Evolution critics, proponents laud Texas board’s science vote

AUSTIN—The Texas State Board of Education has unanimously approved a list of supplemental science materials that appears to please proponents and critics of evolution alike.

The supplemental materials, offered by more than a dozen publishers, aim to bring science classes in Texas public schools up to date with standards the board passed in 2009. The science standards have drawn national attention in requiring students to be able to “analyze, evaluate and critique” all scientific theories.

The board’s July 22 vote to approve the recommended texts, vetted by educator review panels and Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott, followed a four-hour public hearing on July 21 that mostly pitted church-state watchdogs and evolutionary science advocates against those supportive of the board’s requirements that all theories be scrutinized.

The supplemental materials cover general science for the fifth grade through middle school, and secondary chemistry, physics and biology, with biology attracting the most attention during the hearing July 21.

The next day, the 15-member elected board voted 14-0 (with one member absent) to approve the list of electronic supplements, with two biology textbook publishers agreeing to edit their material in select places to meet the board’s approval.

Opposing factions in the debate over how evolution is presented in public schools seemed to claim victory after the vote.

“It’s great that there was a unanimous vote by the board to protect children and to not allow errors to go into classroom textbooks,” said Jonathan Saenz, legislative director for the conservative Liberty Institute, based in Plano. “This was a total loss for the liberal left that wanted to protect these errors and allow them to stay in, while trying to bring in this bogeyman of intelligent design that never existed.”

Steven Schafersman, director of Texas Citizens for Science and a vocal critic of intelligent design, said, “As a member of the scientific community I am very pleased with the results of the vote today. With the exception of the Holt McDougal materials [in biology] all of the science materials were adopted with only the legitimate factual errors changed.

“All in all, this was a victory for science and a victory for my side.”

Two publishers of biology texts agreed to make changes beyond the list of routine corrections requested by review panels.

Adaptive Curriculum agreed to replace stylized versions of human and animal embryo drawings by 19th-century biologist Ernst Haeckel, whose early work is deemed outdated, with actual photos of embryo development.

Holt McDougal agreed, after some resistance, to offer changes in the language it employed in eight instances dealing with evolution concepts. The board agreed to adopt the text after passing a motion asking Scott, the education commissioner, to coordinate the changes with the publisher.

Scott told the board, “I can’t promise either side that they’d be happy” with the edits. “All I have is my commitment to be as fair as I can be.” Scott said the contested material “could be more precisely written and accurately portrayed.”

The one biology textbook that included intelligent design concepts did not make the recommended list. According to an evaluation of the proposed textbooks by the Seattle-based Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, International Databases was one of the few publishers that met standards for students to critically evaluate theories. But they also included intelligent design (ID) concepts, which the Discovery Institute opposes requiring in public school science classes. The Center for Science & Culture is a leading ID think tank.

Despite the Discovery Institute’s stated opposition to teaching ID in public secondary schools, much of the public hearing focused on perceptions that ID or some form of biblical creationism would be forced into science materials. The International Databases supplement was cited several times despite board members’ repeated statements that the book was not among the recommended materials being considered.

Among the 60 or so people who testified, a wide majority argued against any weakening of evolution instruction. More than one person equated critical analysis of evolution with opening the door for religious dogma, which was one too many for board member Ken Mercer, R.-San Antonio.

An exasperated Mercer challenged anyone to find a mention of creationism, ID, God or Jesus in the proposed science texts.

“It’s just not there, period!” Mercer said.

Mercer’s statement didn’t sway Rebecca Robertson of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, who warned the board that sneaking ID concepts into science classes likely would lead to lawsuits against financially strapped school districts.

“We believe in leaving religious instruction to the parents and faith community of Texas. That’s what our Constitution demands…. The Supreme Court has made very clear that when government organizations like this one teach religious concepts like intelligent design or intelligent causation,” they have crossed a line, she said.

Daniel Romo, professor of chemistry at Texas A&M University, said not all data proposed within the evolution model are settled science. For example, Romo said the study of abiogenesis—how life initially arose—is one area “where multiple sides of the evidence must be shown” and where “there is so much mystery and unknown in this area.”

“The primary premise of my testimony is driven by my desire to ensure that outdated scientific experiments that are now widely accepted to have been performed under incorrect conditions be removed [from textbooks],” Romo said.

R.E. Smith, a member of First Baptist Church in Dallas, testified on behalf of his friend Ide Trotter that use of data such as the 1950s Miller-Urey experiment that claimed to have produced abiogenesis with amino acids is considered invalid today. He encouraged the board to hold publishers to accuracy.

“No scientist has any idea how the first molecule containing coded information came about,” Smith said.

Following the vote, Mercer praised new board chair Barbara Cargill, R.-The Woodlands, and told fellow board members, “We have put great books out there and I am proud of that process.”

Texas is influential in the textbook market because it buys or distributes about 48 million books annually, affecting textbook content nationally.

Due to a state budget crunch, new textbooks estimated to cost $347 million were passed over in favor of the supplements to existing textbooks, an expense of about $60 million.

To watch the video interview with Daniel Romo click here

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