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The Big Easy Bans Intelligent Design, but the Big Story is Louisiana’s Good Science Grades


I visited New Orleans back in 1994, during a whirlwind three-month tour of the United States (courtesy of Greyhound buses) in which I crossed the continent four times, and got to see 34 states. I still have fond memories of the Big Easy: dining at Cafe du Monde, walking along Bourbon St. (pictured above, courtesy of Adrian Pingstone and Wikipedia), traveling on a street car along St. Charles Avenue, and going on a swamp tour along a nearby bayou, during which I got to meet a one-year-old pet alligator named Elvis.

So it was with some amusement that I read an article by Stephen C. Webster in The Raw Story (19 December 2012) reporting that the school board for Orleans Parish in Louisiana had voted on Tuesday night to ban the teaching of creationism and intelligent design as science. Professor Jerry Coyne trumpeted the story as “symbolic but important” in a recent post over at Why Evolution is True, but I knew for a fact that it was much ado about nothing, and that there was a bigger story about science teaching in Louisiana that he’d completely missed.

What happened down in New Orleans?

On Tuesday, December 18, the Orleans Parish School Board voted to change the way they select their textbooks in the district, by adding a new condition to their textbook selection policy:

No history textbook shall be approved which has been adjusted in accordance with the State of Texas revisionist guidelines nor shall any science textbook be approved which presents creationism or intelligent design as science or scientific theories. (Emphasis mine – VJT.)

A second policy change prohibited teachers from teaching creationism or intelligent design during science lessons:

No teacher of any discipline of science shall teach any aspect of religious faith as science or in a science class. No teacher of any discipline of science shall teach creationism or intelligent design in classes designated as science classes. (Emphasis mine – VJT.)

Over at the Friendly Atheist blog, math teacher Hemant Mehta’s reaction was: “Wow.” My reaction to the news? “Pfft.” My second reaction? “They can’t have very good lawyers. You could drive a truck through those amendments.”

Why the amendments don’t matter one little bit

What accounts for my complete and utter indifference to the story? Briefly: it’s a change that will only affect six schools, none of which teach creationism or Intelligent Design anyway. As Danielle Dreilinger reports in The Times-Picayune (20 November 2012):

These days the city’s local school board only has a direct say-so on the curriculum in about half a dozen schools, since most are independent charters or run by the state. And district officials say that none of the science classes in those six schools has anything to do with creationism or the idea of “intelligent design” in evolution.

But that has not stopped outgoing Orleans Parish School Board President Thomas Robichaux from using his last few months on the board to try and get it in writing.

… Introducing the changes at a Nov. 15 committee meeting, he declared, “We are on the right side of history and the right side of the kids.”

Sounds like someone is playing politics to me. So what else is new?

There was something else, too. The new changes will apply to only one parish of Louisiana. (A “parish,” I’m given to understand, is what’s known as a county in other states, barring Alaska, which uses boroughs and census areas instead.) So, how many parishes are there in Louisiana? Sixty-four. And Orleans Parish isn’t even the largest one by population; it’s the third largest, with a population of 343,829. The population of the state of Louisiana in 2011 was estimated at 4,574,836. That’s right: 92.5% of the state’s residents live outside the parish.

It turns out that New Orleans has a history of towing [correction: toeing] the Darwinist line, and that the views of its politicians are not representative of the state of Louisiana. You want proof? On May 5, 2011, the New Orleans City Council voted 7-0 to support Sen. Karen Carter Peterson’s bill, SB 70, that would strike down the 2008 Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA). Did that serve as a harbinger of changes to come? Nope. The following year, on April 19, 2012, Louisiana Senators voted to reject a proposed law, supported by more than 70 Nobel Prize winners, that would have overturned the Louisiana Science Education Act, even though the Act expressly forbids the promotion of any religious doctrine in the classroom, and merely allows teachers to “use supplemental textbooks and other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner,” including evolution and origin-of-life theories. What’s more, teachers using supplemental resources must first “teach the material presented in the standard textbook supplied by the school system,” and the State Board of Education reserves the right to veto any inappropriate supplemental materials. Why the scientific establishment would see such an Act as a threat is beyond me – unless they already know that the case for Neo-Darwinian evolution contains hidden weaknesses that savvy students might spot.

So when Professor Jerry Coyne writes that “New Orleans is the most important city (and parish) in Louisiana, and thus a bellwether,” I have to laugh at his naive optimism.

But the real reason why the decision by the the school board for Orleans Parish in Louisiana to ban the teaching of creationism and intelligent design as science in six schools is of no consequence is that it can easily be undermined by clever teachers. Hence my earlier comment, “You could drive a truck through those amendments.”

Amendments? What amendments?

How so? Well, look at the language! The first amendment prohibits the approval of any science textbook which “presents creationism or intelligent design as science or scientific theories.” OK, fine. But it says nothing about books which merely highlight the weaknesses of evolution. A good place to start would be Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (Adler & Adler, 3rd edition, 1986) by molecular biologist Michael Denton, which nowhere mentions intelligent design. (Of course, a fair-minded teacher would encourage students to read Mark I. Vuletic’s critical review of the book, and form their own conclusions.) I would follow that by Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (Oxford University Press, 2012) by atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel, who rejects Neo-Darwinism but doesn’t believe in Intelligent Design. Another book I’d recommend to broaden students’ minds is Evolution: A View from the 21st Century (FT Press, 2011), a book praised by two Nobel science Laureates and written by biologist James Shapiro, who espouses a thorough-going naturalistic version of evolution but trenchantly rejects neo-Darwinism. Regarding the origin of life, a book I’d recommend would be The Fifth Miracle: The Search for the Origin and Meaning of Life (Simon and Schuster, 2000) by physicist Paul Davies, followed by the 2012 paper, The Algorithmic Origins of Life, which he co-authored with Sara Walker.

Any other suggestions by readers for suitable books that could be used in New Orleans would be most welcome.

The first amendment also says nothing about the use of journal articles (as opposed to books) in New Orleans science classrooms. Dr. Douglas Axe has written a number of useful papers in this regard. His paper, The Case Against a Darwinian Origin of Protein Folds says nothing about Intelligent Design, but brilliantly exposes the weaknesses in current scientific theories that attempt to explain the origin of life as a result of unguided processes. (After all, if scientists can’t even explain how a single protein came about through these processes, what chance do they have of accounting for a minimally complex cell, which would require at least 250 proteins?) Dr. Axe’s paper, The Limits of Complex Adaptation: An Analysis Based on a Simple Model of Structured Bacterial Populations also provides concrete evidence that Darwinian evolution has built-in limits. Professor Michael Behe’s paper, Experimental Evolution, Loss-of-Function Mutations and ‘The First Rule of Adaptive Evolution’, Quarterly Review of Biology, Vol. 85(4), December, 2010) provides more intellectual ammunition: After reviewing the results of Professor Lenski’s research on evolution in bacteria, Behe concludes that the observed adaptive mutations all entail either loss or modification – but not gain – of Functional Coding ElemenTs (FCTs). Finally, the 2012 paper, Time and Information in Evolution by Ewert, Gauger, Dembski and Marks, contains a crushing refutation of the recent claim by Wilf and Ewens, arguing that there’s plenty of time for evolution to occur, without mentioning Intelligent Design.

So much for the first amendment. The gaping legal hole in the second amendment passed by the New Orleans schools board is that it does not forbid teachers from pointing out the weaknesses in the theory of evolution to students, in the science classroom. All it says is: “No teacher of any discipline of science shall teach creationism or intelligent design in classes designated as science classes.” So teachers are not permitted to teach Intelligent Design, but that doesn’t mean they have to teach neo-Darwinian evolution as an established fact.

Another gaping hole in the New Orleans schools board amendments is that they don’t prescribe the teaching of any particular version of evolution, to the exclusion of all others. To be sure, Neo-Darwinian evolution is part of the school curriculum, but there’s nothing in the curriculum which prohibits a frank and open discussion of other versions of evolutionary theory, which is sure to get the students asking questions.

In short: it’s still pretty easy for science teachers in New Orleans to present students with the weaknesses in the modern theory of evolution, without teaching or promoting Intelligent Design. All they need to do is sow the seeds of doubt about Darwinism in students’ minds, and encourage them to explore the subject in their own time.

The Big Story: ID-friendly Louisiana has good science grades!

In 2008, Louisiana shot to fame when Governor Bobby Jindal signed the Louisiana Science Education Act into law. More than four years have passed since then. How is science education faring in Louisiana’s schools? How do its science grades compare with those of other states?

It turns out that Louisiana’s grades are actually pretty good – and they’d be even higher if it wasn’t for the ideological bias of the grade assessors. If readers take the trouble to consult Appendix B-1 of The State of State Science Standards 2012 report, which is on page 212, they will be pleasantly surprised to find that Louisiana’s overall science grade of “B” places it near the top of the list of 50 states. In fact, only six states (California, Indiana, Massachusetts, South Carolina, Virginia and New York) and the District of Columbia do better than Louisiana.

But wait – there’s more. Louisiana’s overall score of 7 out of 10 is broken down into two components: Content and Rigor (score: 5 out of 7), and Clarity and Specificity (2 out of 3). And when we turn to page 80, which gives the report card for Louisiana, we see that the score for content and rigor (4.7 out of 7, to be exact) is averaged over several science subjects, which are graded as follows (all scores are out of 7):

Scientific Inquiry & Methodology 2
Physical Science 5
Physics 4
Chemistry 6
Earth & Space Science 5
Life Science 6

Wait a minute. Life Science [along with Chemistry] got the best grade?! Doesn’t this completely give the lie to the report’s ideologically motivated claim that “Thanks to the state’s 2008 Science Education Act, which promotes creationism instead of science, the standards (especially for biology and life science) are haunted by anti-science influences that threaten biology education in the state” (p. 80, bold emphasis mine).

But I haven’t finished yet. Readers might be wondering why the subject, Scientific Inquiry & Methodology, only gets a score of 2 out of 7. Partly, this is because the standards are nebulous, with no grade-appropriate examples. Another reason is that students are not taught the history of science in this course subject. But an additional reason is that the authors of the report consider the Louisiana Science Education Act of 2008 to pose a threat to biology teaching in the State:

Equally troubling, another global statement asks students to “explain how skepticism about accepted scientific explanations (i.e., hypotheses and theories) leads to new understanding.” This cracks the door open to an invasion by creationists, particularly in light of the state’s Science Education Act (discussed above). (p. 82)

In other words, encouraging skepticism in the science classroom is bad. Funny! I could have sworn that Carl Sagan promoted something which he called scientific skepticism in his novel, Contact (Orbit, 1997, p. 306). And I could have sworn, too, that the motto of the Royal Society, founded in London in 1660, was, “Take nobody’s word for it” (Nullius in verba). “Take nobody’s word for it” entails that we shouldn’t blindly accept the say-so of the 95+% of the world’s biologists who believe in neo-Darwinian evolution. We can, and should, ask them to justify their views to high-school students. Or do the authors of the The State of State Science Standards 2012 report want to take the skepticism out of science?

I remarked earlier that Louisiana got an almost-perfect 6 out of 7 score for Content & Rigor in biology. The reader may be wondering: why didn’t Louisiana get a perfect 7 out of 7? Here’s why: because it doesn’t try to indoctrinate kids from Kindergarten to Grade 8 in evolution. It simply tells them that life has changed over time, which isn’t enough for the beady-eyed authors of the report, who are most upset that the magic “E” word is missing from the Louisiana’s Life Science curriculum standards for Kindergarten to Grade 8. Indeed, Louisiana doesn’t teach students about evolution until Grade 10, but apparently it does a pretty good job when it finally introduces the subject. To quote from the report:

The most significant drawback to the standards covering Kindergarten through eighth grade is the omission of evolution. Indeed, the term evolution doesn’t appear at all. Instead, eighth graders are asked only to:

Compare fossils from different geologic eras and areas of Earth to show that life changes over time. (grade 8)

Asking students to understand that life changes over time is not the same thing as asking them to learn the building blocks of evolutionary theory.

Fortunately, the high school coverage of evolution is reasonably strong. Tenth graders, for example, are asked to:

Analyze evidence on biological evolution, utilizing descriptions of existing investigations, computer models, and fossil records. (high school biology)

In addition, the comprehensive curriculum provides useful and rigorous supplemental material that further clarifies what the state expects students to know about evolution. (p. 82.) (Italics mine – VJT.)

Personally, I think it’s a good thing that students from Kindergarten to Grade 8 are not informed about evolution. Why should they be told something is true, when they are too young to understand the scientific grounds for thinking that it’s true? Isn’t science about not taking things on faith? Understanding the case for evolution is not easy: it requires a sophisticated grasp of abductive logic, or inference to the best explanation. Indeed, a case could be made for not teaching evolution until university, because if it is taught at a lower level, it is likely to be taught wrongly. If readers want proof of that, I would invite them to ask their friends why they believe in evolution, and listen to the confused and contradictory responses they will receive. That’s what comes of not teaching a subject critically to students.

It is a great pity that the The State of State Science Standards 2012 report has turned into a political football, controlled by militant advocates of Darwinism who seem hell-bent on penalizing states that don’t explicitly incorporate the word “evolution” into their curriculum.

But the big story is that science education in ID-friendly Louisiana is alive and well.

Hi, Vincent. Great column on the Louisiana science standards. I can't understand why some commenters would devote 4 comments to your habits of capitalization, while saying nothing at all about the well-researched and well-argued substance of the piece. You've struck at the heart of the claims of the NCSE about science education, and that should be acknowledged. Timaeus
"Maybe we need something in between upper and lower case!" - vjtorley Thanks for that suggestion = ) I must admit that is one of the most ironically humourous things I've read about ID this year!! Will follow-up in the other thread, since two are currently over-lapping. This thread simply gives proof that you are either sloppier than you seem to think (e.g. first paragraph in #5 - unanswered) or else purposely shifty in between small-id and Big-ID, though you claim to recognise and define a meaningful difference between the two approaches. Let us try to clarify this further, so that you won't have to think I am confused or I that you are. To be clear up front, I support small-id (with big D-Divinity) as the orthodox position for Abrahamic faiths, but reject Big-ID (and Big-S Science) as a convenient fantasy. Gregory
Hi Mung, Good point. However, a Darwinist would allow that because species evolve very gradually, over millions of years, we can legitimately treat certain traits as "essential" for most practical purposes. For instance, dogs are evolving, but they're still carnivores. vjtorley
I capitalize Nature in order to distinguish it from the other usage of the word: where it means the essence of a thing, I use a small “n,” as in “human nature.”
Ah. But there are no essences. Not without BIG ID! Mung
Hi Gregory, I capitalize Nature in order to distinguish it from the other usage of the word: where it means the essence of a thing, I use a small "n," as in "human nature." Re intelligent design, three definitions are possible: (i) the modern movement, associated with the Discovery Institute, which holds that there are patterns in Nature (i.e. the natural world) which scientists are capable of identifying as the product of some intelligence; (ii) any argument (empirical, but not necessarily rigorously scientific) which infers the existence of a designing intelligence from some fact of Nature, regardless of whether it was formulated 2,500 years ago or today; and (iii) any claim that some pattern or object in Nature (or for that matter, Nature itself) is the product of an intelligence which designed it, whether or not there are visible signs of that design which we can detect. Timaeus uses the term "Intelligent Design" for (i) and "intelligent design" for (ii), whereas I've been using "Intelligent Design" for (i) and (ii), and "intelligent design" for (iii). Maybe we need something in between upper and lower case! I hope that helps. vjtorley
Thanks, I didn't read this post #6 before my post in the other thread, which does address part of your message here. This message does help, but it still doesn't complete the circle. Let's get away from the 'your confusion' label. I think you're confused, you think I'm confused. O.k. - understood. Now what? Could you say more specifically about how you differ from Timaeus' Big-ID vs. small-id view? I agree with you that Wood, Feser and Ken Miller all accept 'intelligent design' (small-id). Would you go as far then as to agree that small-id is the orthodox position for the Abrahamic faiths? Big-ID, otoh, is a natural scientific claim about OoL, OoBI and/or human origins, embodied by 'theorists' and laypersons in an educational, political, social, cultural movement. And btw, why do you capitalise 'Nature'? I don't capitalise 'society' even when I study it (like a Durkheimian might). Are you advocating 'naturalism'? God, Allah, Yahweh in small-id leaves 'visible signs,' which should, according to your definition, mean that all Abrahamic believers support Big-ID. It's the "and that human scientists [why not also philosophers & theologians?] are capable of discovering these signs" which shows how your position becomes unnecessarily scientistic, rather than integrative of science, philosophy and theology working together. It's your 'empirical' (-> empiricism), 'scientifically' (-> scientism) and 'scientists' (to the exclusion of philosophers and theologians) that I find problematic here. Gregory
Hi Gregory, I visited your blog, and now I understand your confusion. I define the capitalized version of Intelligent Design differently from Timaeus, I think. Here's what I mean by it:
Intelligent Design is the search for circumstantial empirical evidence indicating that either Nature itself, or certain patterns in Nature, can be best explained scientifically as the product of an intelligent agent (or agents). From this definition, it follows that someone's having a belief in a Designer of Nature is not enough to make them an Intelligent Design theorist. They must also believe that the Designer left visible signs pointing to his/her activity, and that human scientists are capable of discovering these signs and showing that intelligent agency is the best explanation of their origin.
I would define small i, small d, intelligent design as the belief that at least some things in Nature are in fact designed by some intelligence (which may or may not be divine), even if we have no way of establishing this scientifically. Thus creationist Todd Wood (who is critical of Intelligent Design as a scientific enterprise) would nevertheless happily accept intelligent design. The same goes for Thomist philosopher Ed Feser, and for that matter, the theistic evolutionist Kenneth Miller. Hope that helps. vjtorley
Thanks for clarifying your intended usage, vjtorley. Yes, it was not and unfortunately still is not much clearer to me, for example, in your first 3 usages of 'intelligent design,' 'intelligent design' and 'Intelligent Design' in the OP. Could you help by stating what you mean by capitalising 'Intelligent Design' - i.e. does it refer to a theory, a movement, an implication that a Deity must be involved (not a small-g god or small-a aliens), etc.? Connected to that, are you aware of and do you accept Owen Gingerich's distinction of upper case ID and lower case id? “I believe in intelligent design, lower case i and lower case d. But I have a problem with Intelligent Design, capital I and capital D. It is being sold increasingly as a political movement, as if somehow it is an alternative to Darwinian evolution.” – Owen Gingerich (God’s Universe. Cambridge: Belnap Press, 2006) If it helps to see where I'm coming from, I've written about this in more detail here. Thanks, Gr. Gregory
Hi Gregory, When I write about Intelligent Design, I use capitals. Occasionally, when I'm quoting from the writings of other people, I have to use lower case, because that's what they wrote. I'm sorry if the juxtaposition of upper and lower case in my essay confused you. vjtorley
It should be up to the people to decide what is or is not to be banned in their schools. Thats the right of a free people. So applauding this anti- creationism vote is applauding the peoples right to decide. AMEN. I understand 70% believe both sides should be taught. Louisiana isn't right about everything but could be a help to end state censorship of historic, popular, conclusions on origins. It should be a election issue about freedom. Robert Byers
id deserves a big ID! Mung
Whatever of the above may be true, it most surely doesn't help that the Discovery Institute's mouthpiece has recently offered to contrast "Mayan Apocalypse or Intelligent Design?" (tough call, really?) and then immediately asked for donations. Depending on the God/god(s) one worships, of course, a Mayan Apocalypse could actually be considered 'intelligent design'! ; ) p.s. vjtorley, how many times can you flip-flop between Intelligent Design and intelligent design in a single post? I count 4 'intelligent design' and 6 'Intelligent Design'. Surely you meant a special difference each time you chose capital or non-capital letters for ID, right? Gregory

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