Victory for science education in Texas

Right-wing radicals recently suffered a setback in Texas when the State Board of Education refused to ban 11 biology textbooks that presented evolution as scientific fact instead of a hypothesis. The ultra-conservative radicals mounted a campaign to prevent the board from accepting nine of the texts for use in the state’s public schools because they contended that the way that the texts presented evolution was inaccurate.

The vote has nationwide significance. Because Texas is such a large market for textbooks, publishers are often willing to design their texts to get approval in the state and unwilling to make these changes for smaller market states.

While this was a small victory for science, well respected and peer-reviewed texts still face challenges from zealots intent on making their biases part of the public school curriculum.

Opponents of the approved textbooks argued that they contained “factual errors.” In public testimony heard in July and September, representatives of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, a think tank that contends that evolution should be taught as hypothesis rather than as fact, testified that the texts gave too much credence to evolution and ignored other theories of creation.

But scientists, teachers, and members of the clergy spoke in favor of the texts. Several ministers signed a letter to the board opposing “attempts to dilute or censor the teaching of evolution in biology textbooks.” The letter went on to say that the teaching of the origins of life is sacred and should be “cultivated and strengthened in homes and houses of worship” but that the signers “believe that efforts to insert religious beliefs into science textbooks misunderstand and demean both faith and science.”

A spokesman for the signers, Steve Lucas, minister of the Highland Park Baptist Church in Austin, told the Houston Chronicle that “too often in the past, we believe, a few strident voices of extremism have been allowed to determine the discussion around biology textbooks.”

The board, dominated by conservative Republicans, found it difficult to ignore Lucas and its own review committee, which found that there were no scientific weaknesses with any of the texts. However, the board did require publishers to make minor changes to the text in order to mollify opponents of the books.

The decision will affect scientific education in numerous states beyond Texas. California, Florida, and Texas spend about $1.2 billion a year on textbooks, or about 30 percent of the national market. As a result, publishers go to great lengths to sell their books in these states.

For example, The New York Times reports that in 2001, in order to get its environmental science text accepted, publisher J.M. LeBel Enterprises agreed to an “editing” session with board members. As a result, he made extensive changes, including the omission of this sentence, “experts on global warming feel that immediate action should be taken to curb global warming.” Because publishers are often unwilling to make changes to accommodate smaller market state, it’s very likely that texts “edited” in Texas will end up in classes throughout the nation.

Unfortunately, right-wingers and their corporate allies have not only been able to edit texts, they’ve actually been able to ban at least one. The board in 2001 refused to approve “Environmental Science: Creating a Sustainable Future,” by Daniel D. Chiras. Chiras’s text was in its sixth edition, well respected, and used in high schools and colleges throughout the U.S. In fact, it was used at Baylor University, the state’s top- tier Baptist university.

But the board branded the book “factually inaccurate” and banned it because the book asserts, among other things, that there is a scientific consensus that global warming is taking place. At the same time that the board was banning Chiras’s book, according to Salon.com, it eagerly approved another environmental science text, “Global Science: Energy, Resources, Environment,” prepared with the helpful input of the American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical, and Petroleum Engineers.

Chiras’s was shocked by the board’s refusal to accept his text and has since taken legal action. On Oct. 30 he filed suit in federal court challenging the board’s decision.

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