Scientist vs. Creationist

Who will get to update Texas’ science standards?

science classroom.

Evolution and climate change will soon be back in conservatives’ crosshairs.

Mike Watson Images/Thinkstock

From Islam to evolution, the Texas State Board of Education is one of the most consistent combatants in the culture war over what we should teach our children. And this summer, according to documents obtained by Slate, it looks like the conflict is about to reignite.

The last major Texas controversy came in 2014, when the board adopted new history textbooks that tell students that Moses, and biblical law, are the inspiration for the American Constitution. “The roots of democratic government in today’s world—including government in the United States … include elements related to Judeo-Christian philosophy, dating back thousands of years to Old Testament texts and Biblical figures such as Moses and Solomon,” says Pearson’s Magruder Government textbook, which also infers a relationship between Moses and the U.S. Founding Fathers because they both established legal systems.

This is incorrect. No offense to King Solomon, but he was a king, not a president. These religious leaders were about theocracy, not government for the people, by the people. Still, when the textbooks were adopted, conservatives on the board demanded Moses, and they got it.

In 2015, the board was strangely silent. (Though they were sure to knock down a proposal to create an official process for college professors to fact-check Texas’ textbooks.) Don’t expect that to last. Over the next six months, the board is set to “streamline” Texas’ science standards—and that means evolution and climate change will be back in conservatives’ crosshairs.

The current standards, which were written in 2009, already subvert science. Students are required to “analyze and evaluate” various aspects of evolution, including the “complexity of the cell,” “proposed transitional fossils,” and “stasis” in the fossil record. This language is meant to sound academic, but these are actually creationist buzzwords inserted to allow religious teachers to bring debunked and unconstitutional creationist arguments into their classroom with legal protection. In 2014, Slate exposed a major Texas charter program, which admitted to using this language to justify teaching 17,000 students creationism.

The current standards also challenge the accepted science behind climate change, requiring students to “analyze and evaluate different views on the existence of global warming.”

During this summer’s streamlining process, the board could choose to rewrite more than just science standards; they could decide it’s time to fix their reputation, and support teaching real science. But early evidence suggests they won’t. 

The first step of this process is creating citizen review panels that would offer recommendations on how to update the standards. In March, hundreds of Texans applied to serve on these panels. From this pool of applicants, state board members will nominate a few individuals from each district.

Via public records request, Slate obtained the full list of 545 applicants. Many seem up for the task, including the employees of the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, scientists from Houston’s energy industry, the president of the Micropaleontology Press, science-assessment specialists from the textbook publisher Pearson, and hundreds of K-12 science teachers or college professors.

But, several of these applicants have questionable qualifications. Wilbur Entz, a retired chemist, applied. He appears to be the owner of CreationTheoryAustin.Net, a website dedicated to “nature-lovers of all stripes and kinds; hikers, campers, climbers, birders, ‘green’ people, and scientists,” as long as they “hold the 6-day, 6,000-year-ago Biblical account of creation as absolutely true.” Nope, that is not a joke: Entz also appears to have also contributed to an article for Creation Ministries International claiming that historical belief in a flat Earth was made up by Darwinists to discredit Christians and creationists.

Another creationist candidate is Don McDonald, a retired human resources professor from Troy University in Alabama, who is now living in Texas. He supported the 2009 standards the Texas board adopted, writing in a column, that “fully analyzing the fossil record against Darwin’s evolutionary claims” should be allowed. He’s also complained that Alabama’s textbooks teach “nothing other than a full endorsement of Darwinian evolution.”

Charles Garner, a creationist chemistry professor at Baylor University—who has complained that Baylor is “in serious danger of becoming too secular”—has also applied to help streamline the standards. In 2009, Garner was appointed by former board chairwoman Gail Lowe, to help write the current ones. When testifying before the state board in 2009, he complained that students weren’t allowed to question evolution, and compared scientific acceptance of evolution to a religion, saying “the problem is, the conclusive evidence is really hard to get on evolution.” Garner has also signed onto a letter, created by the Discovery Institute, a creationist think tank, of scientists who “dissent from Darwin.”

Like Garner, another applicant, Ray Bohlin, vice president of Vision Outreach at Probe Ministries in Dallas and a fellow at the Discovery Institute, has already served on one citizen review panel, with disastrous results. Bohlin is also a member of the Creation Science Hall of Fame: In 2013, he was nominated to review Texas’ biology textbooks, and he criticized their coverage of evolution, including a bizarre critique of Pearson’s textbooks for discussing genetic drift, the idea that the amount of certain types of genes in a population can fluctuate through random chance, not just through selective pressures. “Genetic drift is not an evolutionary mechanism unless you are defining evolution simply as change over time, this use of ‘evolutionary mechanism’ is not warranted,” he wrote in his review. This is wrong—genetic drift is a mechanism of evolution.

Bohlin also criticized climate change during his review, saying, “We don’t really know that the carbon cycle has been altered.” This is also incorrect: Scientists agree that humans have added carbon to the atmosphere.

Members of the Texas State Board have full discretion over whom they want to appoint to the review panels—and history shows they often pick creationists. In 2013, when then–state board chairwoman Barbara Cargill defended the decision to appoint creationists like Bohlin to review biology textbooks, she claimed that not enough people with actual biology credentials had applied. “Where were the teachers when we put out the call all over the state?” she asked.

This year, with hundreds of teachers applying to review these standards, if creationists end up on the panel, it won’t be because there was a lack of qualified applicants. It will simply make the board’s attempt at stacking the deck in their favor more obvious. Unfortunately, once they appoint the reviewers, thousands of kids’ chances at a science-backed education will be at stake.

Don’t screw it up, Texas State Board.