Over 800 scientists in Texas have signed a statement to “encourage valid critical thinking and scientific reasoning by leaving out all references to ‘strengths and weaknesses’” of evolution – references, they say, that politicians “have used to introduce supernatural explanations into science courses.”
"Texas public schools should be preparing our kids to succeed in the 21st century, not promoting political and ideological agendas that are hostile to a sound science education," said David Hillis, a professor of integrative biology at the University of Texas at Austin, according to The Associate Press.
Hills is one of the state’s more than 400 science faculty members who have signed the “Scientists for a Responsible Curriculum in Texas Public Schools” statement, which also includes more than 430 signatures from other Texas scientists.
“We simply believe that students deserve the best science education in their Texas classrooms,” explains the 21st Century Science Coalition, which is spearheading the signature campaign.
At the heart of the matter are the current standards for the state's science curriculum, under which students are expected to "analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information."
Some of the Texas Board of Education’s committee members have asked the board to remove the "strengths and weaknesses" phrase as the board looked to update state science standards this past summer.
Among those requesting the board to drop the phrase is Kevin Fisher, a committee member who told the NY Times that questions left unanswered by evolution should not be regarded as its weaknesses.
Other critics include Texas Freedom Network, a group that has opposed state proposals for Bible classes and Bible textbooks in the past and is currently spearheading the “Stand Up for Science” campaign.
“It’s time for state board members to listen to classroom teachers and true experts instead of promoting their own personal agendas,” expressed TFN president Kathy Miller in a statement. “Our students can’t succeed with a 19th-century science education in their 21st-century classrooms. We applaud the science work groups for recognizing that fact.”
While there has been strong opposition against the standards’ current language, several board members have appeared to favor it, saying it maintains a balanced debate on evolution.
"Evolution is not fact. Evolution is a theory and, as such, cannot be proven," Board Vice Chairman David Bradley told The Houston Chronicle earlier this summer. "Students need to be able to jump to their own conclusions."
Bradley also dismissed concerns by critics over the board's intention to sneak religion into the classroom.
"The only thing that this board is going to do is ask for accuracy."
Barbara Cargill, the vice chair of the board's Committee on Instruction, said giving students the freedom to discuss both sides of evolution will ensure them a "well-rounded education."
"It prompts them to be critical thinkers, and it also helps them to respect the opinions of other students even if they disagree," she told the Chronicle.
Meanwhile, Discovery Institute, an intelligent design think tank, has rejected allegations that the group is using the "strength and weaknesses" rhetoric as a new strategy in pushing intelligent design in schools following the 2005 Dover case – when intelligent design was barred from being taught in Pennsylvania's Middle District public school science classrooms.
On the organization's blog site, staff member Robert Crowther pointed out that the "strengths and weaknesses" language was adopted by the Texas Board of Education over a decade ago, long before the Dover case, and that debate over it has been going on across the nation since then.
While the Discovery Institute has not yet issued comments regarding the current progress of the scientist signature campaign, Anika Smith, editor of the organization’s Evolution News & Views blog, has voiced her disapproval of the media’s coverage, singling out a recent AP article that gave no explanation for the signatories’ opposition to current language “except the unsupported claim that thoroughly examining Darwin's theory in the classroom is something only creationists do.”
“Actually, AP reporter Kelley Shannon is pretty sure that the whole thing is a creationist ploy to teach religion in our schools,” Smith wrote Wednesday.
The State Board of Education this fall will begin discussing new standards proposed by official Texas Education Agency work groups made up of teachers and academics nominated by State Board of Education members. It has tentatively set a deadline of March 2009 for final adoption.