Once again, evolution is before the State Board of Education, which holds a public hearing Tuesday on proposed new science textbooks. Religious and social conservatives have challenged the textbooks’ presentation of evolution and are demanding publishers give alternative views equal ink.
This ongoing debate about evolution — a false one, scientifically — coincides with growing demands that Texas students need to be better educated in the sciences, technology and mathematics to remain competitive globally. To fear one’s inner monkey is to undermine that worthy educational goal.
Seven science textbooks await the 15-member State Board of Education’s consideration. Board members are expected to choose the winners in November. We encourage them to leave the science in the textbooks undiluted by things unscientific.
There are more than 5 million public school students in Texas. Because Texas school districts buy more textbooks than most other states, publishers have followed Texas standards in the past rather than publish multiple versions of the same textbook. Thus Texas’ education standards and the textbooks written to support them have become, by default, the standards in other states.
But Texas’ influence over public school textbooks outside the state is waning as traditional textbooks disappear from classrooms and technology makes them more flexible. The State Board of Education’s influence on Texas public school districts also has waned a bit.
The board has not always been a model of learned enlightenment. This was particularly true when it revisited the state’s science curriculum in 2009 and social studies curriculum in 2010.
Those debates made Texas education the butt of national jokes and prompted lawmakers to pass a law in 2011 giving school districts the authority to choose their own textbooks and classroom materials independent of the board’s selections. The catch is districts are required to follow the state’s curriculum, and because the board selects textbooks based on the curriculum, few districts probably will bother to select their own.
Social conservatives no longer firmly control the board, but their influence remains strong enough. They were able to place their allies on citizen review committees assigned to review the proposed new science textbooks. Some of these citizen reviewers are making familiar challenges about the way the textbooks teach evolution.
Republican Barbara Cargill of The Woodlands, who chairs the State Board of Education, told lawmakers during a hearing this year on the CSCOPE curriculum tool that the board’s intent when it revised the science standards “was to teach all sides of scientific explanation. … I couldn’t find anything (on the CSCOPE website) that might be seen as another side to the theory of evolution. Every link, every lesson, everything, was taught as: ‘This is how the origin of life happened. This is what the fossil record proves.’ And all that’s fine. But that is only one side.”
It also happens to be the scientific side.
The most common criticism of evolution is that it is “just a theory.” This criticism does not highlight a perceived weakness of evolution but instead reveals a critic’s misunderstanding – or willful ignorance, perhaps. A scientific theory is not a hunch or conjecture but, as the American Association for the Advancement of Science explains on its website, www.aaas.org, “a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment. Such fact-supported theories are not ‘guesses’ but reliable accounts of the real world.”
One such reliable account is germ theory, which explains that microorganisms cause many diseases. Or atomic theory, which describes the existence of matter. Or Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which helps explain how objects with mass attract one another. We don’t anticipate any textbook challenges to these theories.
Like gravity, science accepts evolution as a fact – species change over time. After more than 150 years, Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection still describes evolution fairly well.
Critics of the proposed textbooks also attack the way climate change is taught, denying that human activity has influenced global warming or that climate change threatens a significant percentage of the world’s species.
“Observations that cannot be verified or replicated cannot count as evidence in scientific inquiry,” a biology textbook published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt says. “Some phenomena … such as supernatural phenomena, may never be testable or scientific.”
Simple enough. But not when the debate is about things that have nothing to do with science.