they can to take more. Silly creationist beliefs don't stop with evolution.As an example of this, Salon has another article discussing some of the strange beliefs that show up in creationist textbooks.

#1 and #3 from the article, supposed examples of dinosaurs that still exist, in fact wouldn't discredit evolution even if they were real; #5, human footprints allegedly found with dinosaur tracks, isn't even accepted by Creation Museum operators Answers in Genesis; and #2, that the entire concept of nuclear fusion was invented by evolution scientists, is just utterly and completely bizarre. Finally, the catch-all "evolution has been discredited," #4, covers a whole set of baseless assertions in the "because we said so" category.

If a school wants to teach the creation story from Genesis I actually have no problem with it, so long as it's done in a religion class and not taught as science. Science is a method, not an ideology, despite creationists' claims to the contrary. It's not that there aren't biases in the scientific community; scientists are human beings just like everyone else and, for example, I think that bias against paranormal phenomena has slowed some important discoveries. But the point is that the goal of real science is to minimize those biases to the extent possible, whereas creationism is all about adhering to a fixed set of beliefs even in the face of contradictory evidence.

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