Barbara Cargill’s recent comments on evolution and “strengths and weaknesses”
Barbara Cargill, the district 8 representative of the Texas State Board of Education, recently wrote an article addressing the controversy over Texas’ science education standards and the “strengths and weaknesses” language. You may find her article in its entirety here. Below I have commented on some of Ms. Cargill’s points.
“The State Board of Education began discussing our state’s science curriculum standards in November. We listened to over 90 testifiers, and the vast majority supported teaching all of evolutionary theory as fact with no reference to its scientific weaknesses.”
As I have stated on this blog before, if evolutionary theory is going to be judged by such standards, then much of science should be suffering under the same scrutiny. No scientific theory is ever going to be proven to be 100% true. No theory is safe from criticism and peer review. That does not mean that well-tested theories should not be treated as fact. That’s the beauty of the scientific method–which, many scientists will agree, HAS shown evolution to be true beyond “reasonable doubt”.
The current requirement states that students are expected to “analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information.” This is a good standard that has served our teachers and students well for many years.
I would personally like to know how this is a good standard that has served the state well. This clause is certainly put into the TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) specifically for ideas that some people find troubling or controversial. I have never heard of anyone spending time in class having their students evaluate the weaknesses of cell theory, the germ theory of disease, thermodynamics, and so on. A good science teacher will of course discuss how parts of any of these theories have changed over time and might touch on any controversies related to the topic. Yet this is something that is covered by the TEKS already–both the current TEKS and the newly proposed TEKS.
Science is a way of learning about the natural world. Students should know how science has built a vast body of changing and increasing knowledge described by physical, mathematical, and conceptual models, and also should know that science may not answer all questions.
Cargill goes on to state:
Proponents of Darwinian evolution say that the theory has no weaknesses. However 700+ reputable scientists who have signed “A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism” question major tenets of evolution. They state, “Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.” In The Origin of Species, Darwin himself wrote, “A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question.”
To say that proponents of “Darwinian evolution” claim the theory has no weaknesses is misleading. Scientists realize that theories are subject to change. This tenet of science is included in the state’s science standards, as mentioned above. Furthermore, 700+ scientists signing a petition does not mean a whole lot, unfortunately, unless one questions each scientist as to where their dissent lies. This is, in fact, one of the common criticisms of this petition. Further criticisms include the fact that the professional expertise of those listed is not always apparent, some people may have been misled when signing the petition, and that the wording of the original document was in itself misleading.
For example, when evidence for universal common ancestry in the fossil record is taught (i.e. scientific strength), then the contradictory evidence showing the huge gaps of missing transitional fossils in the record must also be presented (i.e. scientific weakness). We must educate our students — not indoctrinate them by letting them hear only one side of an issue.
If this is how Ms. Cargill expects teachers to teach the strengths and weaknesses, then I would also like to see how she proposes handling the strengths and weaknesses of other biological theories, like the germ theory of disease. I am very serious. As a teacher who wants to make sure I am covering the TEKS properly, I would like to see some examples of how to teach strengths and weaknesses of the other theories I am required to teach my students. I would love to see Ms. Cargill’s ideas.
Also, should a teacher mention the strength (the fossil record), and then a potential weakness (gaps in the fossil record), but then go back to another strength (teaching about all the transitional fossils that have been found)? Or is that unbalanced and still too one-sided and “indoctrinating”?
How does one decide exactly what is a strength and what is a weakness of a theory? In some cases it may be obvious, but in others it may simply be in the eye of the beholder. So where does a teacher turn to make sure they are adequately covering strengths and weaknesses? Should there be some sort of scientific consensus on which ideas are strengths and which are weaknesses? But wait…if we turn to scientific consensus, then wouldn’t evolution simply be taught largely as fact anyway?
I would like to note that there is one thing I can certainly agree with Ms. Cargill on:
Presently, Texas’ science standards contain key process skills like analyzing, comparing, gathering information, and drawing conclusions. Students should practice these skills at each grade level, but too often the tendency is to teach rote memorization of accepted facts.
However, she then continues:
By applying the scientific process, students will be challenged to think “outside the box” and form their own conclusions about topics like common ancestry. Evolution proponents should not mind if students ask questions; after all, if evolution is the best explanation, then the data should only point to its validity.
Ms. Cargill is being misleading again here by implying that evolution proponents are scared of their students asking questions about evolution. Unfortunately, some teachers may certainly be scared or a little intimidated, but this is not due to trying to “cover up” any inaccuracies in evolutionary theory. It is due to the backlash that might occur from the students, their parents, other teachers, local religious groups, and so on.
Also, note to Ms. Cargill–the data does point to the validity of evolution.
Science is full of mystery and constant discovery. Headlines such as cloning, DNA testing, and gene mapping are prolific. Science classrooms are the perfect place to brainstorm about current science events! With that in mind, how can teachers pick and choose which scientific evidence to teach or ignore? Teaching students to believe that evolution indisputably holds the answers to life’s big questions undermines the very essence of scientific inquiry.
Good question, Ms. Cargill. How can teachers pick and choose which evidence to teach or ignore? Unfortunately, Ms. Cargill did not really address the question herself.
Tony Whitson has also commented on this article at Curricublog.
I’ve commented on the Texas Insider site where Ms. Cargill’s article is published asking her to please address my post and also sent Ms. Cargill the following email:
I recently read your article from the Texas Insider regarding the latest on the evolution/creationism/intelligent design debates. I have posted some comments on my blog in reference to this article and welcome you to look at it and respond.
The address is located here:
I hope you are able to address some of my questions.
Hopefully she will be able to address some of the above.
*And yet another update!
Jeremy from An Evolving Creation linked to this post (thanks, Jeremy!) and added some extra food for thought:
What Cargill failed to mention is that the signatories of that statement are expressing their skepticism about “the ability of random mutations and natural selection to account for the complexity of life.” The statement does not address common ancestry. In fact, several of the signatories have publicly stated that they have no problem with the fact of common ancestry.