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Texas wrestles with science, evolution

Experts and activists concerned about the way evolution is taught in Texas' public schools made their case before the state's board of education.
Science Curriculum Evolution
Members Geraldine Miller, from Dallas (L) and Bob Craig, from Lubbock, right, talk during a break in a hearing by the Texas Board of Education Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2009, in Austin, Texas. The board heard proponents and opponents of a proposal to change the school science standards to strengthen the teaching of evolution.Harry Cabluck / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Experts and activists concerned about the way evolution is taught in Texas' public schools made their case before the state's board of education.

Dozens of people, including a six-member expert review panel, lined up to testify as the board considers new science curriculum standards that will be in place for the next decade. The standards adopted also will dictate how publishers handle the topic in textbooks.

The crowd — as well as the review panel — was sharply split on the proposal to drop language in the current curriculum that requires teachers to address "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theory.

Instead, a panel of science experts recommended that students use critical thinking, scientific reasoning and problem solving to analyze and evaluate scientific explanations.

Critics say the use of the word "weaknesses" has been used to undermine Darwin's theory of evolution and promote creationism — or intelligent design.

"In science education, 'weaknesses' has become a code word in the culture wars to attack evolution and promote creationism," said Kathy Miller, president of the watchdog group Texas Freedom Network. "If it weren't, we wouldn't see this crusade by some of the board members and outside pressure groups to keep this single word in the science standards."

Critics of dropping the "weaknesses" mandate blame "left-wing ideology," for trying to stifle free speech. The review panel, which was appointed by the education board, has suggested putting similar language back in.

"The board is being asked to choose between free and open scientific inquiry and censorship," said Jonathan Saenz, a lobbyist for the Free Market Foundation. "That's an easy choice."

Last year, legislation permitting criticism of Darwinism in schools was introduced in Florida, Missouri, South Carolina, Alabama, Michigan and Louisiana, according to the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that supports teaching students about the criticism of evolution.

A tentative vote in Texas is expected later this week, but the board is not expected to make a final decision on the curriculum proposal until March.

Much of Wednesday's testimony focused on the scientific evidence of evolution.

"I hope you understand now that there are good reasons to think that, yes, evolution has weaknesses that reasonable people can see, that, yes, those weaknesses do really influence the theory," said Ralph Seelke, a biology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, who served on the review panel.

Eugenie Scott, executive director of the California-based National Center for Science Education, said the proposal to drop the inclusion of weaknesses is a "superior critical thinking standard."

"Abandoning the inaccurate strengths and weaknesses language does not encourage the singling out of evolution for special treatment," Scott said.