A textbook case of bad science

Defenders of evolutionary theory in Texas say creation scientists are getting sneakier -- and more successful -- in getting their views into public school educational materials.

Published August 20, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

Charles Darwin, Satan, Joseph Stalin, aliens, Raelians and fire-breathing dragons hibernating at the bottom of the sea all put in cameos last month at a Texas board of education public hearing on textbooks.

One member of the board invoked Darwin's name with reverence, even as she defended the principle of giving more attention to alleged weaknesses in the theory of evolution in biology textbooks.

"Darwin himself would not have supported censorship of scientific weaknesses," said Republican board member Terri Leo.

But a former United Methodist minister chided members of the board that such "ignorance and misinformation are the works of Satan." In other words, in this minister's view, God is firmly on the side of teaching scientific fact to students.

The president of Texas Citizens for Science appealed to no less an authority than the eyes of Texas as he cautioned the board: "If you plan to modify biology textbooks by requiring the authors and publishers to remove or change scientifically accurate material about evolution, please remember that the eyes of Texas are upon you, and you cannot get away with it."

And one teacher went so far as to warn the members of the board that they could have blood on their hands -- her blood -- if they watered down the teaching of evolution in the state: "I would like you to think, am I furthering medical research? Or am I contributing to Kelly Wagner's death?" testified Kelly Wagner, who said she suffers from heart disease.

The half-day hearing, on July 9, was the first of two occasions for public comment on the biology textbooks currently under consideration by the state's board. Texas is the second-largest market for textbooks in the country, with an annual budget of $570 million, which gives it considerable influence in what gets taught in the rest of the United States.

By law, the Texas board of education cannot ban a textbook simply because it objects to its content. But it can ding a book for factual inaccuracy or for inadequately representing the strengths and weaknesses of a theory. So, this year, critics of evolution are charging the state with censorship and accusing biology teachers and scientists of being dogmatic in their adherence to Darwin.

"The true censors are the Darwinian activists who want to keep textbooks from including any discussion of the scientific weaknesses of evolutionary theory," said John West, the associate director of the Center for Science and Culture at a Seattle think tank called the Discovery Institute, in a press release.

But advocates of teaching evolution in school say that the accusation that they are hiding "weaknesses" is just clever hogwash. They aren't trying to block criticisms of evolution, they say, as long as those are based in the scientific method. But they are alarmed at the increasing subtlety with which religiously based views are masquerading as real science.

"The creationists are getting more and more sophisticated in their message and their tactics," says Samantha Smoot, executive director of the Texas Freedom Network. "They've stopped demanding that evolution not be taught, or that creationism be taught on an even par with evolution. Now they're demanding something that sounds more subtle and more reasonable but that is equally dangerous, which is that the so-called strengths and weaknesses of the theory of evolution be taught. It's 2003, and we're defending the theory of evolution?"

Too savvy to let themselves be labeled creationists in 2003, these critics of Darwin attempt to seize the scientific high ground by presenting themselves as the proponents of open debate in the face of scientific dogmatism. As one advocacy site, Texans for Better Science Education, puts it: "Open minds teach both sides."

Textbook publishers demonstrated as recently as last year that they're not immune to pressures to pander to one of their biggest markets. In 2002, in an effort to appease Texas, references to the Ice Age as occurring "millions of years ago" in a history textbook were changed to read "in the distant past" so it wouldn't conflict with literal interpretations of the Bible. In 2001, the board rejected an environmental science book as "anti-free enterprise" and "anti-Christian" for its coverage of global warming.

One of the biggest players in the Texas controversy is the Discovery Institute, which propagates doubts about the theory of evolution through its publications and network of fellows. At the July 9 hearing, two representatives from the institute testified and the organization submitted a 41-page "preliminary analysis" of the coverage of evolution in 11 textbooks being considered by the board. By the Discovery Institute's grading scale, no textbook received a grade higher than a C-minus.

The Discovery Institute describes itself generically as "a national, non-profit, non-partisan policy and research organization," but its critics, such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State report that it's received more than a million dollars in funding just from one fundamentalist Christian couple in Orange County, California.

While the institute explicitly denies that it is a creationist organization, the think tank and its fellows are one of the loudest national mouthpieces for the theory of "intelligent design," which argues that natural selection cannot adequately account for the "apparent design" found in nature.

"The plan is straightforward: use intelligent design as a wedge to undermine evolution with scientific-sounding arguments and thereby advance a conservative religious-political agenda," writes Steve Benen in an article published on the Web site for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

"None of the stuff that they come up with would ever survive peer review, even in an undergraduate journal," says Sahotra Sarkar, a biologist and professor of philosophy and science at the University of Texas, who plans to testify at the Sept. 10 hearing before the Texas state board of education. He dismisses intelligent design as a "vague bunch of nonsense."

"Nobody in the scientific community takes them seriously," says Sarkar, because the theory is not based on scientific experiments that can be replicated in a lab.

But some members of the Texas state board of education are taking the Discovery Institute quite seriously, as is evident from the questions they asked members of the public testifying on July 9, which parroted arguments made and promoted by the institute's fellows, such as Darwin critic Jonathan Wells.

One 10th-grade Texas biology teacher isn't buying it: "Intelligent design is creationism dressed up in a lab coat," testified Amanda Walker, who taught in Texas schools for three years but will be leaving teaching this year to go back to graduate school. In fact, the Discovery Institute was so harshly criticized by some of the scientists and teachers testifying at the July 9 hearing that when one of its representatives, Ray Bohlin, a zoologist who has lived in Texas for 28 years, took the floor to defend its position before the board, he joked that he should have worn a "devil suit" to the hearing.

Bohlin countered criticism that Discovery Institute work is not peer reviewed by pointing out that Darwin himself did not publish in peer-reviewed journals. "Oftentimes new ideas are not welcomed in the scientific peer-reviewed literature because it is not according to the current paradigm," he said.

"I don't want to sound like I'm against alternate theories," says Walker. "You should question evolution. You should question all scientific theories. That's the nature of science -- to question the status quo. But a religious theory that doesn't have the data yet, hasn't gone through the scientific process yet, it doesn't belong in a beginning science class. How can you teach what scientific theory is when you're representing a theory that isn't a theory?"

After another round of public testimony on Sept. 10, the Texas state board of education will vote on the biology textbooks on Nov. 7. But at least one publisher, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, has already responded to the first round of public testimony.

The original text in "Holt Biology, Texas" ran as follows:

"Use the media center or Internet resources to learn about the conditions on Earth that scientists think existed before life formed. Identify which compounds Miller and Urey formed in their experiment. Prepare a report describing which of the compounds on early Earth would have contributed to the types of compounds Miller and Urey made."

The new version reads:

"Use the media center or Internet resources to study hypotheses for the origin of life that are alternatives to the hypotheses proposed by Oparin and Lerman. Analyze, review, and critique either Oparin's hypothesis or Lerman's hypothesis as presented in your textbook along with one alternative hypothesis that you discover in your research."

The change, says critics, is designed to increase opportunities to insert creationist views into the science curricula. As Smoot of the Texas Freedom Network points out, students who turn to the Net for answers will find plenty of "alternate" hypotheses.

"We typed 'origin of life' into Google and got back a dozen creationist sites," Smoot says.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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