Thursday, November 20, 2008

slam dunk at the State Board of Education

A man of sincerity is less interested in defending the truth than in stating it clearly, for he thinks that if the truth can be clearly seen it can very well take care of itself.

-Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island.

I just got home from Austin after a very long day at the State Board of Education hearing. Testimony on science TEKS didn't even start until about 3:45pm, and I spoke about 6pm, about halfway through the speakers. Something like 92 people signed up to testify - overwhelmingly scientists and science advocates. I think in the first 4 hours only 3 creationists spoke. This was a very different situation from in 2003 when I think it was about 60-40 (60% science advocates, 40% creationists). However that hearing was about textbooks, was more widely publicized, and intelligent design proponents flew in from Seattle, and evolution advocates from California. It was a bit more of a media circus.

This year, they are revising the TEKS, which occurs every 10 years. They had a panel of scientists and science teachers who came up with a new version of the TEKS, and it was posted online Sept 15 here. These were pretty good. Then Monday, 2 days before the hearing, they posted a "new" version which had stealthily snuck back in the "strengths and limitations" (formerly "strengths and weaknesses") language which has been in the TEKS for 20 years but it has increasingly been seen and used as a possible place for those opposed to evolution to insert a wedge to criticize the theory - so was removed by the panel in the first (Sep 15) version.

This is the problem with that language. Despite hysterical claims that science advocates and "evolutionists" are trying to prevent academic freedom, the reality is that analysis and criticism of scientific theories belongs in the halls of academia, in the laboratory, and among those scientists with enough know-how and expertise to know what they're critiquing and analyzing. It is not something that middle or high school students are educated enough or equipped to be able to adequately discuss the merits of a theory. I think it would be useful for students to debate or discuss the evolution-creation controversy but NOT in the science classroom, but in a cultural studies, religion, or social studies course, and because of the controversy this would need to be developed in a textbook or textbooks that could present the information in a non-biased manner.

I wrote my testimony a couple days ago. However, during the hearing I got so absolutely disgusted at the behavior of the creationist board members that I added a paragraph to my testimony and called them out on their lies. In a repeat of the antics in 2003, which will be covered in my book, these Board members questioned people just for the sake of making their own points, putting people on the spot to answer questions outside of the testimony-givers realms of expertise and then fail to ask questions of actual scientific experts. They often asked questions of the young people, and those few creationists who agreed with them. Also, three creationist board members in particular, Terri Leo, Gail Lowe, Ken Mercer, and Barbara Cargill - repeatedly denied that the strengths and limitations language and their various changes on the November TEKS update had anything to do with religion. Sure. Whatever.

This is how it went when I gave my testimony.

I open with the same paragraph I wrote and posted previously, giving my background as a Christian and evolutionary biologist, mom, and former college biology instructor. Then I added something like this (it was written down but I spoke extemporaneously so it veered a bit):

Despite what the creationist members of the Board say - Ms Lowe, Ms Leo, Ms Cargill, Ms Dunbar, Mr Mercer, Dr McLeroy and others - everybody in the nation knows that this is absolutely a religious battle, that your dislike of evolution and naturalism and any changes to the TEKs that are supported by the Discovery Institute are religiously motivated. Kitzmiller vs Dover clearly showed that ID and these issues are religious in nature. For you to sit there and tell everyone it is not smacks of arrogance and deliberate willful deception. In other words, lying. I know who the Father of Lies...

At which point Chairman McLeroy interrupts me to say, flustered, "We don't say that word here. You can't say that word."

I look at him, confused.

"Lies. You can't say lies."

"I can't say the words lies?" I ask, incredulous.

So I continue, not finishing the sentence that I was going to say, which was "I know who the Father of Lies is, and it's not Jesus and it's not God." I then continue on with my asking them why they are willing to play dice with our taxpayer money to risk a lawsuit, and why they're willing to play dice with our children's future, and kept to the rest of the testimony I'd written - but because of the time McLeroy took away from me by interrupting me I was not able to read my closing few sentences.

A reporter from the Fort Worth Star Telegram came over to get my testimony and hey, look at this, he quoted me in the article, Evolution proponents descend on State Board of Education.

Last I will say that McLeroy made a demand that nobody clap, hoot, holler, or talk during people's testimony because he and the Board members wanted to be able to listen to those who spoke and it was a show of respect for those who took the time to come and testify. And for the most part this was respected by the audience. However I was not shown the same courtesy by the Board! During my testimony, Terri Leo repeatedly laughed and talked over her shoulder to someone (I think he was a creationist/ID person giving her questions and comments about the testimonies). The laughter and talking by the Board was loud enough to be picked up on the live feed that was streamed from the TEA website because someone emailed me commenting on it.

I felt very good about my testimony afterwards! Got a lot of positive comments and nods from the audience as I finished. I had prayed right before I got up to speak, and had been a bit nervous but I found a calm before going up there and I spoke my truth firmly and clearly. I think it is simply essential to truth to call a spade a spade. These people have their right to their opinions, for sure, but lying to the public about the religious nature of their opposition to evolution is simply ridiculous! EVERYONE knows that the battle against evolution is all about religion! ID proponents may do their best to disguise that and lie about it, but anybody who does even a minute bit of research knows the truth. It's really not that hard to figure out. There was some fantastic testimony given and I was super gratified to hear at least 3 or 4 pastors get up and speak in favor of evolution and the science-advocate position that supports the Sep 15 version, and says get rid of the "strengths and limitations" language. Hallelujah!

I even got my photo on the Houston Chronicle Evosphere live blog from the event (the one I have above). Check it out. And check out this great quiz in the Texas Monthly, "How Well Do You Know Your State Board of Education" - truly frightening.

My original testimony, which was modified by the inclusion of the above-mentioned paragraph:

I’m here to testify as a Christian who is educated as a biologist, and a mom of 2 middle school aged kids – one of whom goes to public school and one who goes to a private Episcopal school, which by the way teaches evolution alongside the Christian faith. I have taught biology at the college level, and I currently work as a freelance science writer. In fact, I am working on a book on making peace between evolution and Christianity which will be published in 2010 and will include some details from this very hearing.

I have 2 quick points I want to make, followed by some more general comments. 1st, I think it’s highly unethical that you did not even put the final version of the revised TEKs online until Monday afternoon – knowing that most people would not even have a chance to look at them, 2 days before the hearing. 2nd, on TEKS C3A. I support the Sep 15th version of TEKS C. 3. (A) which says, “analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing;”

The Nov revision introduces the phrase “strengths and limitations” which is no different from the flawed “strengths and weaknesses” argument that has been roundly rejected by scientists. Although I understand the TEKS do not anywhere explicitly discuss Intelligent Design, this “strengths & limitations” language is pushed exclusively by religiously-motivated opposition to evolution, and is used as a wedge to allow teachers to cast aspersions on evolution in classrooms.

My first question to you - members of the State Board of Education – Are you willing to play dice with our taxpayer money on the possibility of costly court battle by introducing religiously motivated language in Texas science standards? The 2005 Kitzmiller vs Dover School Board case cost Dover over $1million.

My 2nd question to you – are you willing to play dice with our children’s education as our nation’s science lead deteriorates? In 2005 the National Academy of Sciences report “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” decried our nation’s deteriorating science education and critical thinking skills. It stated, “Having reviewed trends in the United States and abroad, the committee is deeply concerned that the scientific and technical building blocks of our economic leadership are eroding at a time when many other nations are gathering strength.”

Evolution does not threaten religious belief – including Christianity - except if you read Genesis absolutely literally, which most Christian denominations do not. The Presbyterian, Episcopal, Methodist and Catholic Churches - among others - formally accept an evolving Creation. Nearly 70% of our nation’s founding fathers were either Presbyterian, Episcopal or Congregationalist – (a denomination which later became part of the Presbyterian Church and was associated with founding Harvard Yale and Dartmouth). Our Founding Fathers very much appreciated both logical, scientific reason and religious faith as compatible but also demanded – as Thomas Jefferson said – a wall of separation between church and state. The majority of our nation’s 43 Presidents also have hailed from Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Methodist denominations (over 62%), all of which believe that Genesis is not a divinely dictated textbook. America’s Founding Fathers deeply respected religion and its values, but they equally valued science and reason.

So to summarize, I urge you as elected members of this Board who are accountable to the public: Do not harm the bedrock of science and reason upon which our nation was founded by weakening Texas science standards with the “limitations” language. It’s inclusion will only weaken science education, our state, our children’s future and the ability to create brilliant and critically thinking minds in our state and our nation.

Here's an MP3 of my testimony, where you can hear them laughing when I say their names, and McLeroy interrupting me.

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