Battle over science texts

Motoko Rich / New York Times News Service /

Published Sep 30, 2013 at 05:00AM

AUSTIN, Texas — One is a nutritionist who believes “creation science” based on biblical principles should be taught in the classroom. Another is a chemical engineer who is listed as a “Darwin Skeptic” on the website of the Creation Science Hall of Fame. A third is a trained biologist who also happens to be a fellow of the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based center of the intelligent-design movement and a vice president at an evangelical ministry in Plano, Texas.

As Texas gears up to select biology textbooks for use by high school students over the next decade, the panel responsible for reviewing submissions from publishers has stirred controversy because a number of its members do not accept evolution and climate change as scientific truth.

In the state whose governor, Rick Perry, boasted as a candidate for president that his schools taught both creationism and evolution, the State Board of Education, which includes members who hold creationist views, helped nominate several members of the textbook review panel. Others were named by parents and educators. Prospective candidates could also nominate themselves. The state’s education commissioner, Michael Williams, a Perry appointee and a conservative Republican, made the final appointments to the 28-member panel. Six of them are known to reject evolution.

Some Texans worry that ideologically driven review panel members and state school board members are slowly eroding science education in the state.

“Utterly unqualified partisan politicians will look at what utterly unqualified citizens have said about a textbook and decide whether it meets the requirements of a textbook,” lamented Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, which monitors the activities of far-right organizations. The group filed a request for documents that yielded the identities of the textbook review panelists as well as reports containing their reviews.

Major publishers

Publishers, including well-known companies like Pearson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and McGraw-Hill, submitted 14 biology textbooks for consideration this year. Reports from the review panels have been sent to publishers, who can now make changes. Williams will review the changes and recommend books to the state board. Through a spokeswoman, Williams repeatedly declined requests for an interview. The state board will vote on a final approved list of textbooks in November.

The reports contained comments from Karen Beathard, a senior lecturer in the department of nutrition and food science at Texas A&M University, who wrote in a review of a textbook submitted by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt that “Students should have the opportunity to use their critical thinking skills to weigh the evidence between evolution and ‘creation science.’”

In reviews of other textbooks, panel members disputed the scientific evidence, questioning, for example, whether the fossil record actually demonstrates a process of mutation and natural selection over billions of years. “The fossil record can be interpreted in other ways than evolutionary with equal justification,” one reviewer wrote. Among the anti-evolution panelists are Ide Trotter, a chemical engineer, and Raymond Bohlin, a biologist and fellow of the Discovery Institute.

By questioning the science — often getting down to very technical details — the evolution challengers in Texas are following a strategy increasingly deployed by others around the country.

There is little open talk of creationism. Instead, they borrow buzzwords common in education, “critical thinking,” saying there is simply not enough evidence to prove evolution.

If textbooks do not present alternative viewpoints or explain what they describe as “the controversy,” they say, students will be deprived of a core concept of education — learning how to make up their own minds.

Districts can make their own decisions, but like state-approved texts. “It’s a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,” said David Anderson, a former official in the Texas Education Agency, as the department of education is known, and now a consultant who works with textbook publishers.

Four years ago, a conservative bloc on the state school board pushed through amendments to science standards that call for students to “analyze and evaluate” some of the basic principles of evolution. Science educators and advocates worry that this language can be used as a back door for teaching creationism.

“It is like lipstick on a Trojan horse,” said Miller of the Texas Freedom Network.

What some parents think

Parents are worried that their children will not be able to compete for jobs that require scientific backgrounds.

Jessica Womack, who traveled from near Houston this month to participate in a rally before a public hearing on the books, recounted how her daughter, now 14, had been shamed by a third-grade teacher for raising her hand when the class was asked who believed in evolution.

The publishers are considering changes. A spokeswoman for Pearson said that the publisher had made some adjustments but that they “did not compromise the integrity of the science.” She added, “Our book has always been honest that evolutionary biologists don’t have all the answers nor does evolution provide all the answers.”

A spokeswoman for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt said that the publisher had not yet received any requests for corrections, but that the company’s textbook was of the “highest quality based on research.” A spokesman for McGraw Hill declined to comment.

Tailor-made class materials

Across the country, textbook publishers are likely to increasingly tailor materials to the new science standards developed by a consortium of 26 state governments and several groups of scientists and teachers.

Already seven states — California, Delaware, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Rhode Island and Vermont — have officially adopted the standards. This month, after a legislative committee in Kentucky voted to reject the new science standards, Gov. Steven Beshear overruled the decision and said he would use his executive powers to put the standards in place.

But educators note that standards and textbooks can be overridden by teachers who themselves question evolution.

“Most educational decisions are made in the 17,000 school districts and by individual schoolteachers in the classroom,” said Joshua Rosenau, programs and policy director at the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit group that defends the teaching of evolution and climate change. “And it is really hard to know what is happening there.”

In a survey of more than 900 high school biology teachers conducted by Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer, political scientists at Penn State University, one in eight said they taught creationism or its cousin, intelligent design, as valid scientific alternatives to Darwinian evolutionary theory.

In Texas, the debate has each side borrowing from the other to make its point. Those who challenge evolution invoke the scientists Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins, while those who plead for the sanctity of science cite Genesis and the Book of Job.

At the public hearing this month, Michael Singer, a biology professor at the University of Texas who teaches courses to nonscience majors, said his students were often nervous about learning evolution. “I tell them that the Book of Job says that their faith will be tested,” he said. “You don’t need faith to believe what the evidence suggests. You need faith to believe what the evidence doesn’t suggest.”

Then he pulled out a 10-pound note from his native Britain to show the audience: On one side was a picture of Queen Elizabeth II, on the other, Charles Darwin.