Universe's age erased from Texas school science standards

Ever since a 2005 trial in Dover, Pennsylvania, revealed "intelligent design" to be creationism by another name, school boards that want to expand science standards to accommodate "alternative" ideas have tried to do so in a more subtle way.

Last year, for example, biologists mobilised when states began considering teacher-protection laws promoting "academic freedom," ostensibly designed to protect teachers from being fired for presenting "the full range of scientific views" on evolution.

On the surface it seemed an innocuous move; protecting teachers who want to teach evolution seems natural enough. But the law, which was modelled after a template offered by the pro-intelligent design Discovery Institute, came to be seen as a loophole for creationists, allowing teachers to introduce non-scientific alternatives to evolution.

So, given the subtleties, it's hard to know what to make of the Texas Board of Education's decision on Friday to drop mention that the universe is some 14 billion years old in the state science standards.

In an amendment sponsored by board member Barbara Cargill, the board of education voted to replace a requirement to teach the "concept of an expanding universe that originated about 14 billion years ago". According to the National Center for Science Education's Josh Rosenau, teachers must now present "current theories of the evolution of the universe including estimates for the age of the universe" (emphasis added).

Those two words - theories and estimates - seem a bit out of place. If anything, astronomers and cosmologists are converging on a single idea for how the universe has expanded over time and a single estimate for the age of the universe. With the latest results compiled by NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), that age now stands at 13.73 billion years, plus or minus some 120 million years.

Is the new standard an invitation for young-Earth proponents to teach students that the Earth and the universe beyond it is just a few thousand years old? Some teachers could conceivably see it as an opening. According to a 2008 study, 16% of US science teachers believe humans were created by God in the last 10,000 years.

Perhaps the Texas board is just trying to round out their students' education, by requiring that teachers demonstrate that there are multiple ways to estimate the age of the universe. After all, decoding the cosmic recipe of how much dark energy, dark matter, and ordinary matter the universe contains is just one (quite precise) way to determine its age. But you can also make rough estimates based on the universe's current expansion rate or by looking at the ages of the oldest stars. Let's hope that's the case.

Otherwise, it looks like cosmology, which has remained relatively unaffected by recent religion-based attacks, might soon be on trial. I say, bring it on - while there are many unanswered questions about the universe - for example, what the nature of dark matter is - its age is not one of them. Establishing at a Dover-like trial that the Earth is more than 4 billion years old and the universe is more than 13 billion years old could only be good for the public understanding of science. Via

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