Wedge Salad

In their famous policy paper, “The Wedge,” [1] the founders of the modern Intelligent Design Creationism movement stated their political and social action plan for the United States:

  • In Phase 1, entitled “Research, Writing, and Publication,” the authors state that “… [they] are supporting vital writing and research at the sites most likely to crack the materialist edifice.”
  • In Phase 2, entitled “Publicity and Opinion Making,” the authors state that “… the primary purpose … is to prepare the popular reception of our ideas … we seek to build up a popular base of support among our natural constituency, namely Christians.”
  • In Phase 3, entitled “Cultural Confrontation and Renewal,” the authors state that “Once our research and writing have had time to mature, and the public prepared for the reception of design theory, we will move forward toward direct confrontation with the advocates of materialist science … [and] pursue legal assistance in response to resistance to the integration of design theory into public science curricula.”

Shivers down your spine yet? You should be terrified. Science is not about “confrontation and renewal” – it’s about building a reliable body of knowledge about the natural world, uncolored by personal belief. That requires the long and repetitious scientific method, not “legal assistance” to force ideas into the public sphere. So . . . how’s it going for the ID/C movement? An  article by a math professor from UT-El Paso, laden with pseudoscience, bad logic, and poor argumentation, is a snapshot of how it’s going for them . . . and it’s not good.

Continue reading “Wedge Salad”

Texas Science Textbook Adoption: A Glimpse into Anti-Science Forces in Texas

 

Some Texas Education Assocation (TEA) textbook reviewers are giving negative reviews to good science texts based on poor reasoning, misunderstanding of science, and in at least one case an outright falsehood. What happens now? Photo from Ref. 9.
Some Texas Education Agency (TEA) textbook reviewers are giving negative reviews to good science texts based on poor reasoning, misunderstanding of science, and in at least one case an outright falsehood. What happens now? Photo from Ref. 9.

What is science and why should I care about it?

Science is a reliable, reproducible, and verifiable process by which facts, and explanations of those facts, are established. The outcome of the scientific method is a useful and universally applicable framework of knowledge about the natural world. Knowledge gleaned from the scientific method has extended the human lifespan by a factor of two in just the last 100 years; it has enabled the development of radical technologies, such as electricity, computers, aerospace engineering, vaccines, medical imaging, the world wide web, and the global positioning system (GPS), also in just over 100 years; it has helped us to understand our humble place in the cosmos . . . we contemplative bipeds mostly trapped at the bottom of an ocean of air, confined to the surface of a tiny, pale blue dot floating in the vastness of space. [many thanks to Carl Sagan]

Why is Texas at all relevant to American science education?

Texas is a large textbook market for publishers. The review of proposed science textbooks therefore affects publishers’ choices about what books to sell nationwide. Bad reviews for textbooks in Texas can force publishers to change, water down, or not sell certain texts. What happens in Texas can affect much of U.S. public school science education.

What is happening in Texas?

Elements of the Texas State Board of Education seem hell-bent on changing the definition of science for all Texas students. The kinds of alterations that are proposed would equate science with religion or magic, and open the door to ways of thinking that are, by their construction, non-reproducible, non-universal, non-methodological, and therefore capable of producing no useful knowledge. Such a trajectory aims to set back our species, which has for so long climbed from the darker world behind to a world ahead that is more brightly lit by intelligence, understanding, and discovery. The anti-science forces that form a key part of the current Texas Education Agency’s (TEA’s) textbook review panels are a good example of what I mean.

In a press release [1] from the Texas Freedom Network (TFN), jointly released with the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), we heard today that textbook reviews for proposed science texts in Texas public schools have finally become available through the use of the state’s Public Information Act. First, it is sad that this review, carried out by a public body, had to be obtained through such a request. That is already a bleak sign for an ostensibly public process.

In the press release, TFN and NCSE state:

Ideologues appointed to official state review teams are pressuring publishers to weaken instruction on evolution and climate change in new high school biology textbooks up for adoption in Texas this year, documents obtained by the Texas Freedom Network reveal. The textbooks, once adopted, could be used in the state’s public schools for a decade.

The documents show that reviewers made ideological objections to coverage related to evolution and climate change in textbooks from at least seven publishers, including several of the nation’s biggest publishing houses. Failing to obtain a review panel’s top rating makes it harder for publishers to sell their textbooks to school districts or can even lead the State Board of Education (SBOE) to reject the textbook altogether. [1]

What is the evidence?

What is the evidence that backs up the claims made in the TFN and NCSE press releases? One need only look through the documents [2] made available by the Public Information Act request to answer this question.

For instance, in the review of the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt “Texas Biology Print/Digital Solution,” we find the following review team:

  • David Zeiger
  • Karen Beathard
  • Mary Kay Johnston
  • Jimmy Gollihar
  • Cynthia Ontiveros
  • Walter Bradley

In her overall comments on the textbook, Karen Beathard writes:

I understand the National Academy of Science’s strong support of the theory of evolution. At the same time, this is a theory. An an educator, parent and grandparent, I feel very firmly that “creation science” based on Biblical principles should be incorporated into evey [sic] Biology book that is considered for adoption. Students should have the opporunity [sic] to use their critical thinking skills to weigh the evidence between evolution and “creation science.”

First of all, it’s embarrassing that a textbook reviewer shows extremely poor attention to spelling in their own comments; the irony is certainly not lost on me, but I find it a brutally frightful thing that the referee’s own two-sentence critique wasn’t even run through a spell checker before entering the public record. It’s even more embarrassing when we learn more about Karen Beatard – she’s a Senior Lecturer in Texas A&M’s Department of Nutrition and Food Science, nominally tasked (by her own self-description as an “educator”) with educating students.

Second, Ms. Beathard uses an argument fallacy to initiate her own argument. If she really cared about critical thinking, she would learn that argument fallacies demonstrate a LACK of critical thinking – an inattention to the difference between good quality and poor quality arguments. The use of argument fallacies is a sure sign of a weak or indefensible position, as anyone learns in even the most basic critical thinking course. Her mistake is known as “Equivocation” – in this case, she uses the word “theory” to imply scientific theory, but actually through her use demonstrates that she means “opinion.” She tries to make the two meanings equivalent, deliberately leaving vague her true definition. A scientific theory is a strong, well-tested explanation of facts that incorporates facts, tested hypotheses, inferences, and laws. A “theory” in the popular usage (which is how she uses it), means “opinion” – no better than a guess. Shame on you, Karen, for demonstrating exactly the kind of lack of critical thinking skills that you then demand for students in your second sentence.

Third, somebody needs to inform Karen that teaching creation science in public schools is a violation of a now well-established line of Supreme Court rulings that clearly state that “Creation Science” is the same as “religion.” Public schools cannot teach it as science because it would then be an establishment of religion by a public institution, which is a clear violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. What she is demanding of the publisher is ILLEGAL, a violation of established constitutional law.

There is no evidence for any of the claims of creationism, so what she calls for in her second sentence is impossible for anyone – scientist or science textbook publisher – to deliver.

And who is Karen Beathard? Is she a research biologist with a Ph.D. in the field, giving her the credentials to understand what it means to understand the world through biology? No. She is a Texas A&M University Senior Lecturer in their nutrition science program [3]. She holds only a Master of Science in Nutritional Science [4] and no higher degrees; she is a registered and licensed dietitian in the State of Texas, according to information gleaned from her Texas A&M page. That certainly qualifies her to tell people how to balance their food needs with their nutritional or lifestyle parameters; it doesn’t qualify her to judge biological science, and it certainly hasn’t prepared her for critical thinking as applied to distinguishing a good argument from a poor one, or even science and non-science. This is not a person upon whose judgement we should rely for sound science education information regarding biology.

She also writes in other comments in the document:

While I understand the theory of evolution and its wide acceptance, there should be inclusion of the “creation model” based on the Biblical view of history. [5]

The Bible is not a science textbook, something she would do well to remember. It requires no evidence for its claims . . . which is the whole point of religion. Science demands falsifiability, religion demands faith. There is no overlap.

Other examples – utter lies in referee comments

I was more stunned by this gem, from Richard White, the SOLE reviewer of the McGraw-Hill book, “Texas Glencoe Biology Online Student Edition.”

Text neglects to tell students that no transitional fossils have been discovered. The fossil record can be interpreted in other ways than evolutionary with equal justification. Text should ask students to analyze and compare alternative theories. The statement that there are hundreds of thousands of transitional fossils is simply not true. Moreover, those fossils that are considered transitional are often subjects of disagreement among biologists.

The first sentence is an outright lie. Either this person is ignorant or a great deceiver, but either way the first sentence is a bold-faced denial of simple fact. Walk through any decent Natural History Museum anywhere in the world and you’ll see the transitional fossils laid out for all to see (and those are just the ones on display – we know about many, many, many more than that).

The second sentence is a reasoning fallacy. Yes, there are always other ways to explain the fossil record . . . but the ONLY one that has withstood the bloodbath of experimental science is Natural Selection. It’s withstood over 150 years of scientific onslaught, only to stand confirmed each time. There are no scientific alternative theories of nature; there are religious claims, but those are either untestable or demonstrably false by scientific testing (e.g. the Noah flood narrative, debunked for hundreds of years). There are no alternative scientific theories to compare to Natural Selection; implying otherwise is, at best, ignorant, and at worst is a lie.

The fourth sentence repeats the lie from the first sentence.

The fifth sentence is also a lie. Only a tiny, tiny, tiny number of active, publishing, peer-reviewed biologists would make claims that there is such a disagreement; the overwhelming majority of active, publishing, peer-reviewed biologists are convinced by the evidence that transitional forms exist not only by inspection, but by detailed examination. That fact has led to the creation of new, useful knowledge; the opposite view, that such transitions are a source of disagreement, leads nowhere and generates no useful knowledge. It’s an opinion, one counter to the evidence, and thus dangerous and useless.

Richard White apparently made SO many general comments that they couldn’t even be pasted into the spreadsheet that contains the assessment. We actually DON’T have the bulk of his comments, apparently, in the formal documents! There is a comment explaining this in the first page of the spreadsheet.

And who is Richard White? He was appointed by Gail Lowe, the chair of the Texas State Board of Education in 2011 [7]. He holds a B.S. in Electrical Engineering, a Masters in Engineering, and a Masters in Business Administration – in other words, no significant scientific research credentials at all. He holds no experience or degrees in education. He worked at Dell until 2012, and now is the FP&A manager at Bazaarvoice [8]. Not exactly shining science textbook review credentials, especially for biology, where he has absolutely no record of experience at all. This is not a person upon whose judgement we should rely for sound science education information regarding biology.

Conclusions

These documents, obtained about a public process by use of the state’s Public Information Act, reveal that some creationist textbook reviewers are providing bad reviews for biology texts with no foundation in science – not in fact, not in truth, not in method, and not in substance. They are, in at least one case, outright lying in their review; in another, we see the application of poor writing and even poorer reasoning and argument skills. It is ironic that these reviewers call for more critical thinking in children, when they themselves demonstrate none of it.

These document shed a worrying light on the review process. Will these reviews, made about books produced by very reputable textbook publishers, cause revisions that stifle scientific information while encouraging doors to be opened to nonsense? That’s the road that these reviewers have started us down in Texas; what happens next depends on too many factors to make clear predictions.

[1] http://www.tfn.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=7651

[2] http://www.tfn.org/site/PageNavigator/issues_science_2013_science_review_documents.html

[3] http://nfs.tamu.edu/facultystaff/faculty/beathard-karen/

[4] https://www.dietitiancentral.com/rd/rd_detail.cfm?id=397&zipcode=77845&county=&state=TEXAS

[5] http://www.tfn.org/site/DocServer/Houghton_Mifflin_Harcourt_Bio_Review_2014.xlsx?docID=4065

[6] http://www.tfn.org/site/DocServer/Houghton_Mifflin_Harcourt_Bio_Review_2014.xlsx?docID=4065

[7] http://tfninsider.org/2011/05/13/creationists-appointed-to-science-review-panels/

[8] http://www.linkedin.com/in/rickedwhite

[9] http://www.flickr.com/photos/albertogp123/5843032561/sizes/m/in/photolist-9Uk51H-7AJKcj-d6bVsA-ciopuQ/

Hotter than hell (2012 edition)

Too darn hot. This was taken in Washington DC (from Ref. 4). When I landed in DC just a week ago, returning from Europe, it was 99F outside – almost as hot as in Texas, and far more humid.

Last summer, it was hotter than hell in Texas. We nearly broke the all-time record for most consecutive days over 100F. We missed it by a mere one day, which – as far as I am concerned – is a statistical fluke. Remember that the winter of 2011 was termed “Snowpocalypse,” and less-responsible media outlets were calling it the “end of climate change.” They seemed, back then, to have missed the meaning of the word “change.” Global climate disruption, a more accurate phrase that describes the  whole phenomenon, is expected to cause the extremes of cold and hot to grow more extreme, while also accompanied by an increased frequency of extreme phenomena. Such phenomena would include blizzards (due to the increased concentration of water vapor in the air), hurricanes, tornadoes, and thunderstorms, as well as droughts.

The summer of 2011 was the hot answer to the winter  “Snowpocalypse.” Both of these were phenomena in-line with the predictions of human-induced climate disruption. I thought it would be useful to once again review the NASA GISS data, satellite temperature data collected routinely by NASA and made publicly available for viewing [1].

Last year, in a post entitled “Revisiting the end of climate change,” [2] I discussed the buzz over the extreme snow of the winter of 2011 and the extreme drought of the summer of 2011. At the time, I did not have access to the full 2011 summer of data from the NASA GISS satellite. However, now that more than a year has passed we can easily get the temperature data from 2011 and compare to the average of temperatures from 1951-1980 (a typical period from which climatologists take a running average in order to compare historical temperatures).

The maps for the springs (March-May) of 2011 and 2012 are below (top row). We can see (top row, left) that the U.S. and Europe both experienced average temperatures in Spring, 2011, that were almost 4F HIGHER than the average of 1950-1981. Similarly, we can see the temperature data from the same period in 2012 and in the same scale (temperature relative to the average between 1951-1980). Worse, the high temperatures now spread MUCH further across the U.S. Nearly the entire U.S. experienced spring temperatures that were 1-4F HIGHER than the average between 1951-1980. This is backed up by other data from NOAA, which reports that tens of thousands of temperature records have been broken across the U.S. in 2012 [3]. All of this is consistent with the patterns predicted by climatologists looking at the trends in  temperature, moisture, and climate.

We can then look at last summer’s (June-August) temperature data and compare to the numbers from June of this year (bottom row). Again, the trend is clear. Last summer (bottom left), the heat wave was mostly contained in the South and Southwest of the U.S.; this year, it’s more widespread (at least, as of June).

Water use has become a larger issue in the Southwest. Jodi and I installed a rain barrel in the spring so that we could store rainfall water for use on non-eating plants in our yard (flowers, vines, shrubs, etc.). The water restrictions are still in place in Texas, and we wanted to stay ahead of the restrictions by stockpiling water. This has worked really well; better than expected, in fact. We actually don’t have enough storage capacity for the amount of spring rainfall we received, so we plan to expand water storage as we can afford to.

I wish we had the money to do something about our A/C. For instance, I’d love to run the water condenser drain, not to the sink drain (its current target), but to the water barrels outside. I’d also like to power the A/C by other means, such as batteries fed by solar panels. But Texas is not quite there yet on accepting such technology in residential settings, and we don’t have money for a legal fight.

Will next year be hotter? Who can say? Money is good that it won’t get suddenly cooler, although statistically that could happen (there is always a chance for a temperature fluctuation in a given year… that’s why weather is not the same as climate).  We’re erring on the side of trying to increase conservation. Since President Obama has foregone leadership on the climate issue, something for which I am not ready to forgive him, it seems like it’s up to ordinary citizens to set policy in their homes until a national policy can be written to help offset greenhouse gas pollution.

 

[1] http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/maps/

[2] http://steve.cooleysekula.net/blog/2011/07/23/revisiting-the-end-of-global-climate-change/

[3] http://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2012/0703/Why-has-2012-been-the-hottest-year-on-record-in-the-US

[4] http://www.flickr.com/photos/afagen/1032865385/

From the Texas Freedom Network: 2011 Anti-science Quotes

Fresh from the Texas Freedom Network (TFN), here are their favorite anti-science quotes of the year: http://tfninsider.org/2011/12/26/2011-in-quotes-the-war-on-science/. By “favorite,” I of course mean the quotes that probably ensaddened the staff at TFN.

TFN ” . . . is a nonpartisan, grassroots organization of more than 50,000 religious and community leaders. Based in Austin, the Texas Freedom Network acts as the state’s watchdog, monitoring far-right issues, organizations, money and leaders.” (http://www.tfn.org/site/PageServer?pagename=TFN_homepage)