Young Earth at SBOE

Part of a continuing series on the SBOE text book hearings in Austin

I have studied creationism for over 20 years, but this is the first time I crossed paths with Young Earth Creationist (YEC) David Shormann.

B.S. in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Texas
Masters Degree in Marine Chemistry from the University of Texas
Ph.D. in Limnology from Texas A&M University

At the State Board of Education hearings on Tuesday I noticed Ray Bohlin among the scheduled speakers, and I wandered over to talk and also to take some photos. I had seen Bohlin previously at the TFN conference in Dallas back in 2003, but at the time I did not get a chance to talk. Anyhow, David Shormann was there, as well, and I introduced myself.

David Shormann addresses the SBOE on 17 September 2013

He told me he runs a concern that produces educational materials for home school and I presume for private Christian schools, as well. So I wanted to get his position on creationism, evolution and the whole debate. He quickly confirmed his YEC position, and I mentioned I had some previous experience with YECs, and I wanted to check on how he compared. I told him that in my previous encounters with YECs and other creationist types, the work of mainstream scientists was often declared to be fraudulent, and on occasion specific scientists were declared to be liars. This instruction, I told him, was also passed on to their children.

Shormann would not be boxed into that position. He declared the critical aspects of modern biology, geology and paleontology (that’s what we were talking about) were based on false assumptions and misinterpretations of the evidence. When pressed on the matter, he declined to call these scientists liars.

He also brought up a YEC argument that sounded very familiar. Radiometric dating of recent volcanic activity had yielded an age of 5.5 million years, even though the event happend just the previous century. The event in question was the Novar­upta-Katmai eruption of 1912. I was not aware of this particular case, but I had previously heard the same argument put forth from a YEC concerning a Hawaiian volcano eruption.

Following up, I pulled up a publication by Shormann to see what he had to say. Here is the abstract:

40Ar/39Ar Calibration against Novarupta: No Good Reason to Believe in Millions of Years

* David E. Shormann, PhD, drshormann@gmail.com, Magnolia, TX

Accepted for publication May 2, 2013

Abstract

June 6–8, 2012 marked the one hundredth anniversary of the Novar­upta-Katmai eruption in southwest Alaska. It was one of the biggest eruptions in recorded history, and the largest since Krakatoa in 1883. A bulk sample from the top of the Novarupta lava dome, collected in July 2009, was age-dated in 2012 using the 40Ar/39Ar method. A key as­sumption in the method is that an igneous sample has no argon when it solidifies. Environmental conditions were ideal for setting this sample’s “argon clock” to zero, and atmospheric contamination was accounted for. Yet the 100-year-old rhyolite from Novarupta still gave apparent ages as high as 5.50±0.11 million years old. Bias is introduced to the Ar/Ar method because, prior to analysis, technicians request an age estimate for the sample. Because Scripture, not experimental evidence, is the ultimate authority for Creation researchers, the burden of proof lies with “deep time” historians to explain why anyone should believe radiometric methods determine actual sample ages. Radiometric methods are bet­ter suited for interpreting a rock’s environmental history. In addition to discussing known environmental effects on argon solubility, the effect of event energy on accelerated nuclear decay is explored as a possible cause of the excess argon.

OK, I fully understand that “scripture, not experimental evidence, is the ultimate authority. I get that. This paper was published in Creation Research Society Quarterly 2013. 50:13–24. The Creation Research Society is not your grandfather’s scientific society.

The Creation Research Society is a professional organization of trained scientists and interested laypersons who are firmly committed to scientific special creation. The Society was organized in 1963 by a committee of ten like-minded scientists, and has grown into an organization with worldwide membership.

The primary functions of the Society are: Publication of a quarterly peer-reviewed journal.
Conducting research to develop and test creation models.
The provision of research grants and facilities to creation scientists for approved research projects.
Providing qualified scientists to speak to groups or churches.

Other functions of CRS include maintenance of a comprehensive directory of creationist organizations throughout the world. The CRS also runs a secure online bookstore for ordering books and videos on special creation.

The CRS was incorporated in the state of Michigan as a nonprofit corporation for educational and scientific purposes. Shortly thereafter it was granted 501(c)(3) not-for-profit tax-exempt status by the IRS. The first issue of the Creation Research Society Quarterly was published in July, 1964.

The CRS is independent and unaffiliated with any other organization, religious group or church body. The CRS advocates the concept of special creation (as opposed to evolution), both of the universe and of the earth with its complexity of living forms. Membership in the Society requires agreement with the CRS Statement of Belief. Members of the society include research scientists from various fields of scientific accomplishment who are committed to full belief in the Biblical record of creation and early history.

In my own presentation (such as it was) at the hearings I pointed out that creationists do not publish their research supporting creationism in peer-reviewed scientific journals. I held up a copy of Science magazine as an example.

If you pull down Shormann’s paper and read through it you will be impressed, as I was, how much like a real scientific research publication it is. It has an abstract and a summary (conclusions) and in between a whole lot of explanation, plus charts and illustrations. There is a quantity of citations to the works of others, and therein the reader will begin to get a clue.

For example, Shormann cites works by real scientists, including Brent Dalrymple and Garniss H. Curtis. It would have been best had he stopped there. Unfortunately his paper goes on to cite Steven A. AustinDavid Coppedge, Donald DeYoung, Jonathan Edwards, Richard L. Overman, himself, Andrew Snelling, Larry Vardiman, Eugene Chaffin, Tas Walker, John Woodmorappe, John C. Whitcomb and Henry Morris.

That’s an interesting collection, and many I have seen around for years.

Steven A. Austin has a legitimate Ph.D. in geology from Penn State. He is most famous for his argument that the Mount St. Helens eruption of 1980 demonstrates that geological features to not require millions of years to form.

David Coppedge is best remembered as the creationist who sued JPL after he lost his job as a system administrator. He is, or was at the time, on the board of Illustria Media, the entity that produced some of the slick creationist videos of recent time, including Metamorphosis, a beautifully produced video about butterflies that attempts to make the argument that insect metamorphosis cannot be explained by Darwinian evolution. This is an Old Earth Creationism (OEC) theme. Illustria also produced Darwin’s Dilemma, Unlocking the Mystery of Life, and The Privileged Planet.

Andrew Snelling is a YEC with a legitimate Ph.D. in geology, and he made his name several years back by extrapolating the historical strength of Earth’s magnetic field back to the time of creation, just a few thousand years ago, when the field strength must have been infinite.

John Woodmorappe may be one of the most curious of the collection. That’s not his real name. Jan Peczkis has published extensively for the Institute for Institute for Creation Research. In his paper Stormann cites Piczkis’s paper, The Mythology of Modern Dating Methods:

Radiometric dates from samples of unknown age cannot be verified. Problems with the Potassium-Argon (K/Ar) method were noted early in its application, particularly the problem of “excess” argon contained in samples (Aldrich and Nier, 1948). Some samples had so much excess argon that they gave apparent ages of 9 Ga (billion years ago); almost twice Earth’s secularly assumed age (Harrison and McDougal, 1981). Woodmorappe (1999) showed how the “excess argon” label is invoked as a way to discount once-accepted Ar-Ar dates. Since the secular Earth age is actually not verifiable, is it also possible that most, if not all K/Ar and Ar/Ar samples contain excess argon? Results from a study of over 500 articles suggest there is excess (Overman, 2013).

Lacking any real science of their own, creationists, and especially YECs like Shormann, rely on works of similar worthiness by other creationists to bolster their own claims.

At the hearing Shormann was given two minutes to speak, and I made a short video of the interchange. What I found most curious is that Shormann’s world involves only home school and (supposedly) private Christian schools. So, why is he at the SBOE hearing making objections to texts used in public schools? The world wonders.

He started off by telling us he was “on the outside looking in.” He was somebody who does not participate in public education, but he chooses to examine and critique it. He stated that his curriculum standards for math and science are higher than those of any state in the U.S. I guess I’m going to have to take Shormann’s word at face value on that, because I have no way to verify it. So, it turned out that what Shormann was objecting to is the lack of coverage of epigenetics in the texts. He said the curriculum is lacking in “21st century science.” He was one of the reviewers of the biology curriculum in 2011, and he found no or else inadequate coverage, so he found it necessary to “go against” his team members and object to the acceptance of the material.

He went on to say that he has to keep up with the latest science in order to maintain a market for his curriculum product (my interpretation of what he was saying). His curriculum is “already at least two years ahead of what Texas text books have.” He soon got to the point, as I understand it. He wants the current texts rejected because they don’t cover the latest science. He urged the Board to reject the books “unless they put a definition, explain it…” (epigenetics).

Board member Patricia Hardy, representing District 11 (Fort Worth) objected to Shormann’s objection. A specific requirement for defining and explaining epigenetics is not in the TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills), which is the driving requirement given to publishers. It would be unreasonable to reject a text that did not include material not required by the TEKS.

Shormann pressed the issue, perhaps a bit beyond the pale. Apparently in his handout given to the board he referenced the TEKS breakouts he had in mind. Here are the expectations and breakouts I caught from his conversation with the Board:

(7)  Science concepts. The student knows evolutionary theory is a scientific explanation for the unity and diversity of life. The student is expected to: (F)  analyze and evaluate the effects of other evolutionary mechanisms, including genetic drift, gene flow, mutation, and recombination
(7)  Science concepts. The student knows evolutionary theory is a scientific explanation for the unity and diversity of life. The student is expected to: (G)  analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning the complexity of the cell (ii)  evaluate scientific explanations concerning the complexity of the cell

The standards require the student to “evaluate scientific explanations concerning the complexity of the cell.” Shormann wanted the texts to include specific coverage of epigenetics in order to satisfy this requirement.

In fact, the one biology text I looked at has coverage required by the TEKS. The Miller-Levine book by Pearson (Prentiss Hall) has, starting on page 484, a section titled Sources of Genetic Variation. This section covers gene flow, mutation, and recombination. A section starting on page 490 is titled Genetic Drift.

This is not a discussion of epigenetics, but to a dispassionate reviewer this would cover the TEKS breakout.

Breakout 7 G ii is covered starting on page 555:

Complexity in Eukaryotes Eukaryotic cells contain several kinds of complex cytoplasmic organelles, including lysosomes, endoplasmatic reticula, cilia, and flagella. Two other organelles, chloroplasts and mitochondria, are even more complicated. For more than a century, cell biologists have wondered how eukaryotic cells with such complex organelles might have evolved.

This section of the book, pages 555-558, also discusses the workings of eukaryotes (cells with a defined nucleus). It discusses the Krebs cycle (citric acid cycle) that is essential to cell respiration and also ribosomes, used by cells to translate mRNA (messenger RNA) molecules into amino acids, which make up proteins. Page 558 has a section that would warm the heart of any Intelligent Design proponent.

Do We Understand the Cell Completely? Of course not. Many uncertainties remain in our current understanding of cellular complexity. Biologists are still learning how cells function in response to their environments, and how they  interact with each other. Such uncertainties are part of biology, as they are for any experimental science. In many ways, this is good news, because it means that there are plenty of mysteries to be solved by the next generation of biologists. Meanwhile, what we do understand suggests that complex cell structures and pathways were produced by known mechanisms of evolutionary change.

Oops, that last sentence would not go over well with OECs like Michael Behe.

Anyhow, all of that is not enough to satisfy David Shormann’s quest for perfection in a curriculum neither he nor his customers and students will ever use. Call me cynical, but my feeling is Shormann’s quest is not so much the uplifting of Texas science standards as it is to strike a blow at any curriculum that adheres only to natural processes.

Also, what is not clear to me is why the SBOE saw fit to put up with his shenanigans on Tuesday. As Shormann mentioned in his talk on Tuesday, he has been here before and has done this before.

Creationists Target Publisher in Texas Adoption
By Dan | Published July 21, 2011

Update: TFN has obtained a copy of letter addressed to the state board signed by five members of the official biology review panels. The letter challenges the alleged “errors” identified in the report presented to the board late yesterday, concluding:

“Holt McDougal’s supplement, as well as the publisher’s response to the reviewers, accurately describes the current state of the science, satisfies the TEKS, and matches the other supplements already approved by the board on Thursday.”

***

The Texas State Board of Education’s public hearing and debate over proposed new science instructional materials today went well — until a big bump at the end. Most of the instructional materials the education commissioner has recommended for adoption received preliminary approval from the state board. The board has scheduled a final vote tomorrow.

But toward the end of the debate this afternoon, Texas Education Agency staff revealed that a review team had identified eight objections to content in the Biology instructional materials submitted for approval by publisher Holt McDougal. Board members were told that Holt McDougal is arguing that the objections are based on bad science.

Indeed, the objections appear to be largely the work of a young-earth creationist — David Shormann — on the team that reviewed the company’s materials. Here is a review Shormann wrote about the Holt McDougal materials and shared with his review team. We obtained this document last week through a Public Information Act request to TEA.

As on Tuesday, Shormann addressed breakout 7 G (see above) in 2011. He had this to say in his objections to the Holt McDougal material:

The red blood cell is referred to as a simple eukaryotic cell, but it has no nucleus, no organelles, and no membranes inn its cytoplasm. Therefore, it cannot be referred to as a eukaryotic cell.

I am not a biologist, and the first time I read this I did not realize it was written by a creationists. I thought to myself, “Holy shit! Have I been wrong all this time?” Then I read the response in the next column from the publisher:

The red blood cell is indeed a highly derived eukaryotic cell. Red blood cells, or erythrocytes, form from eukaryotic progenitor cells that do have a nucleus, organelles, and cytoplasmic membranes. These structures are extruded from erythrocytes during the course of their development from the progenitor cells.

This is one of the things that happens when a non-biologist gets involved in reviewing biology curricula. The fact is that Shormann’s degrees are in aerospace engineering, marine chemistry and limnology.

Limnology … also called freshwater science, is the study of inland waters. It is often regarded as a division of ecology or environmental science. It covers the biological, chemical, physical, geological, and other attributes of all inland waters (running and standing waters, both fresh and saline, natural or man-made). This includes the study of lakes and ponds, rivers, springs, streams and wetlands. A more recent sub-discipline of limnology, termed landscape limnology, studies, manages, and conserves these aquatic ecosystems using a landscape perspective.

Limnology is closely related to aquatic ecology and hydrobiology, which study aquatic organisms in particular regard to their hydrological environment.

Shormann is not much more a biologist than I am, so it’s possible a mistake with the red blood cells can be explained.  Other errors are not so easily explained except by poor scholarship or else a smidgen of duplicity. Reviewing TEKS breakout 7 A against the Holt McDougal text, Shormann had this objection:

7 A Comparing Hominid Skulls

Lab Activity: comparing hominid skulls: 2010 research confirms humans and chimps differ by 30%. This fact is not discussed in the lab activity. The human/chimp skull homology does not match the genetic homology. Including the human skull leads students to a conclusion that differs from 21st century scientific research that is testable and repeatable, and should be removed from the activity. “The difference in MSY gene content in chimpanzee and human is more comparable to the difference in autosomal gene content in chicken and human, at 310 million years of separation.” The similarities in human skulls with other hominids may be convergent evolution, but it is erroneous to pretend that common ancestry is the cause.

Holt’s response is telling:

There is no error with this Virtual Lab. The comment from the panel appears to refer to a research paper published in the January 28, 2010, issue of Nature: Hughes et al, “Chimpanzee and human Y chromosomes are remarkably divergent in structure and gene content.” The study found a 30 percent difference in the genetic makeup of the male-specific region of the Y chromosome (MSY). This region accounts for a tiny percentage of the overall genome in humans and chimps, which the paper explicitly refers to as “our closest living relative.” In the sentence immediately preceding the one quoted in the panel comment, the researchers point out that “in the remainder of the genome, comparison of chimpanzee draft sequence with human reference sequence suggests that the gene content of the two species differs <1%.” The researchers conclude that the major difference in MSY sequence indicates rapid evolution during the 6 million years since humans and chimps diverged from a common ancestor. Thus the article itself does not support the assertions made in the panel comments.

The biology TEKS student expectation 7 A states:

(7)  Science concepts. The student knows evolutionary theory is a scientific explanation for the unity and diversity of life. The student is expected to: (A)  analyze and evaluate how evidence of common ancestry among groups is provided by the fossil record, biogeography, and homologies, including anatomical, molecular, and developmental

In his 2011 review of the Holt text Shormann listed seven objections to—and suggested revisions to—Holt’s coverage of 7 A, some in the student TEKS and one in the teacher TEKS. Each case gives the impression of an amateur complaining and a professional scientist/educator responding.

After wading through my own review of the Shormann/Holt exchange I came across a more thorough analysis of the Shormann/Holt exchange by Steven Schafersman.

Schafersman holds a B.S. in Geology and Biology from Northern Illinois University, a M.S. in Geology, and a Ph.D. in Geology (1983) from Rice University. He currently resides in Midland, Texas with his wife Dr. Gae Kovalick, a University of Texas of the Permian Basin professor of Biology. He specialized in invertebrate paleontology, stratigraphy, and sedimentary petrology.

Schafersman taught at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin (2000-2002), Miami University (Ohio) (1994-1999), University of Houston (1984-1989) and Houston Community College (1974-1978 and 1984-1994).

He has been a pro-science activist since 1989.

In addition, he created the Free Inquiry website, dedicated to educating the public on humanism and skepticism and the Texas Citizens for Science website, committed to opposing the representation of religious concepts such as intelligent design and creationism as science in Texas textbooks. Schafersman contributes to a blog column for the Houston Chronicle at Evo.Sphere Blog.

Schafersman also addressed the SBOE on Tuesday, and his analysis concluded:

In this analysis, it is clear that David Shormann—with his identification of bogus errors and faulty suggestions about how to correct them—is trying to confuse and mislead students about the accuracy and reliability of evolution as a natural process. Holt’s original text was perfectly scientifically accurate and needs no revisions. The only possible acceptable changes would be to add a few sentences to clarify or explain topics with a little more detail. It is important for such additions to be positive and not confusing since students can be easily misled by poor presentation or pedagogy. That is why experienced scientists and science educators should be responsible for the content of these instructional materials, not anti-science reviewers or elected public officials.

Finally, the TFN press release quoted above also cited a letter dated 22 July 2011, written to the Board by members of the biology review panels. This letter included the following:

We write as members of the biology review panels, deeply concerned about the claims of factual errors in the submission from Holt McDougal. We do not agree that the claims listed are errors, and in examining the response from Holt McDougal, we find the publisher’s rationale scientifically valid, correct, and aligned to the TEKS.

Indeed, we considered many of these same topics in the supplements we reviewed. Holt McDougal’s supplement, as well as the publisher’s response to the reviewers, accurately describes the current state of the science, satisfies the TEKS, and matches the other supplements already approved by the board on Thursday.

Moreover, the claims advanced by at least one member of committee that reviewed Holt McDougal’s submission are scientifically inaccurate and seem entirely dedicated to undermining the presentation of evolution. Many of the claims derive from overtly creationist literature and arguments.

It is signed by

Dr. Ronald Wetherington, Southern Methodist University
Kevin Fisher, Lewisville ISD
Kelly Hall, Grapevine-Colleyville ISD
Cynthia Tanner, Corpus Christi ISD
Dawna Schweitzer, Eagle-Mountain-Saginaw ISD

Four apparently are teachers in Texas school districts, and the other is Ronald Wetherington, a physical anthropologist and a professor at Southern Methodist University:

Professor Wetherington has long been active in seeking ways to improve learning and to motivate students at all educational levels. He developed and has conducted an annual four-day interdisciplinary science and humanities curriculum for 8th grade students, “The Taos Odyssey”, held at SMU-in-Taos, since 1997. Dallas’ Christ the King School added the Odyssey to their formal curriculum in 2002. Other participating schools have included Bishop Dunne and Prince of Peace.

He also developed and conducted a week-long “Professional Development Workship” (sic) at the request of the Episcopal School of Houston, held in Taos in the summers of 2004 and 2005. At the other end of the educational continuum, Wetherington devised a series of adult education short-course modules as a proposal for SMU-in-Taos. In 2005, the first of these “SMU Cultural Institute” offerings was held, with an enthusiastic response. On campus, Professor Wetherington organized the initial “Teaching Effectiveness Symposium” in 1992, which has become the flagship event for the CTE at the beginning of the fall term, and the “TA Seminar”, held each August for first-year graduate students at SMU.

In 2008 Professor Wetherington was appointed as one of six science experts by the Texas Education Agency to advise the State Board of Education on the decennial revision of the science standards for K – 12 public schools. When this concluded in 2009 and the social studies standards were revised, Wetherington again testified against interpretive errors in many of these proposed changes.

A 2012 documentary film on this 2008 – 2011 debate, The Revisionaries, has won several awards and is in general theatrical release in the U.S. It will be featured as a PBS film in 2013.

Here is a link to David Shormann’s talk. My video clips from the Tuesday’s hearings include talks by Professor Wetherington, Dr. Schafersman and numerous other science advocates and also creationists. Those I failed to get on my own apparently were snared by the TFN, which had a highly competent crew on hand. I will be posting my videos to YouTube in the near future, and I will cover these presentations and will provide links in future posts. Please keep reading.

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