Dissecting Mercer's Anti-Evolution Editorial

Because shooting fish in a barrel is fun!

San Antonio's Ken Mercer represents SBOE Dist. 5, which includes South Austin
San Antonio's Ken Mercer represents SBOE Dist. 5, which includes South Austin (photo by Jana Birchum)

Sometimes, it takes a while for the lightbulb to go off over my head.

In a "Newsdesk" posting a few days ago, I touched lightly on Tuesday’s dishonest and contradictory anti-evolution editorial in the San Antonio Express-News by Ken Mercer, the representative of State Board of Education District 5 (which includes Travis County south of the Colorado River), and said I’d expand on it in the print edition. Duh – with the unlimited space afforded by the Internet, “Newsdesk” is the better place for piece-by-piece dissection of Mercer’s op-ed. So grab a cup of coffee or tea and kick back while I shoot fish in a barrel at length.

First, some background: An SBOE-appointed panel of scientists an educators recommended last year that language in the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills guidelines requiring public school educators to teach “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific theories should be deleted and replaced with “evaluate and analyze” – in large part because anti-evolutionists have seized upon this language in their attempts to push “intelligent design” theory (aka creationism) into curricula around the nation. In January, the SBOE narrowly rejected (on a 7-7 vote, with one pro-evolution member absent) a motion to overrule the panel and keep “strengths and weaknesses.”

Mercer’s op-ed was in response to an Express-News editorial on Jan. 29 slamming the anti-evolution wing of the board.

Quotes of Mercer indented:

Clearly, the issue is one of freedom of speech and academic freedom … You state that the battle “is about putting religion in public schools.” That is a false, political red herring.

I’ve already pointed out in my previous post how Mercer contradicts himself later by obsessing over the supposed influence of atheists on this argument , so no need to rehash that.

The issue of micro-evolution, those small changes we see every day that are already part of the genetic code, is not being challenged. It is macro-evolution, the large changes that lead to one species jumping to another (like the hypothesized common primate ancestor becoming today’s chimps and humans), that is very weak.

So says Mercer. I’ll give him some credit for having some knowledge on the subject – according to his SBOE bio, he did earn a bachelor’s in biology from UT-Austin. Unfortunately, his bachelor’s looks pretty puny compared to the world-class biology PhDs who testified before the board that another reason to eliminate the “weaknesses” language is that evolutionary theory has no major weaknesses and is as sound as the theory of gravity.

One of those PhDs was Daniel Bolnick, an assistant professor of integrative biology at UT. I asked him about the “microevolution” and “macroevolution” terms.

“It’s a false distinction,” Bolnick said. “There have historically been two separate sets of people studying evolutionary biology. The people in geology departments were predominantly focused on fossils – paleontologists. And then people studying modern, existing organisms are neontologists. And I think that departmental structure led to the tradition of talking about micro- and macroevolution. But on the other hand, when you start talking about the principles involved, the distinction breaks down very quickly. … It comes back to the same process of mutation, selection, genetic drift. The mechanisms are identical throughout, it’s just a matter of how far down that road you want to go.”

Because pro-evolutionists have a definite problem proving their case, they are afraid to allow Texas high school students the academic freedom to consider the weaknesses of this scientific theory. … The pro-evolutionist lobby is on the record as saying that high school students are “unqualified to ask questions.” This demonstrates a terrible lack of confidence and respect for our young people.

The “lobby” to which he refers, again, largely consists of biologists, such as David Hillis, another UT integrative biology professor. Hillis tried with great patience to explain to the SBOE that the merits of scientific theories should be debated in the academy, not high school classrooms, and quite properly pointed out that at the high school level, students simply don’t have the vocabulary and sophistication to distinguish between true science and hucksterism such as intelligent design. This isn’t a “lack of confidence and respect,” but rather a statement of reality. Once those same students work their way up through undergraduate and postgraduate studies, they’ll be more qualified to engage in such debates.

For the last twenty years, teachers have been required to present both the strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories; and I challenge the Express-News to find one science book approved by the SBOE that includes either creation science or intelligent design.

Of course, there isn’t one – because the fundie wing of the board hasn’t had the votes to get one passed. As for the past 20 years, as I noted above, the once rather innocuous phrase “strengths and weaknesses” has taken on a different meaning due to the political efforts of anti-evolutionist groups such as the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which pushes intelligent design/creationism. Contrary to what they might claim, that wing of the board would dearly love to get such books approved – more on that in the next paragraph.

I pray for my three friends, Pat Hardy of Ft. Worth, Bob Craig of Lubbock, and Geraldine “Tincy” Miller of Dallas. They voted against the Republican Party platform and allowed themselves to be constantly lobbied by prominent atheists and secular humanists. These three Republicans will now have to stand accountable before their constituents.

Here’s one of many of Mercer’s contradictions: That GOP platform that he considers so important says: “Theories of Origin – We support objective teaching and equal treatment of strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories, including Intelligent Design.” (Italics mine.)

“Mercer and his fellow evolution deniers on the state board have protested time and again that they do not want ‘intelligent design’/creationism taught in Texas classrooms,” said the Texas Freedom Network, an organization that works to counter the religious right, on its blog. “But that is expressly what their supposedly authoritative Republican Party platform demands.”

The Editorial Board wrote erroneously that scientists are “near unanimity (complete agreement) about evolution.” However, over 700 fully credentialed scientists are on public record as being skeptical about evolution.

The “700 scientists” list that the Discovery Institute and anti-evolution board members love to wave around is so easily punctured that it’s laughable. You’ll note that Mercer says “scientists” – not “biologists.” “Scientists,” obviously, is a broad term that could mean almost anything. Indeed, a perusal of the list, titled “A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism” (it may be downloaded at www.dissentfromdarwin.org), reveals that only 132 have positions with some form of the words “biology,” “evolution,” or “environment” in their titles. The rest study disciplines such as chemistry, engineering, mathematics, astrophysics, and so on. Quite possibly members of the latter group are distinguished in their fields, but that doesn’t make them qualified to comment on biology any more than being a journalist makes me an expert on advertising or book publishing.

One of the best rebuttals to the list is “Project Steve,” a parody put together by the National Center for Science Education. That 700+ might sound impressive until you contemplate how many working scientists are out there in the world. The NCSE brilliantly made this point by asking only scientists named Steve if they support evolution, and the list quickly got up to 1,000 signers (No. 1,000, by the way, was Steven P. Darwin of Tulane University). The NCSE estimates that “Steves” only comprise about 1% of the world’s scientists.

The article also stated that I voted “against the advice of scientific and education experts.” To the contrary, I questioned the six national experts during the SBOE’s public hearing; and three of the six are on record agreeing that weaknesses must be taught.

First off, the Express-News was referring to the larger panel that reviewed the TEKS guidelines and recommended deleting "strengths and weaknesses."

But as for the six experts to which Mercer refers, Texas Freedom Network’s Dan Quinn put them into context for me: These six were invited to testify by differing factions of the SBOE members. Given that the board is almost evenly divided, the six had a predictable 3-3 split. The three pro-evolution speakers were Hillis, and two professors who served on the TEKS review board, SMU anthropology professor Ronald Wetherington and Texas Tech education professor Gerald Skoog. The anti-evolutionists were the Discovery Institute’s Stephen Meyer, Baylor chemistry professor Charles Garner, and University of Wisconsin-Superior biology professor Ralph Seelke. Garner was indirectly rebuked recently by his own Baylor colleagues when the chemistry, biology, and geology departments issued statements supporting evolution. Seelke has been criticized for rarely publishing peer-reviewed articles, and whose official website discusses religion almost as much as science.

“The three experts, the three real experts on that panel, are respected, distinguished scientists who have been published and honored in a variety of venues, and are among – especially Dr. Hillis here, he’s among the most respected biologists in the world,” said Quinn. “The so-called experts on the other side include a political activist from pressure group from Seattle, and a couple of other scientists, one of whom I think hasn’t been published since the 1980s. What you really have is a panel of science experts and political activists.”

Texas Freedom Network, a pro-evolutionist organization, threatened parents by saying there would be a “price to pay” if our Texas students continue to be taught both the strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories, noting that Pro-Evolution Advocates sit on the boards of admittance of over 50 Texas colleges and universities. Here is a headline: “Evolutionists will deny college admittance to high school students.”

Our Texas history speaks otherwise. With “weaknesses” in our Texas standards for the last twenty years, Texas is a leader in science with NASA, Texas Instruments. Dell, IBM, Motorola, a new Toyota manufacturing plant, petroleum engineering giants such as Exxon and Shell, and many teaching hospitals and medical research centers. A few months ago, while the rest of the nation lost half a million jobs, Texas gained 200,000.

Again, this is an easy one: First off, “threaten” is a pretty misleading word – “warning” would be more accurate, seeing as how TFN is a political activist group that plays no role in college admissions or the business community. “That’s absolutely absurd,” Quinn says. “The point we were making, in fact, the point the scientists we surveyed were making is, if you want them to succeed in college, then you better make sure they get a good science education in high school. It has nothing to do with threats – it has everything to do with making sure kids are prepared with real science and not pseudoscientific babble.”

And let’s look at that list of science-oriented businesses he mentions: Except for the medical ones, none are in fields relating to biology. And as for as hospitals and medical research centers, their biological concerns have nothing to do with the “macroevolution” that Mercer questions.

Your editorial concluded that evolution “doesn’t seek to explain the origins of life on Earth.” Good. Students should be taught there are no consensus ideas or theories on how life began.

But you then followed with the phrase, “universal common descent – a key principle of evolution.” You cannot have it both ways. There is no conclusive proof that all species have one common ancestor.

It’s not clear here exactly how the Express-News is trying to “have it both ways,” but it does show how creationists fail to understand that evolution simply tries to explain what happened after life began, not how it began. They repeatedly attack evolution for not having an origin-of-life explanation, which makes about as much sense as attacking astronomy or geology for also failing to do so.

Finally, you fail to mention the hoaxes that have taken place among the Darwinian evolutionists. The Piltdown Man (i.e., “missing link”) has been termed by the British Broadcasting Company as the greatest scientific hoax of the 20th century. The “feathered dinosaur,” the “peppered moths,” and the embryo drawings of atheist Dr. Haeckel – all have been shown to be frauds.

This is one of the easiest talking points to puncture. The Piltdown Man was indeed once considered a major scientific find until it was discovered to be the skulls of a human and orangutan fused together. And if the entire science of evolution hinged around that piece of evidence, or the other frauds, then the theory would indeed collapse. However, these are only singular examples out of thousands, even millions, of bits of evidence that contribute to the theory. Their exposure as hoaxes does not discredit the theory, it only discredits the scientists who perpetrated them and says nothing about the thousands of reputable scientists over the past 150 years whose work has held up to scrutiny.

Given how easily the anti-evolution arguments of Mercer and others on the board break down – and the fact that real evolution experts have explained this to them personally – it’s becoming obvious that the problem isn’t a failure on the part of scientists to properly explain evolution, but a willful refusal of the board members to learn.

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