The Discovery Institute’s criticisms of Texas pro-science reviewers have little substance

In a series of posts over at the Discovery Institute’s Evolution News and Views blog, Casey Luskin attacks the position of the three pro-science reviewers of the proposed changes to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS).  The main change in the new standards is to remove the language of “strengths and weaknesses” when addressing evolutionary theory.  In my mind, the reason to remove that language is that it is unnecessary and only pseudoscientific criticisms exist and any weaknesses are above the level and scope of K-12 education.  But let us see what Luskin has to say:

Luskin starts off by using and abusing the "Academic Freedom" Day slogan originally written by Darwin:

In Origin of Species, Charles Darwin famously wrote, ”A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question.” One might think that modern proponents of Darwin’s ideas would endorse his approach to scientific thinking within evolution education, but it’s not so.

The reason I would not endorse this approach at such an early level of science education is due to the amount of basic information required to really address a scientific issue. We don’t want to have to "rediscover the wheel" every other day with students.  I really believe that it takes post-graduate education in a related field to be relevant.  Just like you have to learn your ABCs before you can read; you have to learn basics before you can attack a theory.

David Hillis

Luskin first criticizes University of Texas at Austin professor David Hillis. Hillis quite appropriately points out that "asking students in Grade 5 to analyze, review, and critique any modern day biological theories is absurd" Hillis goes on to argue that the full body of evidence that leads to a modern scientific theory can’t be taught in a K-12 timeframe. Luskin response is to simply say that students have the "right" to hear contrary views. Since when is education, information, and reality subject to "rights."

One of Hillis’ recommendations is to keep the idea of critically thinking about science by having students "analyze, review, and critique examples of scientific hypotheses." As, Luskin points out, the key word here is "hypotheses." I believe this is a good idea since it retains the ability for student’s to learn critical thinking skills without having to attack modern scientific theories. However, Luskin says that Hillis’ approach will stifle critical thinking and teach students how to conform and think as dogmatists. I guess it only counts as critical thinking if you attack modern scientific theories with pseudoscience according to Luskin. I would really like to hear why critical thinking can only be taught in reference to evolution.

Ronald Wetherington

In his second post which attacks Southern Methodist University professor Ronald Wetherington, Luskin brings up (again) a silly criticism of the pro-evolution reviewers of the TEKS:

"The TEKS reviews submitted by Stephen Meyer, Ralph Seelke, and Charles Garner in support of students applying critical thinking skills to evolution were each over 25 pages in length. In contrast, two of the three Darwinist reviewers submitted reviews that were 8 pages or less. "

Luskin somehow believes writing more means that the pro-intelligent design reviewers did a better job. I guess in his mind it does not pay to be concise? Does he think it is better to be long winded and bring in extraneous information and ideas? I guess so since he has brought up the differing lengths of the reviewers in each post as if it is somehow gives credence to his position.

Luskin criticizes Ronald Wetherington’s recommendation that the “strengths and weaknesses language be removed.  In describing why he thinks that the language should be removed, Wetherington makes the point that:

The strength of any hypothesis is its provisions for falsifiability, and without this it, technically, is not a hypothesis! As to “theory”, this will be very difficult using current theories, because the careful analysis of the legitimate ones requires more sophistication than the student will be capable of.  As a process skill for the 5th grade, however, the teacher can use any of a large number of earlier theories which have since been altered or discredited, 

Essentially, Wetherington is suggesting that the students could critically analyze old theories, such as a geocentric universe.  I think this is a really good idea.  But if you listen to the ID proponents the only way to teach critical thinking is by attacking evolution.  

Gerald Skoog 

In his third post, Luskin addresses the third pro-science reviewer, Texas Tech professor Gerald Skoog. Luskin complains that :

Like Wetherington and Hillis, TEKS reviewer Gerald Skoog wants the TEKS to include many more standards on evolution which dogmatically only present the evidence for evolution.

I guess according to Luskin, presenting evidence is somehow not a good idea. Maybe it is because there is no evidence for intelligent design? Maybe its because there is no evidence against evolution? Either way, you can see how an ID proponent wouldn’t want evidence discussed.

To support his idea that teaching the evidence for evolution is somehow not the way go, he quotes another TEKS reviewer and ID proponent, Stephen Meyer:

For those who insist that there are no "weaknesses" in the traditional case for universal common ancestry, let me cite a few examples: (1) The fossil record shows a pattern of explosions of new life-forms that contradicts the predictions and expectations of universal common descent and suggests the possibility of a discontinuous (polyphyletic) view of the history of life, rather than a continuous (monophyletic) view of the history of life. … (2) … there are numerous cases where conflicts exist between different types of gene-based evolutionary trees, thus challenging the very evidence and methodology used to infer common descent from "molecular homologies.

First, the "conflicts" between different methodologies to calculate evolutionary trees does not challenge their existence. This is a gross exaggeration. These "conflicts" arise due to different algorithms used in calculations and are highly dependent on which genes were chosen for analysis. Even with these conflicts, highly reproducible trees are able to be created.  The fact that any phylogenetic trees can be created is strong support for evolution. As to his so-called “explosions of new life-forms,” I really have no idea what he is talking about.  I certainly hope he isn’t referring to the Cambrian explosion.

At the end of Luskin’s post, he does a bit of scaremongering by insinuating that a belief in evolution makes someone godless. He quotes Skoog where he recommends including language that refers to the implications of common descent. Luskin runs with this idea and pulls random quotes that seem to point to the implication of believing in evolution are that you believe in "materialism" and not God.  

I don’t know what Skoog meant by implications, but I can make a few guesses. Maybe he is referring to the implication that since we all have a common ancestor, then we can use what we know about animals and apply it to humans (i.e. medical advances). Maybe he is referring to the implication that if we are related to animals, then maybe we will all treat animals a little better.  Either way, this is a scare tactic without any basis.

All together, I don’t think that Luskin makes a good point to as why would should leave in the “strength and weaknesses” language.  The reviewers have suggested other ways to teach critical thinking instead of attacking a well supported theory.  I guess we will just have to see what happens. 

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