Science opinion: Creating trouble

The future of scientific education may be at risk in the heart of the Bible Belt

Texas is currently preparing to select the biology textbooks that will be used in high school classrooms for the next decade. Recently it was discovered that several reviewers objected on religious grounds to coverage of evolution in the textbooks. There were 28 people invited to review the textbooks, and at least six of them challenge or reject fundamental scientific ideas such as evolution and climate change, according to documents obtained in July by the Texas Freedom Network, an organization that opposes the religious right in Texas.

At least two of them participated in the important final stage of the review. One reviewer, Raymond Bohlin, is a research fellow for the Discovery Institute – a centre that promotes intelligent design. Another, Walter Bradley, co-wrote a book on intelligent design and is a fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. These and other panel members are suggesting that publishers include disclaimers about evolution or even include “creation science” as a valid scientific alternative to evolutionary theory in the textbooks.

One reviewer wrote, “I understand the National Academy of Sciences’ 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.”

Another debated whether the fossil record actually demonstrates evolutionary processes of mutation and natural selection over time, saying, “The fossil record can be interpreted in other ways than evolutionary with equal justification.”.

In another case, Bohlin disputed claims about climate change. “We don’t really know that the carbon cycle has been altered,” and, even if we did, “we don’t know what climate change will do to species diversity [ . . . ] . [The] question seems to imply that ecosystems will be disrupted which we simply don’t know yet.”

The National Center for Science Education (NCSE), an organization that defends the teaching of evolution and climate science in the U.S., criticized the scientific background of the reviewers. The NCSE claims that few of the reviewers criticizing the textbooks have any scientific background or credentials, and the ones that do are involved in anti-evolution organizations like the Discovery Institute.

“Publishers should listen to real experts, not unqualified reviewers who don’t seem to understand even basic scientific terms,” said the NCSE’s Joshua Rosenau.

The outcome of this review process has implications for the rest of the U.S. as well. Because Texas is home to a disproportionately large number of students, publishers often base the standards for textbooks to be used nationwide on what is required in Texas, meaning that—in effect—schools throughout the U.S. could end up using watered-down biology textbooks infused with bad science and religious ideology.

Stronger regulation on science textbooks is no doubt crucial in ensuring that topics such as evolution and climate change are accurately and thoroughly covered in classrooms. But even if the proposed revisions are rejected, the material actually covered in classrooms depends significantly on teachers themselves and the biases and beliefs that they bring into the classroom.

In an interview with the New York Times, Rosenau said, “most educational decisions are made in the 17,000 school districts and by individual schoolteachers in the classroom, [ . . . ] and it is really hard to know what is happening there.”

Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer, political scientists at Penn State University, surveyed over 900 high school biology teachers and found that one in eight taught creationism or intelligent design as scientific alternatives to the theory of evolution.

The final decisions on what will be included in the new textbooks will be made between Nov. 19 and 22. As of now creationists represent a minority on the board. Some panellists want drafts to be made available by mid-October in order to give time for debate.

It would seem that selecting such a high proportion of people who profit from rejecting the most fundamental scientific ideas would be an obvious conflict of interest, but the region has a history of blurring the lines between church and state. The power struggle between science and religion stems from a deeply rooted cultural tension present throughout the Bible Belt. Nevertheless, it would be nice to see biology textbooks stick to teaching what they were intended to teach: science.