Thursday, 26 March 2009

Texas State Board of Education and Science Standards

Panda's Thumb reports that fifty scientific organisations have sent a message to the Texas State Board of Education telling them that their "Strengths and Weaknesses" passage is a load of rubbish.

But this isn't about the number of people/organisations who support an idea or set of standards (I'm looking at you, you list making IDiots), but instead what the overall message is.

In this case it's "don't teach your children crap because it's bad for Texas."

Anyway, at present the SBoE is voting on whether their "strengths and weaknesses" and other anti-science phrases is made part of their science standards, or as they will be known in the future "science" "standards".

The Houston Chronicle had liveblogged the discussion. Unfortunately for me I can only read about it becuase I don't know if I can find a copy of what was a live feed.

There was an opinion comment by McLeroy in the Austin American-Statesman (by the way McLeroy is the head of the SBoE) which has some very odd comments like this one:

The first step is to define science in a way that is satisfactory to both sides. Using new wording from the National Academy of Sciences, Texas' standards define science as "the use of evidence to construct testable explanations and predictions of natural phenomenon as well as the knowledge generated through this process."

This definition replaces the academy's 1999 language that was very controversial; it stated that science was "to provide plausible natural explanations for natural phenomena." The change from "natural explanations" to "testable explanations" is very significant. The old definition was inferior in that it undermined both the philosophy of the naturalist and the supernaturalist. By circular reasoning, the naturalist was prevented from using science to prove that "nature is all there is," and the supernaturalist was prevented from offering supernatural hypotheses. With the new definition, both the naturalist and the supernaturalist are free to make "testable" explanations. The debate can now shift from "Is it science?" to "Is it testable?"

I don't really see the point here. How exactly does the old phrase, with "natural explanations" mean that naturalists couldn't use science? I don't even see the supposed "circular reasoning" in the statement. It doesn't make any sense to me at all. His point on naturalists appears to be there just so he can try to give his point validity. The real point, as far as I can see, is his comment on supernaturalists offering supernatural hypotheses.

The thing is that in the end they haven't actually done anything, by his own admission the only reason why the changed it was to allow "supernaturalists", who are most likely the religious in this sense, to try and get their crap into science classes.

What I think makes it worse in this case is that he's gone and taken something from the National Academy of Sciences, which I believe is a very important body in the US regarding science, and has managed to utterly misunderstand the point they were making.

Those that believe in the supernatural won't be able to offer supernatural hypotheses using either definition of science. The latter because the supernatural is not testable, and therefore you can't actually construct testable hypotheses and in the case of the former because it is, by definition, not natural, so you could never use such hypotheses to "to provide plausible natural explanations for natural phenomena." See the use of the word "natural" there? No? Ok, nevermind...

The second statement was:

Once we have our observations, we can make a hypothesis. The controversial evolution hypothesis is that all life is descended from a common ancestor by unguided natural processes. How well does this hypothesis explain the data? A new curriculum standard asks Texas students to look into this question. It states: "The student is expected to analyze and evaluate the sufficiency or insufficiency of common ancestry to explain the sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record." It should not raise any objections from those who say evolution has no weaknesses; they claim it is unquestionably true.

So. Much. Wrongness.

For those playing at home you should know that evolution is only semi-random. Yes, all the stuff involving genes is essentially random. However evolution is not just genotypes and phenotypes. Using his hypothesis you see the flaw about "unguided natural processes". Usually when creationists say "unguided" they really mean "random". It's just that "unguided" sounds more scientific, it's the same choice of words that quack doctors use to convince the scientifically illiterate that their stuff is genuine.

If someone can care to show me that "unguided" is not used by creationists as a synonym for "random" please do so.

What he is ignoring are things like sexual selection, predation and environmental factors. All of which are non-random, and affect evolution.

Lastly, he isn't actually referring to evolution at all, but common descent.

And the way that they suggest that students learn about common descent? Something completely stupid.

"Here is a bunch of fossils. See how they don't show conclusively that everything is descended from one thing? Good. Now you see how evolution is wrong. No Bobby, don't look at that evidence over there that proves that it's right. No, we're only allowed to use the fossil record."

Frankly I couldn't care less about "weaknesses". As far as I can tell the real possible "weaknesses" are actually at a level that is far beyond the level that the students should be at. The reason people complain is because what is being suggested is so blatantly wrong. It's making children learn that something is wrong by only looking at a small subset of the evidence.

I don't really have too much to say about the meeting at present. The liveblog, which I linked to above, covers it really nicely.

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