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Washington Post Promotes Misinformation from the National Center for Science Education

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Some reporters see themselves more as activists than deliverers of the news. In the past, we've written about inaccurate and partisan reporting by Washington Post education writer Valerie Strauss. She's been doing this for a long time.

Back in 2004, John West documented how Strauss refused to accurately report that Discovery Institute opposes pushing ID into public schools. In 2013 we noted her false claims that academic freedom bills would authorize the teaching of "creationism." She corrected the latter, but still wrongly described academic freedom laws in Louisiana and Tennessee as "anti-evolution." The latest from Strauss is equally egregious.

Writing on Utah's draft grade 6-8 science standards, Strauss reports, "Climate change is not under siege in Utah middle schools. Evolution is." Actually neither climate change nor evolution is "under siege" in Utah. If you follow these sorts of things, it will come as little surprise that she got all her inaccurate talking points by uncritically reposting material from a pro-Darwin-only activist group, the National Center for Science Education (NCSE).

The truth is that the proposed Utah science standards do cover evolution, and leave no apparent room for critical analysis of the topic. Even though that's exactly what the NCSE wants, apparently it wasn't enough for them. Thus, Strauss reposts the following call to action from the NCSE's Minda Berbeco complaining about the draft Utah standards:

First and foremost, they don't mention evolution by name. Instead, they say "change in species over time." That's not just awkward, it's inaccurate. Moreover, they don't address natural selection, whereas the equivalent section of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) does. And since the standards in Utah's "Change of Species Over Time" strand otherwise match the NGSS standards, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that natural selection was deliberately omitted.

It looks to me like the reporters have picked up the wrong story: it's evolution, not climate change, that's under siege in Utah.

There's so much wrong with this from the NCSE, it's hard to know where to start. First of all, the current draft Utah standards do mention evolution by name:
  • "Construct explanations that describe the pattern soft body structure similarities and differences between modern organisms and between ancient and modern organisms to infer possible evolutionary relationships."
  • "Evidence for the evolutionary histories of life on Earth is provided in Earth itself through the fossil record and organism development."
Oh pardon me, they use the term "evolutionary" not "evolution." And in doing so, they also suggest the concept of common ancestry. (Bear in mind these standards are just for grades 6-8, and typically such concepts aren't usually introduced in detail until high school.)

Second, while the NCSE is technically correct that the draft Utah 6-8 standards don't use the specific term "natural selection," they do an otherwise very good job of describing that very concept:

7.4 Strand: Reproduction and Inheritance

The great diversity of species on Earth is a result of genetic variation. Genetic traits are passed from parent to offspring. These traits affect the structure and behavior of organisms, which affect the organism's ability to survive and reproduce. Mutations can cause changes in traits that may affect an organism. As technology has developed, humans have been able to change the inherited traits in organisms which may impact society.

7.4.1 Develop and use a model to explain the effect that different types of reproduction have on genetic variation, including asexual and sexual reproduction.

7.4.2 Obtain, evaluate, and communicate information about specific animal and plant adaptations and structures that affect the probability of successful reproduction. Examples of adaptations could include nest building to protect young from cold, herding of animals to protect young from predators, vocalization of animals and colorful plumage to attract mates for breeding, bright flowers attracting butterflies that transfer pollen, flower nectar and odors that attract insects that transfer pollen, and hard shells on nuts that squirrels bury.

7.4.3 Develop and use a model to describe why genetic mutations may result in harmful, beneficial, or neutral effects to the structure and function of the organism. Emphasize the conceptual idea that changes to traits can happen. Specific changes of genes at the molecular level, mechanisms for protein synthesis or specific types of mutations will be introduced at the high school level.

7.4.4 Obtain, evaluate, and communicate information about the technologies that have changed the way humans affect the inheritance of desired traits in organisms. Analyze data from tests or simulations to determine the best solution to achieve success in cultivating selected desired traits in organisms. Examples could include artificial selection, genetic modification, animal husbandry, and gene therapy.

Note the language about how "traits affect the structure and behavior of organisms, which affect the organism's ability to survive and reproduce," "[m]utations can cause changes in traits that may affect an organism," "specific animal and plant adaptations and structures ... affect the probability of successful reproduction," and "genetic mutations may result in harmful, beneficial, or neutral effects to the structure and function of the organism." That sounds precisely like key parts of standard textbook descriptions of natural selection. So the concept is certainly there, by description even if not by name.

Indeed, it's not as if Utah is averse to mentioning natural selection to students. The state's current science standards for grades 9-12 use the term multiple times. One example of many reads: "Describe the effects of environmental factors on natural selection." And incidentally, it's worth noting that Utah's current grade 7-8 science standards don't mention natural selection. Why is that? It's simple.

Rather than Utah's new draft grade 6-8 draft standards revealing some conspiracy to avoid teaching students about "natural selection," a much more likely and reasonable explanation is that Utah doesn't introduce "natural selection" until high school, but still tries to prepare students to understand the topic in earlier grades, even if not necessarily introducing that term's specific name at such a young age.

In any case, natural selection, common ancestry, and even "evolution" are all taught under these standards. By simply regurgitating the inaccurate claims of an activist group, Valerie Strauss demonstrates that she is no objective reporter. She goes on to republish the NCSE's call to arms:

So what is the answer? Keep e-mailing us with your concerns -- NCSE is the go-to place on these issues. Better yet, Utahns should voice their concerns directly to the state board of education.

If you are in Utah, you can review the draft science standards and offer your comments on-line. You will be asked, for the introduction and each strand in a grade level's standards, to recommend approving it as it stands, approving it with revisions, or rejecting it. You can enter a 1,000-character comment to explain your recommendation. You can commend the standards that present the science correctly and forthrightly and offer suggestions for improving standards that are unclear or incomplete. And, of course, this is your chance to call for climate change to be presented in sixth grade instead of eighth grade and for evolution and natural selection to be presented properly in seventh grade.

And if you're not in Utah? Do you have friends or family there? Let's get busy!

By sounding these false alarms and calling people to mobilize friends and family, Strauss reveals herself as a partisan and an activist. No, evolution isn't "under siege" in Utah. But the ideal of objective reporting sure is.

Image credit: Daniel X. O'Neil from USA (Washington, DC, June 2011: The Washington Post) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.