August 15, 2014

Battle in the Palmetto State: Creationists challenge evolution in new science standards

Our state has been the sight of several battles over creationism over the past few months. Embarrassingly so, in fact.

Starting at the beginning of the year, when a legislator went to bat with an eight year old third grader over the state fossil--and tried to include language from Genesis in the legislation--to a more recent fight that has played out over our science standards, the attacks on scientific thought in our state have been nearly ceaseless.

The standards fight is a long lived one. Originally, the standard was rejected. It was then reintroduced, with a caveat that students would craft arguments both for and against "Darwinian natural selection"--with the obvious purpose of introducing creationist tenets into the classroom through the "anti" column.

I'm sure they truly believed they were being sly.

The suggestion was, thankfully, rejected. However, a new compromise is just as deceptive.

Carrie Ellen Sager for the ACLU explains in her "2+2=5? Why South Carolina's Creationism Compromise Doesn't Add Up" post:
On Wednesday, the state board of education is set to consider a "compromise" amendment to the science standards. The proposed amendment is essentially an evolution disclaimer that would require schools to teach that evolution "is continually open to and subject to experimental and observational testing" and that "all theories may change as new scientific information is obtained." 
This may not sound like a big deal – scientific theories, unlike creationism, areconstantly being revised as we acquire new information – but singling out evolution for this disclaimer is actually part of a long creationist tradition of portraying evolution as "only a theory" – i.e. unreliable and not fact. After the Supreme Court ruled that schools couldn't teach creationism, creationists turned to attacking evolution instead. If students reject evolution, the creationist logic says, the only alternative is creationism.
So what's so bad here? The logic is sound--theories do change as new information is introduced. This is a basic tenet of science, one that we tend to tout as a benefit compared to religious beliefs that stagnate over the years.

The problem lies in the scope of the amendment. The only theory that we would be adding this clarification to would be evolution--when in fact evolution is but one scientific theory that we teach, and this statement is true of all of them.

Sager explains this beautifully:
Spreading misinformation isn't a compromise, it's a capitulation, and students in South Carolina deserve better. If a group of people wanted to teach 2+2=6, we wouldn't compromise by teaching that 2+2=5. Undermining evolution by denying its validity will leave South Carolina students ill-prepared for college and for scientific careers. And, more importantly, it violates the First Amendment.
I agree, but I also go beyond that. This additional language is entirely unnecessary if we are teaching science correctly. The scientific method itself would hold that we continually test, retest and adjust over the course of study. Singling out a specific theory is therefore unnecessary if we are doing our jobs and teaching the method and ways of scientific thought appropriately.

Thus the conclusion that they are only attempting to find backdoors into legally allowing creationism a foothold in science classrooms is the only remaining reasoning for this additional standard.

I am also, personally, furious at the way they have handled this matter so underhandedly. Cynthia Roldan of the Post and Courier explains:
The State Board of Education will vote Wednesday on newly written standards being touted as a compromise that encourages critical thinking, according to proponents. The problem is that the usual standards-writing procedure was not followed, and the Education Department was left out of the loop. 
In fact, the agency learned of the July 30 meeting - the date officials were to discuss the newly drafted language - at 5:27 p.m. July 23. By that time, new language had been drafted already. 
"Why would they (the Education Department) have to be involved?" asked Board Chairman Barry Bolen. "They don't approve the standards." 
The Education Department does not approve standards. But it is the agency tasked with writing education standards, and it had no involvement in the writing of the draft headed for the board's approval. The S.C. Education Oversight Committee invited the Education Department to provide input on the new language at its July 30 meeting.
 Why would the State Department of Education be involved when they don't approve the standards, you ask?

Well, because they write them, as Roldan points out. They write our standards...for our state. The original standards that were all adopted but for the one regarding evolution? Yeah, they wrote all of those. Every single damned one. That's their job. We have an entire department that we pay specifically to write standards for our schools. Yup.

So no, they don't approve them. They write them. Have I mentioned that?

Have I said yet that they, you know, write the standards? That's their job? That's what they do?

I might have mentioned it, I guess.

Overall, I am again embarrassed to be a South Carolinian.

And this is not an issue we can capitulate on. Keith Blanchard over at The Week expounds:
It's remarkable how poorly understood evolution is today — how easily "debated" it is — given that its rules have been in place at least since life on Earth began, and that the truth of it is easily demonstrated. In fact, the basic theory has been in a state of continuous reconfirmation since Darwin proposed it in 1859, with geology, biology, anthropology, carbon dating, Pangaea, and every dinosaur bone ever found providing a nonstop barrage of additional proof points.
 At a time when we need to be at our strongest scientifically, we simply cannot continue to argue over basic scientific theories. We need to teach strong, sound, verified science in our schools.

By questioning one theory to the point that we have in public schools, we manage to introduce doubt into the entire value of science. We undermine our entire population's scientific literacy.

And Blanchard makes a beautiful point on why understanding is important:
Evolution is nothing more than a fairly simple way of understanding what is unquestionably happening. You don't believe in it — you either understand it or you don't. But pretending evolution is a matter of faith can be a clever way to hijack the conversation, and pit it in a false duality against religion. And that's how we end up with people decrying evolution, even as they eat their strawberries and pet their dogs, because they've been led to believe faith can only be held in one or the other.
You either understand it or you don't.

And unfortunately, we are at the mercy of a state legislature that clearly don't understand it.

What a bunch of apes.

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