Friday, December 21, 2007

What's The Matter With Texas? Creationism On Its Way Back

Is the State of Texas about to offer Master of Science degrees in creationism? The Institute for Creation Research (ICR), an organization that officially believes the earth sprang into existence less than 10,000 years ago, has applied to offer a state-approved Master's program in science education. Last week, an official advisory committee recommended that the State of Texas approve the ICR's request to offer Master's degrees (read about it here and here). If this request is granted, the ICR has two years in which it can offer state-approved Master's degrees while seeking accreditation for its program from a recognized, outside accreditation organization. Coming on the heels of news that one of the state's science education officials was forced out of her job because she was not "neutral" about standing up for evolution education, this latest event suggests that creationism is about to again become a big issue in the Texas educational system.

It is one thing for a private organization to teach whatever outlandish beliefs it prefers, and for students to attend non-accredited colleges - it's their educational choice, and no big loss to the rest of the educational system. But it's another issue altogether for the state to give its imprimatur to such an organization when intends to train science teachers who will then go out and work such sectarian and unscientific beliefs into public school science classes.

Is it acceptable to accredit a science education program that teaches science students that they can build perpetual motion machines that violate the laws of thermodynamics? That matter is not made up of atoms, and that diseases are caused by 'humours' and not germs? Of course not, and by the same token, it is wrong to give state approval to a Master's program that teaches future science educators that the earth suddenly appeared less than 10,000 years ago, and that today's living species did not descend from a common set of ancestors.

The ICR is free to preach whatever it likes, but it should not be allowed to dress sectarian beliefs up as science and use them to train science teachers who will be hired by the state to teach in public schools. The stuff that institutions like the ICR and the Discovery Institute peddle is not science. Its advocates repeatedly exhibit an extremely poor grasp of the scientific theories they are supposedly critiquing, and in their criticisms they continue to make basic errors about the actual technical content of mainstream science. They love to scour scientific journals and highlight material that they (wrongly) believe undercuts evolution, yet tellingly, they never actually participate in such research themselves. (If Intelligent Design advocate Michael Behe is so convinced that pseudogenes are the product of an intelligent designer and not the accidents of evolution, why isn't he doing any research himself to look for functional pseudogenes?)

The quality of science education in US schools is falling behind that of other industrialized nations, and here we are, taking actions to officially support organizations that are devoting millions of dollars to undercut good science education. Southern states are trying hard to attract scientific talent and biotech dollars to their states, but people who are able to perform top science are generally not very eager to move to a state where their kids are likely to be taught some variant of creationism at school. Texas officials need to show some spine and maintain the integrity of science education in their state.

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