Creationism on life support at the Texas Board of Education

November 18, 2013 • 6:51 am

This week the Texas Board of Education will consider which biology texts to “recommend” for Texas public-school students. I say “recommend” rather than “adopt” because the rules have changed. The list of approved books, from which all school districts were once required to choose, is now gone, and the Board can only recommend books. Texas school districts can now choose whichever books they want to use, including material from the Internet. That’s a huge bonus to publishers, who used to have to rewrite many of their biology and history books so they’d be acceptable to Texas, largely purging them of evolution and giving a more conservative point of view on American history.  Now they won’t have to do that, and publishers are beginning to resist such changes anyway. If all the publishers resisted, Texas wouldn’t have any books to buy!

That’s a big improvement, though of course much of Texas is conservative and anti-evolution, so many school districts will certainly choose from the books the board recommends.  The decision will take place this week—on the 22nd, which is the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. (That’s somewhat ironic given that his assassin shot him from a window in the Texas School Book Depository.) In the meantime, the textbooks have been reviewed by a panel that includes both pro- and anti-evolution people, with the evolutionists being largely graduate students and the anti-evolutionists being rather rabid creationists. Unfortunately, the comments of the reviewers, and their suggestions for how to improve “deficient” texts, have been kept secret.

So the kerfuffle goes on. I wrote about the textbook “examiners” in late July, giving their views and credentials. Six of the eleven were creationists or Darwin doubters, including Ray Bohlin:

Raymond Bohlin is vice president of vision outreach for Probe Ministries in Plano and a research fellow for the Seattle-based Discovery Institute. The Discovery Institute promotes the pseudoscientific concept “intelligent design” over evolution. Founded in 1973 [sic], Probe works “to present the Gospel to communities, nationally and internationally, by providing life-long opportunities to integrate faith and learning through balanced, biblically based scholarship.” Bohlin has a doctorate in molecular and cell biology from the University of Texas at Dallas, making him a star performer for anti-evolution groups. He is listed as a “Darwin Skeptic” on the Creation Science Hall of Fame website.

You can (and should) read about the whole Texas textbook mess in a long but informative piece that ran in Thursday’s Dallas Observer, “Creationists’ last stand at the state board of education.” The article begins with a profile of Bohlin. His story is a curious one: like Jon Wells,he earned a Ph.D in biology just to get credibility to attack evolution.  With degree in hand, he was prepared to push Jesus (he was already connected with Probe Ministries). As the Observer reports:

Bohlin invested years of his life in the graduate program at North Texas and the molecular biology doctoral program at the University of Texas at Dallas, absorbing everything he must refute. While his fellow students accepted a theory that had stood unchallenged by science for more than a century, Bohlin believed he alone was capable of assessing evolution with a critical eye. He admits, though, that his conclusions may already have been deeply entrenched. To alter his view of creation, he says, “would have required a major shift in personal and professional connections with people.”

Outside the halls of academia, meanwhile, secularism was spreading before his eyes. “The Catholic and Protestant churches in Europe are museums,” he says. “They gave in to that culture war for whatever reason. We can see the seeds of that same process here. These seeds are already germinating in some parts of the country.”

To beat back creeping secularism, Bohlin now ministers to Christian high school students, putting on seminars to “arm” them for the godless worldview that will pervade their college education. . . His great investment in a field he entered to debunk had led him to the Texas State Board of Education, where he was appointed to be an expert reviewer of high-school biology textbooks.

This, he believes, is where the war against secularism will be won or lost.

That is a man chosen to vet biology textbooks. His agenda is not to ensure that science is depicted accurately, but to sneak as much religion as he can into those books by inserting caveats about “evolution is full of problems.” The people of Texas should be ashamed of themselves, and I’m sure my colleagues in Houston, Austin, and College Station are gnashing their teeth.

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Ray Bohlin educated himself about evolution so he could stop public schools from teaching it. (Photo by Mark Graham for the Observer)

Bohlin does say something heartening, though:

“If we were to interview 100 individuals who were raised in the church, believed everything and have since fallen away, I bet a majority would say at least that the things they learned in science class were a part of that pulling away,” he says.

This is a man with extensive evangelical experience, and he clearly sees that science is helping dispel people’s faith. So much for the accommodationists’ claim that science and religion are distinct magisteria, or for the assertions of BioLogos, the National Center for Science Education, and the National Academy of Science that there’s no conflict here: one can have Jesus and Darwin, too.  But we all know that the implications of evolution do have a corrosive effect on faith.

The Observer article goes back through the history of the Texas Textbook Revolt, including the efforts of the odious Mel and Norma Gabler over two decades beginning in the sixties.  Mel was a retired Exxon clerk, but the couple managed to build up a power base that gutted Texas textbooks in both history and biology. This had a strong influence on biology education throughout the U.S., since publishers didn’t want to put out special “Texas editions” that would have been expensive to produce. And sales in Texas could amount to up to 40% of total sales of a textbook in the U.S.:

Adoption by the state board at the time was vital to the success of a textbook, and publishers were willing to make almost any changes to earn a spot on Texas’ restrictive list of five approved textbooks per subject. With Texas, publishers could recoup the cost of production in a single state. Everything else after that was profit. It also meant that the peccadilloes of special interests like Mel and Norma Gabler reverberated not just through the Lone Star State but through much of the country.

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Norma and Mel Gabler, textbook watchdogs

The Gabler’s activities were taken over by a dentist named Bob Offutt (why are these Texas creationists so often dentists?), who was elected to the Texas school board in 1992. The horrors really began then, as Offutt was an extreme right winger in both his politics and his preference for textbooks:

. . . [Offutt] chose uncompromising, hyper-conservative candidates [for the school board]. In one race, they used Leininger’s [James Leininger, Offutt’s benefactor and head of conservative think tank] direct-mail company to distribute leaflets depicting a black man and a white woman, both half-naked and kissing, to mailboxes in East Texas. It accused the Democratic incumbent, a churchgoing grandmother, of attempting to teach oral and anal sex to school children. When the polls closed, the state board had won its first Republican majority.

The board demanded abstinence-only health textbooks and succeeded in excising a line drawing of a woman performing a breast self-exam. In another book, they objected to a photo of a woman carrying a briefcase in favor of one with another woman removing a cake from the oven.

Can you imagine?

I won’t go through the rest of the history, but it’s fascinating—and depressing. There’s the election of another dentist, Don McLeroy, as head of the school board (he once pleaded with his colleages that “Somebody’s gotta stand up to these experts!”), his subsequent removal as chairman as well as the removal of the board’s abilities to vet books for the whole state. (The Texas state legislature was getting embarrassed at having to deal with a bunch of yahoos on the school board.)  Do read the history. I’ll leave you with the Observer‘s account of some textbook reviews that have been leaked:

Ray Bohlin isn’t allowed to discuss his review of a Pearson high-school biology text, but the Texas Freedom Network, a nonprofit that has long opposed the “Christian Right’s” incursion into public schools, secured a leaked copy this summer. In it, he questioned the link between carbon dioxide and a warming planet. He claimed the text repeatedly fails to “grapple with the accumulating and contrary and refuting evidence” against climate change and human evolution.

In a section about molecules and the origins of life, he chided the textbook authors, Dr. Kenneth Miller of Brown University and Dr. Joseph Levine, course director for the Organization for Tropical Studies, for what he characterized as an outdated presentation of the science, urging them to “catch up.” He suggested they read Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell but neglected to mention that Meyer is a colleague of his at the Discovery Institute, and that the book’s full title is actually Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design. In a review written by the journal Perspectives of Science and Christian Faith, which has long promoted theistic evolution, Meyer’s book was panned as “a layman’s attempt to overturn an entire field of research based on a surface-level understanding (and, at times, significant misunderstanding or ignorance) of the relevant science, published in a form that bypasses review by qualified peers, and that is marketed directly to a non-specialist audience. This is not good science, nor science in any meaningful sense.”

Another reviewer of a Houghton Mifflin Harcourt text, a dietician at Texas A&M, felt “very firmly that ‘Creation science’ based on Biblical principles should be incorporated in every Biology textbook up for adoption.”

Teaching creationism in public schools has been unconstitutional for more than 25 years.

In a separate review of the same Pearson text — one of the most widely used textbooks in the country — the panel recommended rejection. Among the panelists was Ide Trotter, an ardent believer in intelligent design and a chemical engineer by training. Dr. Ron Wetherington, a Southern Methodist University anthropology professor, called the review a “rant” laced with “non-sequiturs.”

It’s the only strategy proponents of creationism and intelligent design have left, he says. “There are no intelligent people on the side of creationism who are still urging the teaching of creationism in form or function,” Wetherington tells the Observer. “It’s not worth it for them to do that, so they’re putting all their eggs in the basket of undermining evolution.”

I guess these people haven’t heard the Good News from BioLogos that there’s no conflict between evolution and evangelical Christianity!  But I predict that, come Friday, the forces of reason will win, but just barely. For the vetters only make recommendations, and the entire school board—which doesn’t include the people who reviewed the books—must decide what to do.  They are very aware how they’ll make Texas look if they come down against evolution or anthropogenic global warming.  No state wants to be seen as anti-science.

Professor Ceiling Cat tends to be right in these predictions (see my post later today). I have spoken, and

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39 thoughts on “Creationism on life support at the Texas Board of Education

  1. Even if evolution were full of problems, it wouldn’t prove creationism, or at least the christian version of it. Besides what about the problems of biblical creation? The two mutually exclusive creation myths of genesis?

  2. If my experience is any indication, the schools will allow the teachers to review the text-books and the school board will basically rubber stamp the teachers chosen texts. If there’s a hard-core creationist on the board, then this could lead to problems… sigh.

    1. I don’t dispute you, but my understanding of ‘the Texas texbook problem’ was really its undue influence on texts that mainsteam schools outside of Texas would want to use. Now that that has gone away, Texas might still be a threat to Texas, but not to anyone else. Is that correct, or have I missed something?

  3. (That’s somewhat ironic given that his assassin shot him from a window in the Texas School Book Depository.)

    I heard it was aliens. Strange people from out of state, Yankees even!
    Sorry, enough Texas Conspiracy Theorist bashing. For now.

    (why are these Texas creationists so often dentists?)

    I’ve hesrd it opined, but not really given it much thought, that dentistry gives you a significant social standing as being a medic (of a sort), but without having to do so much of the hard, “sciency” stuff in your curriculum that you can survive the course without having your childhood ignorance dented too badly.
    Or maybe they really do see god in amongst the tartar. (There’s probably a joke in there about the Tarter Hordes, Ghengiz Khan, and a pony.)

      1. I don’t waste much time looking at people’s teeth, but I know there’s a lot of money spent on “making people’s teeth pretty”, and that is done by dentists of various stripes. But now you’ve got me trying to remember if those dentists work by trying to make the gaps bigger (which would go with a creationist mindset, I guess ; more room for g*d), smaller (non-creationist – smaller g*d), or some confusing mix of the two. But then we’re getting back to the vexed old question (all I rode away with from “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”) of “what does ‘good’ mean?”
        Damned if I know – or care. That book gave me almost as much of a headache as Dostoyevsky did. Useless philosophical maundering.

  4. “That’s a big improvement, though of course much of Texas is conservative and anti-evolution, so many school districts will certainly choose from the books the board recommends.”

    I think we should be worried about many districts choosing books that are a 100 times worse than those the board recommends.

  5. My father corrupted my young mind by telling me that it is not about what you want to believe, it is about the facts and denial will not change that reality. I am now filling my daughter’s mind with the same sinful idea that my father perpetrated on me. I’m sure that as an adult my daughter will thank me as I thanked my father. I would recommend to Texas that they do the same favor for their children.

  6. Wouldn’t deferring responsibility to individual school districts for book selection lead to more problems rather than fewer?

    If the state chooses, it’s a one-off, it’s very high-profile, and it’s likely to lead to one court-case where they’ll lose.

    Whereas if each district makes its own choices, there’s a risk of many of them choosing creationist text books and getting away with it because it’s so low profile.

    1. AIUI, the problem has been this: Texas was the single largest “customer” in the US market, by far, because the entire state purchased its books as a single unit. As such, the major publishers would modify their nationally-distributed textbooks to cater to that single customer. Other customers in other states just had to live with the changes, or use some inferior book. Now, however, Texas is many many normal sized customers instead of one big one. So Texas district preferences do not influence the publishers any more than any other set of districts.

  7. They are very aware how they’ll make Texas look if they come down against evolution or anthropogenic global warming. No state wants to be seen as anti-science.

    Have you listened to some of our Texas politicians (Republicans – all of them – no Democrats in any statewide offices)? They are not particularly worried about appearing to be anti-science.

  8. “In one race, they used Leininger’s [James Leininger, Offutt’s benefactor and head of conservative think tank]…”

    Ha! I bet he just loves his name. He’s a head of a loopy right wing ‘think tank’ and he’s almost called Lenin!

  9. Amazing (or not) how wrapped up evolution/creationism is with right-wing ideology, including views on sexuality, race, religion, gender, economics. You’d almost get the mistaken impression that opposition to evolution has something to do with science….

  10. Creationism on life support at the Texas Board of Education

    If Creationists were Xtian Scientists, we wouldn’t be having these problems.

  11. I wouldn’t exactly celebrate the change in the school board’s textbook policy from making “adoption” decisions to making “recommendations”. One of my former students just took a job teaching science in a Dallas middle school (8th grade in a working class district). They have no science textbooks at all. I seems likely that this give’s creationists lot’s of latitude in teaching woo without having that bothersome textbook to contradict them.
    To take this a bit off-topic, let me mention a conversation I recently had with a first year grad student concerning students in her chem labs. She said that her students sometimes seemed to know the answers to questions, but still answered them incorrectly. I speculated that what she was observing was the unfortunate carryover (from high school and before) of the tendency of smart students to not stand out as “smart” when asked questions in class – not “cool”. The grad student replied, ‘No, no, I mean they put the wrong answers on exams even when they know the answer.’ I had never seen that, but after a minute I came up with what I think was the likely explanation. Perhaps, when the grad student asks questions to her students in a conversational context, she gets correct answers because they better understand the questions. Even college students read so little that their level of reading comprehension is often too poor to understand questions on chemistry exams. Having no textbooks in middle school can only make it worse.

  12. “If we were to interview 100 individuals who were raised in the church, believed everything and have since fallen away, I bet a majority would say at least that the things they learned in science class were a part of that pulling away,” he says.

    This is a man with extensive evangelical experience, and he clearly sees that science is helping dispel people’s faith. So much for the accommodationists’ claim … that there’s no conflict here: one can have Jesus and Darwin, too.

    I assume the church being referred to here is a creationist church — so this isn’t a point against accomodationists. They readily agree that religions which have a conflict have a conflict. They want them to stop doing that, theologically.

    What would undermine the accomodationist case would be interviews with 100 fallen-away individuals who were raised in churches (evangelical or not) which DO endorse evolution as “God’s method of creation.” Now, how many of THOSE people would agree that the things they learned in science class were a part of that pulling away?

    My own suspicion is that the number is lower than those from creationist churches — but higher than the accomodationists expect.

  13. Why are there so many dentists in the anti-evolution movement? For the same reasons there are so many engineers and physicians in the anti-evolution movement. People in all three fields (at least outside academia) are technicians and not scientists.

    Science requires regular skepticism of your ideas and results. Technology requires application of best practices determined by others. And that’s a good thing: I would hate for the person taking out my appendix to get creative and take out my spleen, too. The difficulty arises when the technicians claim that their technical expertise makes them scientists.

    1. You’d hope doctors could run differentials though. I’ve found sometimes they really lack analysis skills.

    2. I’m probably being oversensitive here, but no, engineers are not technicians by the common usage of that word. Draftsmen may be technicians, and I can even see how practicing (as opposed to research) physicians could be classified as technicians, but engineers engage in a creative process. (As the saying sometimes attributed to von Karman goes, “Scientists study the world as it is; engineers create the world that has never been.”) As a general rule, it differs from science in that it’s more applying known theory rather than testing or trying to come up with new theory. But there’s also quite a bit of overlap. For example, Richard Whitcomb did a lot of research into trans/supersonic aerodynamics, rocket ‘science’ usually means aerospace engineering, and materials engineering / materials science are practically interchangeable terms. There’s a reason why STEM fields get lumped together.

      I think the Salem hypothesis is a bit overhyped. Yes, engineers may be prone to arrogance, but so are other well educated professionals. I even had a climate skeptic tell me in a debate that he should know how to evaluate evidence because he’s a scientist, never mind the fact that he was a biochemist, which has very little to do with climatology.

      1. Getting away from disciplinary labels, I’d say that people who have to come up with and test new intellectual ideas on a regular basis are much less likely to join creationist movements than folks who use their knowledge in support of some regular set of processes or actions…to include those who come up with and test new techniques like a surgeon might. Engineering may be different only in that it includes a more even mix of both types of professionals (compared to other disciplines).

        The cross-disciplinary factor is, IMO: does your day job typically require you to spend time questioning knowledge base and assumptions, with the expectation that they will be wrong? Or does it your day to day activity typically involve trusting and applying your knowledge base without much consideration as to whether its wrong or not? Whatever your discipline, (I propose that) folks in the former category are more likely to be resistant to extremist authoritarian ideologies than those in the latter category. Thus within the same discipline, a heart doctor performing research on new drugs may fall more into the former category, while a heart surgeon who performs the same operation regularly and trusts their snap decisions to be right may fall more into the latter category. Same adacemic base; different applications lead to different command over critical thinking.

  14. I feel sorry for the children of Texas. Education gives them a slight chance of breaking free of the BS dogma they’ve inherited from their parents & this is looking a bit rickety now!

  15. In another book, they objected to a photo of a woman carrying a briefcase in favor of one with another woman removing a cake from the oven.

    Shucks. What *I* wanted to see was a picture of a woman removing a briefcase from the oven!

    1. Heh heh. When I first took German in high school, they used really old 1936 textbooks because the school was cheap. The grammar and everything was fine to learn from but the stories were completely sexist. The first story I ever read in German was about a Hausfrau. 🙁

      1. Heh heh, indeed.

        You remind me of an experience from my own youth. In 1966, as a 16 year old, I landed at a school in Nairobi, Kenya. My class’ science textbooks had all been written in the ’20s and ’30s. It was a useful cultural experience but not particularly helpful science-wise.

      2. I remember dabbling in Spanish 25 or so years ago and inadvertently picking up a primer written during the Spanish Civil War: as I order my chocolate con churros, I can explain to any Spanish waiter that there is no justice in the country.

        Btw. dates for the creation vary erratically; 6,000 years for the Ussherites, Justin Martyr alleges 7 millennia. Any more offers?

        Slaínte.

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