[xmca] “strengths and weaknesses”

From: Michael Boatright <michaelboatright who-is-at gmail.com>
Date: Fri Jun 06 2008 - 12:17:00 PDT

 [image: The New York Times] <http://www.nytimes.com/> [image: Printer
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June 4, 2008
 Opponents of Evolution Adopting a New Strategy By LAURA BEIL

DALLAS — Opponents of teaching evolution, in a natural selection of sorts,
have gradually shed those strategies that have not survived the courts. Over
the last decade, creationism has given rise to "creation science," which
became "intelligent design," which in 2005 was banned from the public school
curriculum in Pennsylvania by a federal judge.

Now a battle looms in
science textbooks that teach evolution, and the wrestle for control
seizes on three words. None of them are "creationism" or "intelligent
design" or even "creator."

The words are "strengths and weaknesses."

Starting this summer, the state education board will determine the
curriculum for the next decade and decide whether the "strengths and
weaknesses" of evolution should be taught. The benign-sounding phrase, some
argue, is a reasonable effort at balance. But critics say it is a new
strategy taking shape across the nation to undermine the teaching of
evolution, a way for students to hear religious objections under the heading
of scientific discourse.

Already, legislators in a half-dozen states — Alabama, Florida, Louisiana,
Michigan, Missouri and South Carolina — have tried to require that
classrooms be open to "views about the scientific strengths and weaknesses
of Darwinian theory," according to a petition from the Discovery Institute,
the Seattle-based strategic center of the intelligent design movement.

"Very often over the last 10 years, we've seen antievolution policies in
sheep's clothing," said Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science
Education, a group based in Oakland, Calif., that is against teaching

The "strengths and weaknesses" language was slipped into the curriculum
standards in Texas to appease creationists when the State Board of Education
first mandated the teaching of evolution in the late 1980s. It has had
little effect because evolution skeptics have not had enough power on the
education board to win the argument that textbooks do not adequately cover
the weaknesses of evolution.

Yet even as courts steadily prohibited the outright teaching of creationism
and intelligent design, creationists on the Texas board grew to a near
majority. Seven of 15 members subscribe to the notion of intelligent design,
and they have the blessings of Gov. Rick
a Republican.

What happens in Texas does not stay in Texas: the state is one of the
country's biggest buyers of textbooks, and publishers are loath to produce
different versions of the same material. The ideas that work their way into
education here will surface in classrooms throughout the country.

" 'Strengths and weaknesses' are regular words that have now been drafted
into the rhetorical arsenal of creationists," said Kathy Miller, director of
the Texas Freedom Network, a group that promotes religious freedom.

The chairman of the state education board, Dr. Don McLeroy, a dentist in
Central Texas, denies that the phrase "is subterfuge for bringing in

"Why in the world would anybody not want to include weaknesses?" Dr. McLeroy

The word itself is open to broad interpretation. If the teaching of
weaknesses is mandated, a textbook might be forced to say that evolution has
an "inability to explain the Cambrian Explosion," according to the group
Texans for Better Science Education, which questions evolution.

The Cambrian Explosion was a period of rapid diversification that evidence
suggests began around 550 million years ago and gave rise to most groups of
complex organisms and animal forms. Scientists are studying how it unfolded.

Evolution as a principle is not disputed in the scientific mainstream, where
the term "theory" does not mean a hunch, but an explanation backed by
abundant observation, and where gaps in knowledge are not seen as grounds
for doubt but points for future understanding. Over time, research has
strengthened the basic tenets of evolution, especially as advances in
molecular genetics have allowed biologists to read the history recorded in
the DNA of animals and plants.

Yet playing to the American sense of fairness, lawmakers across the country
have tried to require that classrooms be open to all views. The Discovery
Institute has provided a template for legislators to file "academic freedom"
bills, and they have been popping up with increasing frequency in
statehouses across the country. In Florida, the session ended last month
before legislators could take action, while in Louisiana, an
academic-freedom bill was sent to the House of Representatives after passing
the House education committee and the State Senate.

In Texas, evolution foes do not have to win over the entire Legislature,
only a majority of the education board; they are one vote away.

Dr. McLeroy, the board chairman, sees the debate as being between "two
systems of science."

"You've got a creationist system and a naturalist system," he said.

Dr. McLeroy believes that Earth's appearance is a recent geologic event —
thousands of years old, not 4.5 billion. "I believe a lot of incredible
things," he said, "The most incredible thing I believe is the Christmas
story. That little baby born in the manger was the god that created the

But Dr. McLeroy says his rejection of evolution — "I just don't think it's
true or it's ever happened" — is not based on religious grounds. Courts have
clearly ruled that teachings of faith are not allowed in a science
classroom, but when he considers the case for evolution, Dr. McLeroy said,
"it's just not there."

"My personal religious beliefs are going to make no difference in how well
our students are going to learn science," he said.

Views like these not only make biology teachers nervous, they also alarm
those who have a stake in the state's reputation for scientific exploration.
"Serious students will not come to study in our universities if Texas is
labeled scientifically backward," said Dr. Dan Foster, former chairman of
the department of medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical
Center at Dallas.

"I'm an orthodox Christian," Dr. Foster said, "and I don't want to say that
Christianity is crazy." But science, not scripture, belongs in a classroom,
he said. To allow views that undermine evolution, he said, "puts belief on
the same level as scientific evidence."

Dr. Foster is a veteran of the evolution wars. He met with Mr. Perry in 2003
when the "strengths and weaknesses" argument last appeared, and more
recently he worked to oppose an application by the Institute for Creation
Research, which supports the teaching of creationism, to award graduate
degrees in the state. (It was rejected on April 23, but the institute has
said it will appeal.)

This time around, however, scientists like Dr. Foster see more reason for
worry. Although the process might drag on till next spring, a
state-appointed committee of science educators has already begun to review
the curriculum requirements. Although the state education board is free to
set aside or modify their proposals, committee members will recommend that
the "strengths and weaknesses" phrase be removed, said Kevin Fisher, a
committee member who is against the teaching of creationism.

"When you consider evolution, there are certainly questions that have yet to
be answered," said Mr. Fisher, science coordinator for the Lewisville
Independent School District in North Texas.

But, he added, "a question that has yet to be answered is certainly
different from an alleged weakness."

Mr. Fisher points to the flaws in Darwinian theory that are listed on an
anti-evolution Web site, strengthsandweaknesses.org, which is run by Texans
for Better Science Education.

"Many of them are decades old," Mr. Fisher said of the flaws listed.
"They've all been thoroughly refuted."
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Received on Fri Jun 6 12:18 PDT 2008

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