Keep Austin somewhat less weird

Lucky LaRue, Altoids That Bite, 2009. At the South Austin Popular Culture Center. This is the kind of weirdness we like. There are kinds not so likeable. Used with permission of the artist. Image source: redbubble.com

it hurts a bit that I’ve never been to weird Austin, Republic of Texas. Alas for me: Everyone I know who’s been there says it’s a fine weird town. But perhaps some in Austin should work to make it a bit less weird. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for weirdness. I would even call myself pro-weird. But there is a class of weirdness that doesn’t belong anywhere, even in Austin: creationist weirdness.

Texas has hard a tough time with creationist forces, with teachers who want to “teach the controversy” where there is none; with a governor who denies evolution, calling it a theory that’s “out there”; with a state school board that tries to tell science publishers how science works. They’ve had their battles, and so far they’ve turned out well. In fact, they thought it was over: In August, the Texas Freedom Network declared “A Final Victory for Science” in light of the adoption of first-rate supplemental materials for science educators.

Now it appears that science education in Texas may be in trouble again. According to a post published Monday by the National Center for Science Education, “At its most recent meeting, the Texas state board of education considered a proposed schedule on which new science textbooks would be adopted in 2013, in time for classroom use in 2014.”

What does this mean? According to the TFN, it means Texas could soon be dragged “back into the textbook wars over evolution.”

The fear is warranted. Earlier this year, when the relatively small-scale process of choosing supplementary materials was being conducted, concerted efforts were made to “correct” the adopted materials by a creationist on the review panel. Happily, the effort was stymied and the citizens of Texas retained their hold on real science education.

Or at least they retained their hold on real science textbooks. Good textbooks are a necessary but not sufficient condition for successful education of any kind. Also required are teachers who are not afraid to teach. And that is a far more difficult problem, and more widespread.

According to a study published by Science in January, only 28% of all biology teachers consistently teach evolution, 13% consistently teach creationism (intelligent design), and 60% waffle around in the middle somewhere, consistently failing to present evolution as the fully-established scientific theory it is. Among the 60% are those who “teach the controversy,” fooling kids into thinking that what is not science, is science; that science and opinion are interchangeable; and that there is scientific disagreement about evolution, when in fact there is none.

Bad textbooks are sometimes a problem. Teachers who do not understand science or are themselves creationists or are simply afraid are a deeper problem. Where does all of this start?

I’ll tell you: In our churches. Many churches are responsible for perpetuating the lie that evolution is scientifically controversial; many are responsible for painting science as intrinsically godless; many actively work against science education. But many more sit by in silence, not asking questions about evolution, thinking it doesn’t matter or being afraid of the answers.

Now for a little good news: earlier this year, the John Templeton Foundation put nearly one million of its dollars into local churches, with the goal of bringing science inside the church by empowering parishioners — mostly science professionals — who have personally reconciled the claims of science and their religious commitments. These churchgoers will be leading classes on evolution in their churches, advising church staffs on how to incorporate science into curriculum at all levels of instruction, holding forums in churches on a range of scientific topics, and generally bringing the excitement of modern science to congregations everywhere.

Including, I presume, Texas. Here’s to all those in Austin and in less weird cities across the country who are working on legislatures, on school boards, on faculties, and yes, even in churches, to end the tiresome war between science and religion.

Comment Pages

There are 12 Comments to "Keep Austin somewhat less weird"

  • Todd says:

    I’m fine with people teaching the controversy as long they also teach how we have effectively reconciled the controversy by finding hoards of evidence that only make sense in light of one of the competing theories.

    As you, Paul, know I teach scientific controversies all the time. Heliocentric versus geocentric, Aristotelian physics versus the law of inertia, the Kapteyn Universe versus Shapley’s Big Galaxy, Steady State versus Big Bang. These were all serious scientific controversies in their day, but they have been resolved. We now know that the evidence overwhelmingly favors one view over the other. Same with evolution. Evolution versus design WAS a serious controversy, back in the days of Darwin, Wallace, Lamarck, etc. But it isn’t any more (or for some time now) because the evidence has resolved the controversy.

    To teach that evolution versus design is STILL a controversy within science is much like noting that there was a recent conference in which the speakers promoted geocentrism, therefore the heliocentric versus geocentric controversy is still raging. It just isn’t. It’s done. It’s over. From a scientific perspective, heliocentrism beat geocentrism hands down.

    As a former resident of the great city of Austin, I’ll say that if it was up to the folks that LIVE in Austin there would be no need to worry about creationist textbooks being adopted in Texas. But it is up to the folks who WORK in Austin but don’t live there (the State Legislature). There is a tremendous difference between the views held by those who work in the State Capitol Building and those who live in the surrounding city.

    Also, let me say that I hope the Templeton Foundation was smart enough to send some of that cash in your direction!

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    • Paul says:

      Todd, unfortunately I didn’t get any of Sir John’s cash. I learned a few things and will be very ready next time around.

      P.

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  • Curtis says:

    Paul:

    it hurts more than you think. If you ever make it to Austin you will not want to come back. Full disclosure. I am from TX and now live in GA. You owe yourself the experience of freedom and energy that is Austin, TX. The community is not weird, It just knows how to breath.

    Rick Perry’s TX is an enigma in Austin. I grieved and still grieve the loss of what was once the spirit of the state.

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  • Tom Harkins says:

    Paul, you say, some deadbeats argue that “there is scientific disagreement about evolution, when in fact there is none.” Which “claims” of evolution are you talking about regarding which there is no disagreement? Is it the claim for “Lucy”? Is it the claim that, contrariwise, there must have been some thousands of differing genetic lines from “something-or-another” ancestors to the human race to cause that human race? Aren’t there quite a few controversies “in an amongst” the evolutionary camp? If so, then any PARTICULAR evolutionary claim must be open to question. Otherwise, we don’t have “science,” but rather “evolution-worship.”

    I guess what you mean to say is that it is clear that every single bit of what we see around us just has to have been accomplished by “evolutionary MECHANISM.” Whatever that is. Again, the EXACT “methodology” is almost as open to dispute as the precise claims themselves. I mean, is it “punctuated equilibrium” for biological evoultion, or something else?

    What it seems you are more likely getting at is, what we see just could NOT have occurred due to the “alternative” means of special creation. In other words, no “intervention of God.” Isn’t that really what all this, “You have to teach evolution to be teaching science,” is all about? To keep God out of the picture of the history of “how things got to be how they are now?

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    • Paul says:

      Hi Tom. I thought of you several times as I was writing this, you being a TX resident and all.

      I of course did not use the term “deadbeat,” but the truth is, over the essentials of evolution there is no scientific debate. As with *every* scientific theory there are questions left unanswered and live issues and debates, but about the fundamentals of evolution — the kind of stuff taught to 10th graders — there really is no scientific issue.

      In your last paragraph, IMO, you have brilliantly highlighted the fundamental fallacy behind so much science-religion confusion. You say that I am saying, “what we see just could NOT have occurred due to the “alternative” means of special creation.” No, I am not saying that. Of course the whole thing *could* have been specially created 6,000 years ago and made to look 13.7 billion years old. But “special creation” is NOT a scientific category. That’s all I’m saying.

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      • Tom Harkins says:

        Paul, here’s the thing, IMO, about whether “Special Creation” could be “true” or not. You are saying science disproves this prospect as a “scientific” matter. What that basically means is, all the physical evidence is against it. In other words, someone COULD believe in special creation as a matter of theological conviction, but it just wouldn’t fit the FACTS, so it would be a FALSE belief.

        I, and most Christians I know, are not interested in having some belief that is “divorced from the facts,” i.e., not a “true” description of how the universe actually is. Most conservative Christians are not hermits on mountains contemplating the “spiritual” aspects of “reality,” as opposed to the “blood and guts” ones of “scientific” reality.

        So, my belief in special creation, though I may have gotten it from a “religious” source, is intended as a confidence in the actual mechanism by which the world came to be. I believe that roughly 6,000 years ago (not tied to that specific number, necessarily, but certainly not hundreds of thousands or anything of that order, so it’s really a moot point), God said, “Let there be light, and there was light.” Just like that. Then the next day, God said, “Let there be __, and there was __.” I see this as being not merely a “religious” statement, but a “scientific” one as well.

        That being the case, the real issue is whether my “belief” is so contradicted by “the evidence” that it cannot possibly be true, so that I would have to go “back to the drawing board” and consider whether I “got something” from the “story” even if it were not actually “true.” (Like getting the point of a parable.) I am not at all persuaded that the evidence “refutes” special creation.

        You make the statement that what is undoubtedly true, regardless of what you refer to as “live issues,” is “the kind of stuff taught to 10th graders.” I find that to be very intriguing. I am willing to bet a small sum of money that the 10th grade textbooks of today don’t say the same thing that they did when I was in high school. (You are not as old as I am–when I was in school scientists actually said there was ANOTHER scientific theory related to the “origin” of the universe: “Steady State.” So, science textbooks have DEFINITELY changed.) What you keep coming back to, IMO, is the “mechanism” by which things got to be how they are today: “time times chance” via “survival of the fittest,” all triggered by some “mass explosion” (speaking colloquially). Ultimately, then, it is basically the “non-intervention” theory of explaining things that is sacrosanct, as opposed to some PARTICULAR beliefs, which are “here today, gone tomorrow.”

        The “glasses” one looks through often “color” what one sees. That’s true with “big picture” glasses, just as with the ones you (or at least I) put on when we get out of bed in the morning. When I notice the amazing order and complexity of the universe, that “fits” with my “starting point” of special creation. When you see it, you have some other theory about how it got to be that way which is consistent with a “no intervention” predicate. What I am telling you as to myself is that when I see what scientists have “discovered,” as FACTUAL matters (as opposed to the “explanations”), which I do keep up with as a general matter, I don’t see anything that “disproves” special creation as described in Genesis (given an intervention model). You say, if that is the case, then either (a) I am not very observant (though you don’t quite use those terms), or (b) if I WERE correct, then God must be in the “fooling” business because he sure does make it look as though it took some multi-billion year “process” to get to where it is now.

        As to both those points, I don’t know that we can come to an agreement. To me, there are plenty of “holes” in what I hear “scientists” say, as opposed to how things I see actually appear to be. Also, the whole issue of “interventionism” is that God “intervened” to make things different from what they would be had he not intervened. Thus, if he chose to “start with” Adam and Eve in the garden, then an observer coming along two hours later, using “scientific knowledge” of human development, would conclude that Adam and Eve were such-and-so years old, that it had taken the plants some other such years to grow to that state of foliage, and even, perhaps, that it would have taken the earth so many years to have “evolved” to get to a point capable of supporting such life. Of course, he would be wrong, not because he was a bad “scientist,” but because he “came along later” and tried to “reconstruct” from what he saw to get to “here.” Does this mean, since God decided to “start the process” from Adam and Eve, he was trying to be a “trickster”? Or did he, instead, just decide to “get to the heart of the matter” without some largely meaningless “evolutionary development”? Well, it is difficult to argue someone is trying to trick you when he comes right out and tells you what he did. Which is exactly what he did do in Genesis.

        So, try my glasses on for awhile and see how things look!

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  • Ruth Lindsay says:

    I think it’s a great idea to “teach the controversy,” since on a cultural level one cannot deny that a controversy exists. But this is not a lesson for a science class; as you note, Paul, there is no scientific controversy over the basic truth of evolutionary mechanisms of biological life forms.

    But there is plenty of room in other classes to discuss the ongoing controversy in our culture. This is the great potential and importance of education in the humanities, which has suffered greatly under the regime of standardized testing. When humanities is taught, it is unfortunately usually restricted to things like Greek and renaissance art and literature. While it’s good to know something about Greek and renaissance art and literature, a true humanities education should go much deeper and integrate the study of history, literature, politics, philosophy and religion. In that context, we can teach and learn about such pertinent topics as the history of the development of western science, which would prove a fruitful avenue for discussing the “controversy” over evolution.

    I’d also note that, while many churches are indeed implicated in perpetuating the conflict over evolution, scientists aren’t generally the best diplomats. I think one can make the case that many scientists contribute at least as much to perpetuating the controversy because they fail to consider the cultural baggage it entails and instead work on the premise that those who deny evolution must be stupid. I don’t know about you, but I’m not too inclined to want to listen to someone who assumes I am stupid even before they know anything about me!

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    • Paul says:

      Hi Ruth. You are of course correct: “the controversy” is a fascinating subject for the humanities and social sciences. And yes indeed, there’s nothing someone calling you an idiot to make you want to listen to them. That is a basic problem for Dawkins et al.: they think people are basically data processors.

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  • Ruth Lindsay says:

    Tom, I can only speak for myself of course, but to affirm an evolutionary perspective does not necessarily mean that one has an “non-interventionist” understanding of God. If I am understanding you correctly, a non-interventionist God is like the God of Deism – the watchmaker, who crafted creation, ‘wound it up’ (so to speak) and let it do its thing.

    That is certainly not my view of God, whom I consider to be ever-present. God’s presence isn’t just about the “miraculous.” God does not “intervene” once and a while to perform miracles but is present at all times sustaining the universe and its creatures. While God might part the waters of the Red Sea, (S)He also determines and supports the sea’s normal flow.

    So, to affirm an evolutionary perspective does not mean that God is taken out of the picture, although it might mean that we think about God differently.

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    • Tom Harkins says:

      Ruth, I agree that it is possible to believe that God exists and that evolution is true at the same time. However, there are two considerations pertinent to what I think Paul is saying. First, as to whether it is “unscientific” to believe that interventionist creationism occurred. I say not, and particularly not because the evidence in fact does not rule out an interventionist intepretation, consistent with observation, once the possibility of intervention is in fact accepted to begin with. So that is as to the “science” issue.

      Second, I of course agree that God is “the Ruler and Sustainer” of the earth, universe, us, and all things, without the necessity of “intervening.” However, that does not mean that he does not IN FACT intervene once in awhile for his own good reasons. The scriptures, if taken “on their face,” or “as they seem to read” until skepticism would force disbelief, certainly state that God indeed does intervene, has done so a number of times, and among the most majestic of such “interventions” was the original creation itself. So there is no reason to doubt that. In fact, if God can sustain the whole universe even without intervention, it does not add much “incredulity” to believe he can and does “intervene” in that universe from time to time (and especially to enter that universe himself as a “creature,” as we celebrate in this Christmas season).

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