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Please Mess With Texas: Textbook Fiasco Threatens U.S. Science

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Introduction

Once again Texas has joined a list of U.S. states that are fighting a rear-guard war against the progress of modern science.

On Sept. 9, 2013, the National Center for Science Education and the Texas Freedom Network issued a joint news release expressing alarm at comments made by members of a Texas state committee reviewing proposed science textbooks for the state. If a publisher's textbook does not obtain the highest rating, because of ill-informed comments by the state review panel, then it is likely that the textbook will not be approved by local school districts. In fact, a sub-par rating could even result in the textbook being rejected by the state board, thus making it unavailable to local school boards.

In the 20 states that have them, U.S. textbook adoption rules date from the 1920s and require publishers to post huge bonds to ensure that they remain in business; thus they favor the large publishers and force those seeking adoptions into currying favor with state preferences -- however unreasonable they be. Both Texas and California have such processes and thus drive the U.S. textbook market in ways both good and bad.

Unscientific Textbook Reviews

Of particular concern are ideologically tinged comments made by certain board members on evolution and climate warming. Some particularly disturbing instances include the following examples:

  1. "I understand the National Academy of Science's [sic] strong support of the theory of evolution. At the same time, this is a theory. As an educator, parent, and grandparent, I feel very firmly that 'creation science' based on Biblical principles should be incorporated into every Biology book that is up for adoption."
  2. "While I understand the theory of evolution and its wide acceptance, there should be inclusion of the 'creation model' based on the Biblical view of history."
  3. "Text neglects to tell students that no transitional fossils have been discovered. The fossil record can be interpreted in other ways than evolutionary with equal justification. Text should ask students to analyze and compare alternative theories. The statement that there are hundreds of thousands of transitional fossils is simply not true. Moreover, those fossils that are considered transitional are often subjects of disagreement among biologists."
  4. "We don't really know that the carbon Cycle [sic] has been altered."

Needless to say, these comments are utterly and completely uninformed.

To begin with, the notion that textbooks should contain "creation science" or "the Biblical view of history" (whatever the reviewer's interpretation of this may be) is not only inappropriate and unscientific but patently illegal: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1981 case McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, and in the 1987 case Edwards v. Aguillard, that teaching "creation science" or "creationism" in public schools is unconstitutional. What's more, the implication that science is fundamentally anti-religious is countered by the fact that many scientists are religious believers. For example, Francis Collins, the director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, is an evangelical Christian.

With regard to the reviewer's quip that evolution is just a "theory," Vincent Cassone, a University of Kentucky biologist, recently expressed the consensus scientific view in these terms:

The theory of evolution is the fundamental backbone of all biological research. ... There is more evidence for evolution than there is for the theory of gravity, than the idea that things are made up of atoms, or Einstein's theory of relativity. It is the finest scientific theory ever devised.

Along this line, the claim that "no transitional fossils have been discovered" ignores the tens of thousands of transitional fossils, representing thousands of separate species, that have been found in "gaps" that were once thought to exist in the paleontological record. As the U.S. National Academy of Sciences has noted, "The claim that the fossil record is 'full of gaps' that undermine evolution is simply false." Indeed, scientists in recent years have found remarkable transitional fossils in gaps that creationists once highlighted as impossible to fill, for example the Tiktaalik fossil, found in 2004, that is intermediate between bony fish and tetrapods (four-legged creatures).

Finally, the comment that "[w]e don't really know that the carbon Cycle [sic] has been altered" ignores an enormous amount of research, not the least of which is that the measured level of atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased from 280 parts per million to over 400 parts per million since the dawn of the industrial revolution, which is well correlated with the amount of CO2 that humans have pumped into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels.

Even in the past century the human "signature" in climate data is unmistakable. The latest ICPP report concludes that it is "extremely likely that human influence on climate caused more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010. ... There is high confidence that this has warmed the ocean, melted snow and ice, raised global mean sea level and changed some climate extremes in the second half of the 20th century."

Are Reviewers Qualified?

Texas educators are alarmed at this development. As Kathy Miller, President of the Texas Freedom Network, explains, "What our kids learn in their public schools should be based on mainstream, established science, not the personal views of ideologues, especially those who are grossly unqualified to evaluate a biology textbook in the first place."

Indeed, many of the textbook reviewers do not remotely have the qualifications that one would think would be required for such an important task. Many are not even even real professional, peer-reviewed scientists: One is a dietician; another is a systems engineer; and one is a businessman whose background is in finance, not in any scientific discipline. And the review panel's ratings have impact: As mentioned above, failing to obtain a review panel's top rating makes it harder for publishers to sell their textbooks to school districts or can even lead the State Board of Education (SBOE) to reject the textbook altogether.

Ben Franklin Banned

As a young man in 1728, Benjamin Franklin had composed his own mock epitaph, which read:

The Body of Ben Franklin

Printer; like the Cover of an old

book, Its Contents torn out and

Stript of its Lettering & Gilding

Lies here, food for the worms, yet the

work shall not be Lost

for it will, as he believ'd, appear once more

In a new & more beautiful Edition,

Corrected & amended by the Author.

Born June 6th, 1706

As an indication of how crazy the demands of ideologues can be, the above poem was cited in a legal brief in the 1983 Tennessee case Mozert v. Hawkins County Board of Education as part of the plaintiffs' complaint that the state's required textbooks constituted a violation of their right to free exercise of religion -- because the above poem was evidence that Franklin was a Buddhist. A U.S. District Court held for the plaintiffs, but fortunately the ruling was later overturned on appeal.

Conclusion

It is hard to overstate the importance of this most recent development. With some of the best textbooks receiving less-than-top marks, some Texas school districts may not select them. Worse, if publishers cave to pressure of this sort and modify their textbooks accordingly, then, because of the sheer size of the Texas K-12 educational system, these changes might well propagate throughout the U.S. and potentially elsewhere. In short, this is not just a Texas matter; it is a challenge to the integrity of the entire scientific educational establishment.