Over at Bad Astronomy, Phil Plait has been doing a good job tracking the latest act in the depressingly long disaster flick known as Creationism. While many of the postings I have done here at Reality Base focus on broader views of what humans do in science and what they think of as spiritual endeavor, the ritual burning of science education going on in Texas demands as much illumination as possible. The details of the situation have been covered in a number of places, but here is the quick overview: The Texas State Board of Education is in the midst of deciding its science education standards. These are the specifications for what should be taught and what students are expected to know in the state of Texas. The board, which has far too many creationists on it, recently included reviews from representatives of the Discovery Institute, a front for the Intelligent Design "movement." This will ensure another sad attempt to get evolution labeled "just a theory" and present the creationists' non-science as an "alternative view." We have seen all of this before, of course. This case is particularly dangerous because in this review cycle, guidelines and textbook selections are reviewed together. The sad spectacle of a state’s public science education bureaucracy being hijacked by a religious viewpoint is bad enough, but it’s the textbooks that are the real problem. Texas is a big market for textbook publishers. The less scrupulous among them are willing to bend to market forces and downplay those aspects of biology that are considered troublesome (i.e. the foundational theory of evolution). I have written before about the schizophrenia of the creationists. They are willing to accept the fruits of science that ensure their quality of life and health, but feel free to reject those parts that conflict with their particular interpretation of their particular religion. Perhaps we should demand some consistency and ask that they hand in their cell phones and relinquish the use of antibiotics. The self-imposed blindness is maddening. These creationists are practicing religious intolerance in a nation founded on the opposite principle. The part of the story that does not get enough press, however, is the damage this does to the scientific and, hence, economic enterprise of our country. Students in countries we are bound to compete against are not being subjected to this pruning of the scientific tree. A 12-year-old interested in biology in India, China, or Germany is not being given half the story because some bullies in the community made it onto a school board. Worse, by striking at the roots of science education, they threaten the scientific enterprise of the nation—our greatest resource and the engine of our strength. These school board charades are a threat that must be confronted. In 1955 the federal government stepped into the long battle for racial equality in education, and the desegregation of schools began. That was a good idea. Maybe it's time for mandatory national standards of science education (which include evolution) to be determined by scientists, and not bullies.
Adam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester who studies star formation and stellar death using supercomputers. His new book, “The Constant Fire, Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate,” has just been published. He will be joining Reality Base to post an ongoing discussion of science and religion—you can read his previous posts here, and find more of his thoughts on science and the human prospect at the Constant Fire blog.