Commentary: Stop creationists undermining school science

  • 18 June 2008
  • From New Scientist Print Edition. .
  • Lawrence Krauss

I BELIEVE in democracy as much as the next guy. But then, I wonder about the next guy.

Say that you are in charge of developing a state-wide high-school curriculum in French-language studies, and that you need the advice of a group of experts on how to put together the ideal programme. Is it better for officials to appoint these people, or for the public to vote on who they regard as the most attractive candidates for the job?

To put it another way, should you need minimum qualifications to be eligible to serve? Should you be required to know some French? Should you be disqualified if you openly profess that French is not a useful language, and that the curriculum should focus on Italian instead?

"Yes" is surely the sensible answer to the last three questions. Yet in the US, we are taking exactly the opposite approach in allowing elected officials who are both ignorant and biased to define the science curricula for public-school students.

The people taking decisions on school curricula seem ignorant of science

The most recent and blatant example of the sorry condition of state education boards comes from Texas, whose education board is now debating whether high-school texts should be required to discuss the "strengths and weaknesses of evolution".

These are the latest code words being promoted by PR central for Intelligent Design, aka the Discovery Institute in Seattle, in an attempt to undermine the teaching of evolution. (The same body also distributed a petition in various states to pressure schools to "teach the controversy" - its earlier slogan - in a campaign designed to suggest that evolution was somehow scientifically controversial.)

Whatever one may think about the possible merits of introducing the specious weaknesses of evolutionary biology into science classes, even if only to tear them down by demonstrating that they do not stand up to experimental evidence, the big problem is that the people taking decisions on these matters seem completely ignorant about science.

Take Don McLeroy, chairman of the state education board. A dentist from central Texas, he is also one of seven among the board's 15 members who back the notion of intelligent design, along with the state's governor, Rick Perry. McLeroy not only does not accept evolution, but also believes that the Earth is thousands, not billions, of years old. This alone makes him uniquely unqualified to judge any scientific curriculum. And with Texas being one of the biggest buyers of textbooks in the US, what happens there could influence the contents of books used across the country.

Texas is not unique in having a State Board of Ignorance. Another influential figure is Steve Abrams, a veterinarian and member of the state education board of Kansas. In 1999, he was the major force in getting evolution and big-bang cosmology removed from the state science curriculum, though that decision was later overturned. In 2005, as chair of the board, Abrams led his fellow young-Earth creationists in voting to make evidence against evolution part of the curriculum, and to change the definition of science to allow for supernatural explanations of events.

When public committees appraise existing knowledge in order to set educational standards, or report on the status of scientific knowledge for use in the public domain, the people involved should be required to demonstrate independent, relevant expertise. School board members should not be beholden to those who have elected them, nor should they represent political constituencies. They should instead be appointed by elected officials following thorough vetting and peer review.

The health of a modern society depends on the opportunities it provides its children through education. That's too important to be left to amateurs, much less enemies of knowledge.

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