New Texas Textbook Censorship Attempt
by the State Board of Education and Discovery Institute
February 18, 2004
On November 6, 2003, the Texas State Board of Education voted 11-4 to adopt all the biology books on the conforming list subject only to normal error correction by the Texas Education Agency staff. On November 7, all the books were adopted unanimously by voice vote with no dissent. I am happy to report that the biology texts were not censored, weakened, or modified in any way that would reduce their scientific accuracy, especially about the topics of evolution and the origin of life. Four anti-evolutionists on the Board, led by Dr. Don McLeroy, did attempt to adopt only two biology books on the conforming list and adopt the others on the nonconforming list, thereby reducing their sales, but they failed in this attempt.
Texas Citizens for Science has recently learned that, beginning in December 2003 and continuing today, there has been an unfortunate and intensive behind-the-scenes effort by the Discovery Institute and anti-evolutionists on the State Board of Education and the Texas Education Agency staff to continue the attempt to damage biology books by weakening their evolution content. Under the guise of "factual error correction," SBOE member Don McLeroy and former TEA acting comissioner and now chief deputy commissioner Robert Scott have told biology textbook publishers to respond to alleged "factual errors" identified by, among others, the Discovery Institute and the "Mel Gablers," two creationist organizations that repeatedly attmept to weaken high school biology textbooks by diminishing, distorting, or deleting reliable scientific content about evolution. The alleged "errors" are the same bogus "errors" considered by the full SBOE and correctly rejected by them. A letter to SBOE Chairman Geraldine Miller from TCS President Steven Schafersman has been written discussing this latest scandal in great detail. The letter asks that specific individuals resign from their positions of public trust, and that the Texas SBOE and Texas Commissioner of Education both go on record to support the teaching of accurate and reliable science in Texas public schools.
Under the normal process, publishers are only required to change or respond to the errors identified by the TEA contractor for error identification (in this case, biology faculty of Texas A&M University) and any errors identified by the textbook curriculum review panel and TEA staff. But in this very irregular instance, publishers have been obliged to change or respond to additional alleged "errors" identified by outside creationist organizations, primarily the Discovery Institute of Seattle, Washington. The Discovery Institute is notorious for being funded by wealthy ultra-right wing and religiously-motivated theocrats, and for employing a disreputable and dishonest "Wedge Strategy" that uses rhetorical, political, marketing, and advertising techniques to achieve their goals of damaging science education in the United States, while ignoring the standard scientific requirements of evidence and rational reasoning. The Discovery Institute's threat is so real and pervasive that a new book, Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, recently published by Oxford University Press, was written to expose it. The intensity, duplicity, and secrecy of this censorship attempt in Texas makes it even more serious and potentially damaging for American science education than the recent Georgia E-word controversy and the Ohio anti-evolution lesson plan controversy, all pushed by creationists who have gained administrative authority with their respective states' education agencies and all initiated and encouraged by the Discovery Institute.
TCS has evidence (a copy of his January 8 message) that Dr. McLeroy personally corresponded with biology textbook publishers without the permission or oversight of the other SBOE members (and probably without their knowledge), asking them to correct the Discovery Institute's alleged "errors," and told them that their "cooperation in it is required." In addition, Mr. Robert Scott was complicit in this latest attempted censorship by personally ordering TEA Textbook Division administrators and staff, almost certainly at the bequest of Dr. McLeroy (and perhaps also his three anti-evolutionist colleagues on the State Board), to write to publishers on December 12 and December 19 with the latest Discovery Institute list of "factual errors" and require them to respond with corrections in their page proofs. Such actions are a direct intimidation--bordering on extortion--of textbook publishers for the purpose of attempting to coerce them to censor their biology textbooks in unscientific ways. There exists even further evidence that these actions were part of a planned strategy to censor the evolution content of the biology books despite their overwhelming adoption by the SBOE without changes asked for by the Discovery Institute and other creationist organizations: while the public--including scientists and science educators, and probably most members of the State Board of Education--were kept ignorant of the details of the behind-the-scene maneuverings of Dr. McLeroy and the TEA to intimidate publishers, the details were known to members of other creationist organizations. Mr. Frank Mayo, an officer of Texans for Better Science Education, was obviously aware of the push to damage the biology books under the guise of "error correction," since he referred to this effort in his message to the Katy ISD Board as they considered which biology textbook to adopt.
As everyone knows, Texas derives its power to censor textbooks from its highly-centralized authoritarian adoption process and enormous purchasing power, allowing it to force publishers to make changes of factual errors and include content to match the state's science curriculum requirements. Since textbooks often do contain factual errors, this process would not be censorship or problematical for scientists if that's all that transpired. In spite of the attempt by the Texas Legislature to limit State Board-mandated revisions to only truly factual errors--rather than all possible content, as was previously the case--by legislatively revising the appropriate textbook adoption statutes in 1995, the state's adoption process continues to permit unscrupulous SBOE members to force publishers to make changes in content that are not factually in error, but only disagreeable to the religious, political, and social agendas of individual SBOE members. The Board is able to do this by voting to define when specific textbook content is actually a "factual error," even if no expert panel of teachers or scientists reached that same conclusion. Although one might think it is fantastic or incredible that elected officials have the power to decide whether reliable and factual scientific knowledge is or is not a fact, this is currently the case in Texas.
Such power can and has been used quite recently by the State Board of Education. It as a form of semi-legal to illegal extortion, allowing the Board to harass and intimidate publishers and force them to change or respond to alleged "factual errors" that are not actually false, with the threat that their textbooks will not be adopted on the conforming list, thus losing tens to hundreds of millions of dollars in textbook sales. In practice, the Board plays a duplicitous game of chicken with science textbook publishers, repeatedly asking them to make corrections of bogus, alleged "factual errors," while each time publishers have to guess how acceptable their responses will be to members who possess faith-based beliefs at odds with modern science, whether these individuals constitute a majority of SBOE members, whether they will actually vote to reject a book whose publisher wishes to preserve its scientific accuracy, and what support they can expect from the scientific community--virtually all of whom are extraordinarily busy with their scientific research and teaching duties--to defend their textbooks and protect scientific integrity. And then, of course, publishers can certainly imagine what the consequences will be if they choose wrongly and their books are rejected or placed on the non-conforming list. This reprehensible game of chicken constitutes needless and probably illegal harassment and bullying of the publishers. None of them like it, but they cannot publicly protest in the face of the State Board's enormous financial hold over them. Only independent organizations and individuals who are knowledgeable of the history of abuse, such as Texas Citizens for Science and Diane Ravitch (author of The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn) can complain.
Decades ago, publishers were more than willing to make changes that diminished, distorted, and deleted their textbooks' scientific content, typically about such topics as evolution, the origin of life, and the age of the Earth, but also about history, health, and social studies books that dealt with capitalism, socialism, sex education, contraception, the history of American wars, labor unions, exploitation of workers, religious history, and many other controversial subjects. In recent years, however, scientists, science educators, and citizens interested in protecting science education have publicly defended science textbook publishers, making them less willing to censor their books and more willing to maintain scientific accuracy, although they are still fearful that their book may be unfairly removed from the conforming list by the arbitrary and probably illegal action of the SBOE. Since precisely this occurred only two years ago under the current board, their fear is amply justified; fortunately, a lawsuit resulted which may end this practice.
I am happy to report that, as far as Texas Citizens for Science has been able to determine by studying the available publishers' responses, biology textbook publishers are continuing to defend the accuracy of their books' science content in the face of this latest intimidation and extortion attempt by Dr. McLeroy and Mr. Scott, and have all refused to make substantive changes to the bogus so-called "errors" identified by the Discovery Institute. Cynically, I believe some publishers are doing this not out of a sincere desire to teach good science, but mainly because hundreds of Texas scientists publicly spoke out and defended their books, and because they believe a majority of SBOE members, for whatever reasons of their own, will support them. We would like to think that all science textbook publishers want their books to be completely accurate and incorruptible, and never engage in self-censorship or yield to official-censorship no matter what financial pressures are forced on them, but truthfully this is just not the way things work in our country.
My personal experience for 23 years, as the foremost investigator and documenter of biology textbook adoption in Texas, is that major publishers have in the past indulged in political, religious, and historical censorship when tens to hundreds of millions of dollars of textbook sales are at stake, as is frequently the case in this state, and I don't consider it impossible that they won't do it again. I actually sympathize with textbook publishers faced with the problem of choosing between financial self-interest and noble, selfless integrity; they are, after all, business enterprises, and must respond in some respect to the market, but I only wish that the Texas market did not constantly attempt to compromise and censor their textbooks. Fortunately, the organized opposition of scientists and science supporters against the powerful forces of dogmatism, unreason, and pseudoscience in Texas has proven itself capable of defending the integrity of science and science textbooks, and it can and will continue to do so. The really sad thing about this situation, however, which I think everyone now understands, is that without the organized and timely participation and defense by scientists and science educators, the biology textbooks would almost surely have been compromised.
Frankly, such time-consuming opposition should not be necessary in an ideal world, but the system of textbook adoption in Texas itself needs to be changed to remove the power that fifteen elected officials have to determine content, or these individuals should be appointed by the governor rather than elected to ensure that qualified and knowledgeable people occupy such powerful positions. One commonly suggested solution to this problem is to end the highly-centralized, authoritarian adoption of textbooks in Texas, and allow individual school districts to choose whatever textbooks they want (and have the state pay for them, as is now the case, out of the permanent school fund). This process is, after all, the one that most states use, but it has the disadvantage that the long-standing legitimate processes of experts checking for real errors and curriculum conformity may be lost. However, the benefit of correcting small errors and achieving 100% conformity to the Texas curriculum requirements (the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) may not be sufficient justification to continue indulging in the very flawed and dangerous textbook adoption process we now possess, a process dangerous precisely because of its well-known and documented propensity to subordinate factual and reliable scientific and historical knowledge to individual Board members' extreme personal political, economic, and religious beliefs.
I don't know what the final solution could be for this problem, but something should be done to end the theater played out every year before the public in Austin between religious fundamentalists, creationists, anti-environmentalists, anti-contraception/abstinence-only supporters, extreme pro-economic and pro-human population growth advocates, and radical right-wing defenders of laissez-faire capitalism on one side, and defenders of mainstream social and economic policies and scientific accuracy on the other. I have always thought that this spectacle is demeaning to the national reputation of Texas, but some defend it as a glorious example of American democracy in action. Perhaps it is, but the frequent consequence of this glorious process has been the deliberate intimidation and extortion of textbook publishers resulting in censorship of reliable and factual educational content--the diminishing, distortion, and deletion of sound scientific, social, historical, health, environmental, and economic information. Many studies reveal that Texas students are less able to perform at the college level than students from other states, and Texas student exam scores continue to rank near the bottom of all states. This was true in the 1980s, when I first pointed it out to the SBOE and explained the reason, and it is still true today under the current Board. The reason is that the education of many Texas students is deliberately censored and thwarted by explicit and implicit social policies and customs that prevent students from learning the relevant and reliable information they need to develop critical thinking skills and succeed in the modern world as careful and independent thinkers. These policies and customs are supported and maintained by many social institutions, not only the school system, but only the public school system can mitigate this cycle of ignorance and complacency for most students, so that is where we must begin to solve the problem.
Despite the current result--that publishers refused to censor the biology textbooks after yet another round of official intimidation by TEA administrators and a SBOE member--the actions of Don McLeroy and Robert Scott were irregular and unethical (what one might term "semi-legal") and probably illegal, but this latter description depends on (1) the legality of a single SBOE member directly corresponding with publishers without the knowledge or permission of other SBOE members, (2) the legality of publishers being forced to respond to non-public, essentially secret post-facto "error correction" attempts after their textbooks have already been reviewed, vetted, and adopted in hearings by the SBOE's very open, lengthy, thorough, democratic, and fully accountable public process, and (3) the legality of powerful individuals pushing self-defined "factual errors" under the authority of the SBOE and TEA in the face of extensive and unanimous previous scientific testimony that such "errors" are not in fact scientific errors, but deliberate pseudoscientific misrepresentations. TCS is therefore not willing to describe the actions of Dr. McLeroy and Mr. Scott as absolutely illegal until these factors are tested in court, and this may actually occur in the near future, since Dr. McLeroy and other TEA officials have already been sued over an identical incident involving an environmental science textbook. No doubt he and the others would be sued by biology textbook publishers if any of their books were rejected in a similar manner, but this hasn't happened yet.
For now, TCS is willing to describe their actions as irregular, unethical, unscientific, unwise, and a betrayal of the trust and openness required of elected and appointed public officials, especially in processes concerning public education. Their actions make a mockery of Governor Rick Perry's Master Science Teacher Initiative, passed by the Texas Legislature in 2003 to improve science instruction in Texas public schools, because they forcefully declare that the SBOE is not really interested in improving science education, but rather diminishing and distorting it. Because they have shown such a blatant disregard for due process and public accountability, TCS calls on Dr. Don McLeroy and Mr. Robert Scott to resign from their positions on the SBOE and TEA. I am also going to request that the State Board of Education adopt a resolution stating their approval of teaching science accurately and fully, including the topic of evolution, and request that the new TEA Commissioner, Dr. Shirley Neeley, to make a similar statement. Science teachers throughout Texas are disillusioned and apprehensive about the lack of support they receive from principals, superintendents, school boards, and the Texas State Board of Education concerning this situation. Science will never be taught truthfully and completely in Texas until public education leaders forcefully express their desire to have it taught that way.
Steven Schafersman, Texas Citizens for Science infoATtxscience.org (Help stop spam: replace AT with @ before mailing) Last updated: 2004/03/04