It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Friday, March 27, 2009

Evolution in Schools: TFN calls it a draw (but AGW?)

Bulk email from the Texas Freedom Network:
Dear Michael,

Just a short while ago, the Texas State Board of Education voted on new public school science standards that publishers will soon use to craft new science textbooks. This long-awaited decision is the culmination of TFN's two-year Stand Up for Science campaign.

The good news is that the word “weaknesses” no longer appears in the science standards -- this is a huge victory for those of us who support teaching 21st-century science that is free of creationist ideology.

The bad news is the final document still has plenty of potential footholds for creationist attacks on evolution to make their way into Texas classrooms. Through a series of contradictory and convoluted amendments, the board crafted a road map that creationists will almost certainly use to pressure publishers into putting phony arguments attacking established science into textbooks. As TFN Communications Director Dan Quinn told the New York Times: "The State Board of Education pretty much slammed the door on ‘strengths and weaknesses,’ but then went around and opened all the windows in the house.”

What’s truly unfortunate is that we will have to revisit this entire debate in two years when new science textbooks are adopted in Texas.

While we did not succeed in ending this debate once and for all, I am extremely proud of the work we did together on this Stand Up for Science campaign. Your testimony, calls and e-mails over these past months really made a difference in the outcome of this science debate -- and the students of Texas are better off for it.

I sincerely hope you will consider participating in the last day of our Stand Up for Science matching gift challenge. Double your gift's impact to TFN Education Fund by contributing today!

As you know, hostility toward science persists in our state. From stem cell research to responsible sex education, crucial public policies hang in the balance. As always, TFN will carry your support for mainstream values and sound science to our elected leaders.

Kathy Miller
But from where we're sitting it's pretty disastrous:
the board added the following standard: “Analyze and evaluate different views on the existence of global warming.”
The Environmental Defense Fund sent out the following press release:
Indicating doubt about the existence of global warming, today’s final vote on textbook language by the Texas State Board of Education flouts leading scientific consensus as well as the board’s own scientific advisors.

Surprising environmentalists, the board’s last-minute decision Wednesday changed the language in a school textbook chapter on Environmental Systems to include the phrase “analyze and evaluate different views on the existence of global warming.”

Dr. Ramon Alvarez, senior scientist with Environmental Defense Fund, said that to deny the existence of global warming is not only an affront to the board’s own advisors, but also to established science, citing agreement by the National Academy of Sciences, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and even one of the state’s premier academic institutions, Texas A&M University. “In a last-minute assault on science and sensibility, the board appears to be supporting its own ideological views rather than those of proven science,” Alvarez said. “Experts around the country, including the tenured faculty of Texas A&M’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences, agree that our climate is warming and that humans are responsible.”

The new textbook language also positions Texas children behind regions already addressing global warming. “The tragedy of this ruling is that it places Texas children at a competitive disadvantage in science education, thus failing them as they prepare to compete in the global marketplace,” said Jim Marston, regional director of Environmental Defense Fund.
As usual, TFN has the scoop.

Update: unfortunately the comments to this posting got out of hand and comments are now closed. I recommend going to the TFN site to discuss the present topic.

Update: Bad Astronomer is not happy. PZ isn't happy either. Even somebody called AstroEngine is on the case. Others?

Update Mar 29: Salon has an article: the creationists, apparently are happy. h/t @BadAstronomer

Image from PoliTex, a blog of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.


Raven said...

Both sides of this are being sloppy and unscientific since the term 'global warming' is imprecise.

If it is being used to refer to the claim that the planet is getting warmer then there is no question.

Similarily, if it is being used to refer to the claim that humans are causing the CO2 in the atmosphere to increase and that this is causing warming then there is no question.

However, if the term is being used to refer to the claim that CO2 emissions will lead to catastrophic climate change then there is a debate even inside the IPCC (1.5 degC is acknowledged as the low bound for CO2 sensitivity).

A responsible science curriculum would explain the reasons for the range provided by the IPCC and what factors could result in the real sensitivity being lower or higher than the mean.

It would also discuss how to determine what the real climate trajectory is as we collect new data moving into the future.

Reminder: I am only suggesting that IPCC 1.5-4.5 ranges be discussed.

Michael Tobis said...

I agree that the terminology is sloppy. The sloppiness is part of the misfortune as it is written into Texas curriculum for a decade.

bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...

"catastrophic climate change"

Speaking of 'being sloppy', what exactly is the precise definition of "catastrophic" in this case? I get the feeling from the 'skeptics' that it's not "catastrophic" until it starts hurting rich people.

-- bi

Chris Colose said...


Apparently the same problem persists in Florida. In early January I attended a seminar at Cornell University where David Campbell gave a lecture on evolution (as part of Darwin week) and its role in the high school classroom. He is a high school science teacher who pushes evolution with some clever teaching methods in the face of quite a lot of confrontation from students/parents. I nkow a similar issue exists with global warming in other states (I don't want to quote any in particular, but I remember receiving a document a few months ago that I can't seem to find)

I don't follow the U.S. high school curriculum in any detail but I imagine this "teach the controversy" tone is rather widespread. I think there is a large tendency to make students and parents comfortable regardless of what the science says.

Dano said...

Well, I lived in Dallas suburb the year the state wanted to pillory Landry. I lasted 9 months and I got the h*ll out of there, never to return. I mean never.

Nonetheless, this raises the issue of asking the old question: do people get what they deserve?

The corollary is: do people really vote with their feet? It would be good to see if someone can get funding to do an in- and out-migration survey and find out if people are moving due to the new antediluvian climate.



word verification is saying 'warcol', Michael. That is your sign, surely.

Raven said...


Would you prefer the 'the consequences for humans will be overwhemlingly negative' instead of catastrophic?

The problem here is question on whether global warming is a problem or not is largely a subjective and this limits the precision that can be used. That is why I put an emphasis on the range rather than the mean because the range conveys the uncertainty that is in the IPCC reports.

As for you comments on rich people: people like Al Gore would have a lot more credibility if they actually tried to lead by example. The fact that he still lives a pretty extravagant lifestyle (when compared someone like Warren Buffett) suggests he either does not believe his own rhetoric or that the rich are entitled to live by different rules.

Raven said...


I don't have much context for this debate in Texas but I am wondering if a little bit of compromise could have avoided the vague wording.

e.g. people concerned about presenting the science correctly could have proposed wording like:

Analyze and evaluate different views on the *consequences* of global warming.

This would give skeptics the wiggle room that they were looking for while keeping the curriculum statement clearly in line with the scientific consensus.

Scruffy Dan said...

@ Raven

Remember that the IPCC explicitly states that climate sensitivity higher than 4.5 degC cannot be excluded. Not to mention some recent studies also suggest a climate sensitivity greater than 4.5 degC.

As for the rest of your comment, what you are proposing may be applicable to the most advanced classes, but I fear that it is to much for most levels of science classes and even too much for many science teachers (assuming science teachers are similar in capability to the science teachers I had when I was in high school in BC in the 90s).

Those classes should stick to the basic findings of the IPCC.

bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...


"The problem here is question on whether global warming is a problem or not is largely a subjective"

I'd expect things like coastal flooding, and loss of arable land to be "catastrophic" events in a pretty objective sense.

But the inactivists' response to warnings of such catastrophes have always been 'these consequences are so serious that they can't be true!' or 'those welfare-junkie Kivalina residents are just jealous of Exxon' or 'mmm, fried penguins!'

So the question is, what will global warming 'skeptics' consider to be really catastrophes?

* * *

"As for you comments on rich people: people like Al Gore would have a lot more credibility if they actually tried to lead by example."

Irrelevant attacks such as yours only serve to strengthen my hunch, namely that climate inactivists only consider something to be "catastrophic" if it hurts rich people.

-- bi

Raven said...


The IPCC estimates for SLR over the next 100 year are less than 1m. Recent studies have suggested that it could be more but definitely less than 2m. The threat from catastrophic coastal flooding is minimal.

Loss of arable land is an issue no matter what the climate does due to over fertilization, loss of top soil or over exploitation of fossil water reserves. Telling people that these problems can be solved by eliminating CO2 emissions is a dangerous folly.

If you want to make a scientific case for the risks then you need to honest about the uncertainties. If your refuse to acknowledge the uncertainties then don't be surprise when people dismiss your claims as exaggerations.

BTW - You are the one who made an irrelevant attack on 'rich people'. I should have ignored it.

Raven said...


I see what you are saying when it comes to the capabilities of the typical science teacher. However, dumbing down the science makes it open to even dumber counter claims from either side of the fence.

Phil said...

@ Raven

I've never understood the "logic" of the position which uses other peoples (alleged) hypocrisy as an excuse for one's own inaction.

Two wrongs, etc...

Raven said...


Al Gore is an example of someone who has put himself forward as spokesman for the authorities. He tells us how we are all going to perish if we do not mend our ways. Yet he shows no sign of mending his.

By doing so he invokes the cultural meme of a prophet of doom which is inevitably exposed as a fraud.

This is not fair to Al Gore who is probably quite sincere but most people will never understand the science and will be forced to make a decision based on who they trust. This association with the prophet of doom stereotype leads many to distrust Al Gore.

I see this as a perfectly rational response for people who don't have the background to understand the science.

I used the example of Warren Buffett to illustrate how it is possible for someone to earn trust from public while avoiding the stereotypes that are normally associated with the public role the person fills.

Think about it. People hate money managers today. But still seem to respect Buffett.

bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...


"If you want to make a scientific case for the risks then you need to honest about the uncertainties"

Which -- guess what -- is being done, but apparently being honest about uncertainties still means We Should Do Nothing.

* * *

"You are the one who made an irrelevant attack on 'rich people'."

Right-wing ideology has always been about rich people. Ordinary workers who have to face crap? Bleh, life sucks, too bad. AIG ex-VP has to pay taxes on his insanely huge bonus? Waah! Class warfare!

Kivalina residents' homes are being affected by global warming? Bleh, they can go live with Al Gore. Exacting even a penny from Exxon for taxes? Argh, that's Communist treason!

And all the talk from the inactivists about how "the poor people will suffer if we enact cap-and-trade etc. etc. etc." is just hot air. Unlike Al Gore, the HYPOCRITE!!! who personally arranged to airlift people away from Hurricane Katrina --

Unlike him, the climate inactivists who mouth "think of the poor people' have never, ever actively tried to help poor people, and even if they say they are trying to help poor people, they always have the excuse that 'those filthy librulz are hindering me so I'm doing nothing!'

And this is what climate inactivism is about: toadying for rich people who only think about how to be rich.

-- bi

Raven said...


Do you downhill ski? sky dive? Ride a motorcycle? Quit your job and start a business? These are all risky activities. The risk does not bother some people but it bothers others enough that they would never consider doing it.

The trouble with uncertain information is different people will look at the same information and come to opposite decisions on the course of action. These people often have to agree to disagree.

If a collective decision is required then some compromise position must be found that accomodates the different assessments on the level of risk.

That is why I think it really important to focus on the problem of replacing CO2 producing energy sources as quickly as possible and don't get distracted with secondary issues (e.g. Green Jobs, Social Justice, etc.).

If you read anything from moderate Republican thinkers like David Frum you will find a willingness to act on CO2. In fact, there is even support for a straight carbon tax in business circles. But the price for support from these people will be an emphasis on proven technologies like nuclear instead of chasing rainbows in the wind.

Compromise is possible. You just have stop thinking you have all of the answers.

Michael Tobis said...

Please try to keep on topic. The topic here is the Texas State Board of Education rulings, not "global warming".

Grackle, this is my blog, not yours. It is free and very easy to start your own blog on this service (though if you start with blogspot you may not be able to easily escape once you start scaling up).


Maybe people want to argue all day long with Grackle on whatever Grackle finds interesting, but I don't. Please find some other venue for it, or stick to open threads.

I have a new rule that Gore-baiting is too stupid for words and I'll retroactively remove anything that mentions Gore in a thread where he is not remotely relevant.

Grackle is very very close to being a troll, though an unusually clever one. When Grackle or anyone else squawks something especially contemptible, I'd appreciate if everyone else ignores it. Countertrolling especially belongs elsewhere.

Moderation is back on. So much for that experiment.

This thread is closed. I apologize to anyone who was looking for conversation about the Texas State Board of Education.