Creationists have put us into a bizarre, alternate universe, at least when it comes to curriculum design. Their latest attempt to undermine science education involves inserting the code words 'strengths and weaknesses' into the public school science standards. The idea is that, whenever something religious fundamentalists find controversial crops up in science class, teachers have to teach the "strengths and weaknesses" of that particular topic. Fortunately, this creationist code has just been kept out of the Texas state science standards, but you can bet the code is going to crop up again at some point.

It's worth taking a moment to think about how whacked this whole debate over strengths and weaknesses has become. Open discussion of strengths and weakness of science is a key part of any healthy scientific community. This kind of open discussion should also guide how scientists discuss their work with the public. Richard Feynman put it well:

I would like to add something that's not essential to the science, but something I kind of believe, which is that you should not fool the layman when you're talking as a scientist. I am not trying to tell you what to do about cheating on your wife, or fooling your girlfriend [keep in mind that Feynman was basically talking to a bunch of guys here - unfortunately, there weren't as many women at Caltech in 1974 as there should have been], or something like that, when you're not trying to be a scientist, but just trying to be an ordinary human being. We'll leave those problems up to you and your rabbi. I'm talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you're maybe wrong, that you ought to have when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen.

As long as it's pedagogically sound, this approach can be taken in public schools. Naturally, most of the subject matter is going to be about older, very well-established science. Discussing the weaknesses of this material is almost always going to be too difficult, because over time, the most obvious criticisms will have been dealt with; what's left is going to be about fairly advanced, subtle concepts. It's not hard to imagine how poorly a discussion of Einstein's (or John Bell's, or David Bohm's) critiques of quantum theory would go in your typical high school physics class.

The weaknesses of less-well established science can be easier to discuss (because there are more obvious weaknesses still unsolved), but this type of science is typically at the bleeding edge of today's research - stuff that might be nice to discuss, but not part of an introductory class. Discussing the weaknesses of string theory or genome-wide association studies might be a good way to teach high school students about the nature of cutting-edge science, but the problem is that students have to learn some substantial background knowledge before they can understand what string theory or genome-wide association studies are about.

Of course, the creationist 'strengths and weaknesses' code words discussed by the Texas State School Board aren't about this kind of thing. Creationists aren't interested in real scientific debates over evolution; they want to use this code language to put religiously motivated, amateur critiques into the curriculum. The Texas school board controversy over these seemingly insignificant words isn't about whether we should discuss weaknesses with high school students; it's about whether we should let unqualified members of the intelligent design PR movement put nonsensical critiques into the classroom.

When we discuss weaknesses of a science topic in high school, in any sane world we would be talking about weaknesses causing debate among the scientists themselves. If we're going to discuss weaknesses, one would think that sound curriculum design would involve including only weaknesses proposed by people who know what they're talking about. But that's not what's going on in Texas.

Let's just take one favorite example of creationists: common descent - the idea that today's living species descended from a past set of common ancestors. Biologists have concluded that humans and chimps share a common ancestor, one that lived ~6-8 million years ago, that today's mammals descended from organisms that were also the ancestors of today's reptiles, etc. etc. Most creationists can't stand this idea (especially when it comes to human evolution), and they think that so-called evidence against common descent should be presented in science classes.

At a bare minimum, anyone who is going to criticize this idea should understand the evidence biologists use to argue for common descent. Someone who doesn't understand how to read phylogenetic trees, or how those trees are constructed from DNA sequence or morphological data, is not going to have a coherent, rational argument against common descent, because to criticize common descent, you have to be able to explain why you think the DNA evidence is wrong.

Creationists have no credibility on this issue of common descent because they don't know what they're talking about. The main intelligent design textbook Of Panda's and People can't even get the basic argument used by biologists straight. The authors clearly don't understand how biologists infer evolutionary relationships from DNA sequence, because they make a basic blunder that anyone who has taken Biology 101 in the last 20 years could refute.

(Here's another discussion of the blunder, from the Kitzmiller trial transcript - scroll down to the part that starts with "I think the treatment of biology by Pandas is inaccurate..." In a nutshell, Pandas falls for the basic 'if humans descended from chimps, why are there still chimps?' fallacy, by suggesting that today's living amphibians are intermediates between fish and reptiles. The correct answer is that today's reptiles and amphibians are both descendants of a common amphibian-like ancestor - and DNA sequences reflect that.)

If creationists don't even understand the basic claims of evolutionary biology, how can we expect them to come up with sound criticisms? Only in the alternate universe of today's culture wars would supposedly responsible, normally-functioning people, designing curriculum standards for millions of public school students, invite crank criticisms of major scientific topics from a religiously-motivated public relations movement.

Discussing strengths and weaknesses in science is a good thing, but in the Texas debate, these words are nothing more than creationist code.