COMMENTARY: The battle for science continues

The 200th anniversary of the birth of British naturalist Charles Darwin, together with the upcoming 150th anniversary of his book “The Origin of the Species” has motivated more interest in the Theory of Evolution. It’s also highlighted the need for more science education.

This is more so after the end of the Bush administration which subverted science to the narrow electoral “needs” of the Republican Party and those of U.S. corporations. As the magazine Scientific American put it, the Bush administration “stacked numerous [science] advisory committees with industry representatives and members of the Religious Right.”

For eight years the Bush administration proposed the teaching of “Intelligent Design,” a religious doctrine disguised as science so as to surpass the constitutional separation of church and state, and was against stem cell research, which holds the promise of cures for many ailments, to appease the GOP’s fundamentalist religious base.

Bush’s anti-science agenda also helped the corporations by denying or minimizing global warming, air and water pollution, and other issues where there is broad consensus in the scientific community. They went so far as to changing data and conclusions in reports from science-based federal agency to conform to the Bush agenda. Scientists of all political persuasion felt the pressure and in 2004 15,000 of them signed on to a statement from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) condemning the administration manipulating science for it’s own narrow interests.

This situation got to a point to where scientists started organizing for a Scientist’s Bill of Rights. Last year, the UCS issued the call for these rights at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science held in Boston in Feb. 2008 making it a demand on whatever new administration was to govern the country.

At the press event, Francesca Grifo, UCS scientific integrity program director, said, “As we transition to the next administration, regardless of who we vote to place at its helm, we must ensure that the falsifying of data; the fabricating of results; the selective editing; the intimidation, censoring and suppression of scientists; the corruption of advisory panels; and the tampering with scientific procedures all stop.”

Kurt Gottfried, professor emeritus of physics at Cornell and a co-founder of the UCS, said the scientists “call on he next president and Congress to codify the basic freedoms that federal scientists must have if they are to produce the scientific knowledge that is needed by a government dedicated to the public good.”

Gottfried said, in an interview with Scientific American writer Steve Mirsky, “For generations our citizens have supported the creation of many government agencies that use science to enhance public health and safety and to protect our environment. Unfortunately this tradition has been discarded in recent years by the government itself. An atmosphere that violates the codes of openness and transparency that are indispensable to both democracy and science has been created in many science-based federal agencies. Government scientists have their findings subjected to censorship and misrepresentation.”

Mirsky also interviewed Grifo who gave an example of how the manipulation of science helped corporations and harmed the public – in this case -- children.

Grifo said “One of the examples that is very near and dear to me, as a mother with children, has to do with lead in lunch boxes. I mean, why would you think that vinyl that's used in lunch boxes might have lead in it? But, in fact, it does.

“Scientists at the consumer product safety commission, which is the group and the government that is tasked with overseeing these kinds of imports, did some tests on these lunch boxes. They looked at them; they swiped them with a lead test… and, in fact, found high levels of lead. So, instead of immediately alerting the public and immediately expressing this concern, they went back and thought, well you know, if we take many, many swipes, if we just keep swiping, the numbers go down, because, in fact, with each swipe you remove the lead that's on the surface” and got an average level that was within safe limits, she said.

The concerns and protests against the Bush administration’s distortion of science became an issue and science supporters tried to get a public debate on science issues between Barack Obama and John McCain. While that did not happen, both candidates issued science statements that backed away from Bush policies.

Scientists, especially those in federals agencies, reacted with jubilation when Obama stated in his inaugural address, “We will restore science to its rightful place.”

However, the fight for science does not only happen at the federal agency level. It also is being fought at the state level, mostly in terms of public high school science education.

Last Jan. the Texas state Board of Education held a preliminary vote to revise the science curriculum in favor of teaching evolution as science. The vote will need to be finalized at its March 26-27 meeting.

After the decision of the Federal Court in the Pennsylvania Middle District which found the Dover school board had violated federal law in teaching “Intelligent Design” or ID. The court instituted a permanent injunction against the school board ordering it not to implement its “ID policy” nor require “teachers to denigrate or disparage the scientific theory of evolution.”

Judge John Jones, a Bush appointed jurist with, reportedly, a conservative religious outlook, ruled that Intelligent Design is “a religious, alternative theory” to evolution and not science.

Jones noted that after a 1968 Supreme Court decision that overturned an Arkansas law prohibiting the teaching of evolution “opponents of evolution responded with a new tactic… namely, to utilize scientific-sounding language to describe religious beliefs and then to require that schools teach the resulting “creation science” or “scientific creationism” as an alternative to evolution.”

While the decision is only binding in the Middle District of Pennsylvania other jurisdictions looking at the case have decided not to go ahead with their laws. Jones noted in an interview that after the decision Kansas was having state school board elections. “This became and issue in Kansas, and Kansans did not elect proponents of ID, utilizing my decision I think… In Ohio, they had begun steps that would have allowed the teaching of ID, and the school board ruled the policy back because of my decision”.

Nevertheless, a bill was filed in Florida this week by a Republican state senator, Stephen Wise, to require teaching Intelligent Design. Wise said, “You have to teach the other side so you can have critical thinking.” However, the only “other side” ever mentioned is that of the Bible and never any of the over 50 creation religious views in the world today.

In the aftermath of the Dover decision, creationists have been trying to promote the teaching of the “strength and weaknesses” and the “teach the controversy” strategy as a back-door way of introducing religious concepts.

After the ID Policy was adopted in Dover and teachers refused to read a statement denigrating the science, school authorities went from room to room to read the statement. However, neither students nor teachers were allowed to discuss the issue.

The battle for science in Texas schools has been going on for years. State Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Austin) has filed a bill to strip the State Board of Education of the right to set science curriculum and transfer that power to the Texas Education Agency. Ellis criticized the school board’s discussion on teaching creationism while in the country at large has a “healthy respect for science.”

When the board meets again in March it is expected to vote 8 to 7 against “teaching the controversy.” That notwithstanding, some of the creationists on the board were able to introduce changes in biology, geology and space science consistent with religion but not science.

Steven Schafersman of Texas Citizens for Science told the press that if the State Board of Education accepts these revisions in March, Texas will be seen as a “laughing stock” nation-wide. University of Texas professor David Hillis said “This new proposed language is absurd. It shows very clearly why the board should not be rewriting the science standards.”

Since school textbook publishers, for the obvious economic reasons, write the books depending upon the curriculum policies of large population states (Texas is the second highest buyer of textbooks), those policies affect the schools throughout the country and is important for every school district.