Showdown Over Science in Texas

Creationists corrupted state education standards and may push evolution out of textbooks.

Texas Freedom Network’s rally before the state Board of Education meeting on science textbooks in Austin, Texas, on Sept. 17, 2013.

Photo courtesy of Meg Seidel/Texas Freedom Network

The Texas state Board of Education is in the process of adopting new science textbooks that will be used in public schools for the next decade. On Tuesday, the board held its first hearing for public comment on which textbooks should be adopted. Creationists came out in full force and demanded that “biblical truth,” rather than evolution, be presented in the state’s biology textbooks.

These anti-science activists could compromise the teaching of evolution all across the country. They’ve been working toward this moment for years.

In 2009, the Texas state Board of Education adopted new science standards. The standards presented to the board had been written by a group of scientists and educators, and the proposal covered evolution fully. More than 50 science organizations endorsed the original standards, but creationists successfully amended them. Now the standards include loopholes that allow evolution to be attacked and creationism to be snuck into public school classrooms.

The standards call for students to “analyze and evaluate the fossil record and the complexity of the cell.” They also say that students should “analyze, evaluate, and critique” scientific theories and that students should be exposed to “all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations so as to encourage critical thinking.”

These requirements sound reasonable; we all want students to think critically, analyze, and evaluate. But these standards are designed to bring non-science into the classroom under the cover of analyzing, evaluating, and critiquing evolution.

This is a longtime creationist strategy. Louisiana, where I was born, has its own creationism law that calls for “critiquing” evolution in order to promote “critical thinking.”

Gov. Rick Perry helped make it clear that the Texas curriculum standards are meant to allow creationism into the classroom. During the 2012 presidential election, Perry said, “In Texas we teach both creationism and evolution in our public schools.”

Perry was asked by PolitiFact to clarify this statement, and his spokeswoman said, “It is required that students evaluate and analyze the theory of evolution, and creationism very likely comes up and is discussed in that process. Teachers are also permitted to discuss it with students in that context.”

These standards are already harming Texas students, but now they are poised to damage science education all across the country. Because Texas buys textbooks for more than 4 million students, publishers tend write textbooks designed to capture the Texas market. They then sell the same textbooks in other states. If textbooks in Texas don’t teach evolution, the entire country will suffer.

Texas Freedom Network rally on Sept. 17, 2013.

Photo courtesy of Rob Stepan/Texas Freedom Network

In 2009, Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, a pro-science watchdog organization, warned, “The board crafted a road map that creationists will use to pressure publishers into putting phony arguments attacking established science into textbooks.”

Four years later, it’s clear she was right. The state Board of Education requires every textbook that it adopts to meet the science education standards that include the creationists’ amendments. Creationists have used the “analyze and evaluate” requirement to call for any textbook that doesn’t challenge evolution to be rejected.

The first step in this year’s process of choosing new textbooks came when the board appointed reviewers to comb through biology textbooks, offer revisions, and determine which books should be adopted. If a book fails to receive top reviews and isn’t amended in response, publishers will have a very hard time selling that book in Texas.

These textbook review teams should have been filled with experts, but instead creationists on the state board managed to get other creationists appointed to review the books. The review teams included fellows from the Discovery Institute, a creationist think tank, and even an employee of Probe Ministries, a creationist apologetics organization out of Dallas.

Jimmy Gollihar, one of the few actual scientists on the review panel, wrote a letter to the state board criticizing the process:

“Rather than checking for factual errors in the texts, I was put into the position of having to painstakingly educate other panel members on past and current literature. Somewhat unsurprisingly, a reviewer from another table, who is also a well-known creationist without any training in biology, was quite proud that he was the one reviewing the sections on evolution for his table … with no scientific counterpoint to be had.”

Instead of looking for and correcting actual errors in the textbooks, the creationists made faulty arguments against teaching evolution. One reviewer claimed that no transitional fossils exist. Another recommend the creationist book Signature in the Cell, by Stephen Meyer, another Discovery Institute creationist, saying that it disproved evolution. A review called for the “creation model” to be taught and said:

“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.” 

On Tuesday, at the state Board of Education meeting, I watched as creationists defended these reviews and argued for rejecting science-based biology textbooks. Barbara Cargill, the creationist chairwoman of the state board, argued that creationists—with no expertise in biology—were qualified to review the textbooks. Board member Ken Mercer complained that people were losing their jobs for questioning evolution and said, “That should never happen in a place called America.” Board member David Bradley questioned outright the separation of church and state. Because the exact words separation of church and state don’t appear in the First Amendment, Bradley claimed, there is no separation of church and state. 

The most bizarre testimony of the day came from Don McLeroy, a former chairman of the state Board of Education and a hardcore creationist. McLeroy accidentally sabotaged the creationists. He endorsed adopting the biology textbooks, though for very different reasons than we did. (The rest of the creationists disagreed with him.)

McLeroy helped pass the creationist standards in 2009, and he believes they have been effective in undermining evolution in textbooks already. “Even though these biology books are full of unsubstantiated, dogmatic statements supporting evolution, there’s still two major reasons why you should adopt these books,” he said at the hearing. “By so doing, you will strike the final blow to the teaching of evolution,” and these books “coincidentally happen to support what the Bible said.” McLeroy said that the evidence for evolution in the textbooks is “weak” and there are “hidden jewels” that will allow smart creationist students to destroy evolution.

Zack Kopplin speaks at the Texas Freedom Network rally.

Photo courtesy of Meg Seidel/Texas Freedom Network

I disagree with McLeroy about that, and so do the experts. Scientists at the University of Texas at Austin and Southern Methodist University have gone over the textbooks and concluded that they teach evolution well. Whatever McLeroy thinks personally, his endorsement could help us keep evolution in schools.

Evolution is real, and it should be taught in Texas textbooks. A board vote in November will determine which textbooks are adopted. I hope the board does the right thing and adopts new biology textbooks that teach science without any unscientific revisions or disclaimers that would undermine the teaching of evolution. 

Thankfully, there is a good chance that this will actually happen. Hundreds of Texans showed up in support of good science. The majority of testimony before the board supported science textbooks. The Texas Freedom Network held a rally before the hearing where hundreds of people wore green shirts that said, “Big Tex and T-Rex didn’t ride the range together.” More than 300,000 people signed petitions urging the board to keep science in the textbooks. Several pro-science board members—Ruben CortezMarisa Perez, and Martha Dominguez—attended the rally and affirmed their strong support for teaching evolution.

I hope the rest of the board will join those three in supporting science education, and for those members of the state board who don’t want evolution in the textbooks, at the hearing, I proposed an experiment for them: Search “creationism” on, then search “biology,” and decide which is better to teach children.