Unexpectedly, textbook kerfuffle continues in Texas

November 22, 2013 • 6:25 am

Well, I was largely right in my prediction that Texas would go ahead and adopt most of the school biology textbooks vetted by their “approval committee” (6 out of the 11 members of that committee were creationists), but they balked at one.

Apparently none of the publishers of submitted books agreed to make the changes required by the creationists (good for the publishers!), and nearly all books were still approved. But one publisher who also refused to alter its edition—Pearson—didn’t get approval.

It still might be, though. This all happened after some late-night squabbling at the Texas Board of Education. NBC News reports:

The vote just before midnight did not reject the biology book by Pearson, one of the country’s largest publishers. But it delayed approval until three board members appoint a trio of outside experts to check concerns.

. . . State law approved two years ago means school districts can now choose their own books and don’t have to adhere to a list recommended by the Board of Education — but most have continued to use approved books.

. . . Publishers from around the country submitted proposed textbooks this summer, but committees of Texas volunteer reviewers — some nominated by socially conservative current and former Board of Education members — raised objections. One argued that creationism based on biblical texts should be taught in science classes, while others objected that climate change wasn’t as settled a scientific matter as some of the proposed books said.

Pearson and many other major publishers weren’t willing to make suggested major edits and changes, however.

That prompted some of the board’s socially conservative members to call for delaying approval of the book because of concerns including how long it took Earth to cool and objection to lessons about natural selection because “selection operates as a selective but not a creative force.”

I’m not sure what the last objection is about. Of course selection operates as a selective force: that’s a tautology. But it’s also creative in the sense that it results in the production of new and often marvelous traits and species.  I suspect the reviewer was maintaining that only some kind of intelligence (aka God) can be a creative force.

However, I don’t think natural selection should be characterized as a “force” anyway, because that implies it’s something operating on a group of organisms from the outside. In reality it’s a process: a process of differential survival of gene forms based on their abilities to leave copies of themselves in future generations. It’s not a force but a process. However, that’s not sufficient objection to reject a textbook!

But why a midnight meeting?

Members outside the socially conservative bloc claimed their colleagues waited until the dead of night to try to impose ideological edits.

“To ask me — a business degree major from Texas Tech University — to distinguish whether the Earth cooled 4 billion years ago or 4.2 billion years ago for purposes of approving a textbook at 10:15 on a Thursday night is laughable,” said Thomas Ratliff, a Republican from Mount Pleasant.

He added: “I believe this process is being hijacked, this book is being held hostage to make political changes.”

Undoubtedly.  They have to make trouble by holding at least one book hostage. I’ll try to find out what this Earth cooling business is all about.

h/t:Diane G

56 thoughts on “Unexpectedly, textbook kerfuffle continues in Texas

    1. I think I want to get my small friends a book about evolution. They are 5 to 11 years old. Any suggestions for the UK at least from any WEIT readers?

          1. I’m a science challenged adult who reads adult pop-sci (e.g. Your Inner Fish), and I am very grateful for writers who aim at an audience of readers like myself — thank you Randall Olson, etc. I just acquired a copy of WEIT and will soon find out if it is in one or two leagues above my present skill level. I took a quick gander at The Magic of Reality at the library one day after it appeared on the shelf and realized it has information I didn’t walk away with from 10th grade biology class (I avoided college science courses like the plague). Most useful thing I learned from this book: Dawkins’ analogy of a 3 mile long shelf of family photo’s enables me to better comprehend the enormity of the process of gradual change over extensive time a la` Tiktaalik.

              1. Thanks Richard. I’m gonna go ahead and order a copy as an early christmas gift for myself. 🙂

  1. One of the first “problems” concerning the theory of evolution was Lord Kelvin’s calculation that the mass of the Earth would have cooled from its molten state to its current temperature in but a few tens of thousands of years, leaving nowhere near the vast spans of time necessary for “descent by modification”. Of course, at the time, no one knew about radioactive elements giving off heat as they decay. I read an interesting article years ago that says evidence indicates that there was even a “natural nuclear reactor” in Africa billions of years ago: a locale where the radioactive elements were plentiful and concentrated enough to sustain an ongoing fission reaction in the environment!

    1. I recall reading about a ‘natural reactor’ too, but in my instance it was a currently active one where underground water would seep up into spaces in the rock, boil away, then repeat the process. Wish I knew where I had read it.

        1. Oklo was the name I knew from previous encounters with this geologically fascinating place.
          Gabon is on my list of workplaces for the next few months.
          You’ve just assigned me the task of getting there, rock hammer and Geiger counter in hand (plumbous underwear not necessary).
          No, seriously. Cheers. I knew that it was in west Africa ; it hadn’t flagged up with “Gabon” until now. Now it’s flagged. And after finding the only diving cylinder filler in Benin, the task of getting a 4×4 and a map for Oklo shouldn’t be too difficult.
          Even explaining to the Boss why I’m going “off ticket” for a couple of days shouldn’t take long. The Boss is a geologist before he’s a Boss.

      1. The natural reactor was at Oklo (good Wikipedia article). But to get past Kelvin’s cooling argument, all you need is the heat generated by ordinary nuclear decay, without the complication of a reactor-type chain reaction. My boring citatin below is to a creationist claim tohave refuted this long-established refutation. Put forward in 1978, debunked in 1982 by Kitcher (I give a link), and still being taught at Bob Jones Pseudoversity.

  2. It may be that the State is just POed at Pearson too. Pearson is the company that does the Texas state assessments. By holding their book hostage, they may be trying to wrangle some advantage with the state assessment.

    Anything is possible with these people in control. I can’t wait for the election.

  3. How do American post secondary institutions deal with students applying for admission from schools that don’t teach evolution?

    1. For public “state supported” colleges, it depends on the admission standards, which may be nonexistent if the school has a mandate to accept as many state residents as possible. This can mean that there are students entering college who have never had a science class.

  4. What’s this about cooling? It’s another zombie argument, claiming that radiogenic heating doesn’t invalidate Kelvin’s calculations, which are themselves then misrepresented as consistent with thousands, rather than tens of millions, of years.

    Thus at Bob Jones students are told (http://www.bju.edu/academics/college-and-schools/arts-and-science/natural-science/creation/scientists-speak-out/response7.php) that “a 1978 study by two creationists, Harold Slusher and T. P. Gamwell, shows that the radioactive heating does not alter the order of the magnitude of Kelvin’s calculations. The age of the earth indicated by the earth’s thermal flux is much less than indicated by evolutionary models. [H. S. Slusher and T. P. Gamwell, 1978, The age of the earth: A study of the cooling of the earth under the influence of radioactive heat sources, Institute for Creation Research, Santee, CA.]”

    It’s a 77 page booklet. I haven’t bothered to get it. The rather technical fallacy is described here: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=uBu0pWK4rzIC&pg=PA101&lpg=PA101&dq=slusher+gamwell&source=bl&ots=KQ36skfhEU&sig=oX4LzZjAuauDSKGOGlYnfRomIxM&hl=en&sa=X&ei=CmWPUvbeDoyw7AayxoCwDw&ved=0CEkQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q=slusher%20gamwell&f=false

    1. Yeah, when I read “Earth cooling” I instantly thought “Gosh, Kelvin again?”. Of course the argument is blown out of the water by radioactive clocks, anyway.

      And as you rightly say, his calculations said tens of millions to even a few hundred million years – still one order of magnitude of, but clearly not tens of thousands of years.

      There is a very common misunderstanding though: Radioactivity REALLY does not change the calculations that much. What makes the change is mantle convection – in a convecting mantle the heat flow to the Earth’s surface is higher, so you will assume less cooling and thus a younger age, if you don’t take it into account:

      England, P. C. & Molnar, P. & Richter, F. M. (2007): Kelvin, Perry and the Age of the Earth. American Scientist, Vol. 95, 342‑349.

  5. But why a midnight meeting?

    Because the light of day makes them crumble into dust. Have you not seen any Hammer Horror movies?

  6. Greetings,

    If America is interested in national standards for education, then the publishers should not be concerned with approval from boards of education – at any level.

    In this case, they should be concerned at getting approval for science textbooks from the National Academy of Sciences and/or the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

    If the NAS and AAAS drew up a list of “approved textbooks” for science, these could be used by schools – and boards – directly without having to worry about ideologically-driven/motivated agenda.

    Those boards/schools choosing books that aren’t on said lists would be obvious, and facing searching questions from all those concerned with the quality of science – not to mention science education – in America.

    I wonder what Professor Coyne thinks?

    Kindest regards,


    1. And before picking textbooks, how about the NAS/AAAS checking out the standards and curricula adopted by districts, states and nations with the best educational outcomes (measured by some reasonably objective method), wherever they are in the world, rather than assuming the world stops at your borders?
      It’s quite a long time since the US led the world in most areas (except prisons, armed invasions, tornadoes, and commercialized religion where it’s far ahead). 🙂

    2. Unfortunately, education remains one of Federalism’s last great bastions.

      Despite the existence of a US department of education, most primary and secondary education policy is set at the state or local level.

      Even the Common Core, which is intended to create a standard map of which topics should be handled at which grade levels in core subjects, is an agreement between states (44 of them, IIRC).

      1. And common core is considered a tool of Satan by many of my religious friends. I’m not sure what, exactly, they don’t like about it, as they just take it as obvious that everyone around them knows why it’s evil. I’m not very familiar with it enough myself to guess either, but it’s striking to me how strong the feelings about it are.

        1. I think it’s become controversial as the math and English standards have been settled (the 3 R’s are pretty widely accepted as necessary) and work continues on the always more controversial social studies and science standards.

          It’s strange, because in a lot of ways these standards are a proposal from the right, very tied in to the idea of standardized testing as quality control. Poorly implemented, teaching based on the common core uses it as a guide to teaching to the test.

          I’m most familiar with the math component, and it’s basically decent there. Washington had a very comprehensive standard of it’s own and there was a very high degree of overlap. The biggest problem with the transition is the mismatch by a year or two of when certain topics are covered. Dealing with this requires a multiyear transition period to ensure that a topic doesn’t fall through the cracks for current students.

  7. “However, I don’t think natural selection should be characterized as a “force” anyway, because that implies it’s something operating on a group of organisms from the outside. In reality it’s a process: a process of differential survival of gene forms based on their abilities to leave copies of themselves in future generations. It’s not a force but a process.’

    Really nice distinction and definition, Jerry. So clearly expressed, as is typical of you. Thank you.

    1. ‘Force’ can probably do some useful work as a metaphor, where we’re talking about a population (or its ‘centre of mass’) ‘moving’ in a space defined over morphological/genetic/ecological variation. But probably only if the mechanical basis of the metaphor is understood at the same time, which takes at least some calculus. If ‘force’ is understood in the Jedi sense, it is unlikely to provide much clarity.

    2. There’s actually a long debate in the philosophy of biology literature about whether natural selection is “forcelike”. I sometimes wonder if the debate is sterile, for without something like F=ma (to plug in the “force law”, I’m not sure the analogies are precise enough.

      1. Which says something about philosophy. No matter what they finally decide (if they ever reach that point), natural selection will still be natural selection, and act as it acts.

  8. Amongst the items with which last July Grandma Blue gifted my youngest grandkiddo, becoming 3 on his birthday that month with farming parents who, both certified elementary – aged teachers, are godless homeschoolers with two elder such children ( daughters 8 and 7 ), … … is the gorgeously illustrated The Rock is Lively ( the stunningly latest children’s work in such a nature series authored by Ms Dianna Hutts Aston and illustrated by Ms Sylvia Long ).

    I had had the book from my local library so I knew when I checked online for its purchase … … exactly what I was ordering to be sent to Little One, some many miles away from me.

    But what truly sold me on getting GrandBaby this exact book for my earliest attempt to engender in him a love o’rocks and the collecting thereof —- was this online – review of it — heh,heh: “Evolution, January 11, 2013, By Brenda – This is a beautiful book. However, I returned it because I was not willing to gift it to a very young child with the references it has to evolution and the age of the earth. These references are few, but given as fact. I thought about it and decided it was not appropriate for young ages, or for our beliefs.” ! ! ! !

    [btw: the year before when GBaby was reaching 2 years old, he received from Grandmama a gargantuan gathering drum and as well, for the one book which all of ’em always also receive on their birthdays, … … The Stone Age Boy which is both illustrated and authored by Satoshi Kitamura.]


  9. State law approved two years ago means school districts can now choose their own books and don’t have to adhere to a list recommended by the Board of Education

    I’m surprised you mentioned this as a good thing in your previous post; it seems to me that this will just move the battle to the local school districts, where creationists are able to operate below the national and state radars.

    1. Those local boards don’t have the buying power to influence textbook content.

      The old system gave the state board tremendous influence. Now the state board’s influence is diminished, and the local boards in Texas are no more influential than a local board in any other state.

      (Also, if you live in a bright spot like Austin, you’re probably happy to be able to ignore the state board at will.)

  10. In articles like this, I wish they would stop referring to the people opposed to proper education as “”socially conservative”.

    Being “socially conservative” seems to me to be irrelevant. They should be refereed to as religious extremists or fundamentalists.

    Our news outlets do not afford the same (undeserved) respect to Religious extremists in other countries, especially if they are members of a rival religion.

    1. There’s a lot of overlap between the two groups, but on things like global warming, the downplaying of slavery, and the downplaying of labor history, religious belief is not the sole province of religiously motivated conservatives.

      1. Sorry, that last sentence should say “the desire to interfere with proper coverage of these issues is not the sole province of religously motivated conservatives.

  11. Continuing meetings until late at night was one of the main tactics used by the left-wing extremists who were busy hijacking the Labour party in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s.

  12. Regarding: “Members outside the socially conservative bloc claimed their colleagues waited until the dead of night to try to impose ideological edits. ” Ironic because the “socially conservative bloc” wants to impose their ideological edits.

    What this Earth cooling business is all about is no doubt a reference to the 19th century efforts of William Thompson, Lord Kelvin to calculate the age of the earth from its cooling rate. It was a brilliant effort, but was rendered moot by the discovery of radioactivity.

    1. Indeed; Bob Jones U claims that Kelvin’s lower llimit was in the thousands rather than millions ( a flat-out lie), and cite a 1978 Institute of Creation Research paper, debunked 1982, that claims to show that the earth’s radioactive heating would have made little difference. See comment 6 above. I expect that’s what’s behind it.

      But see also Seidel’s reply to my comment 6. That too.

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