Frequently Asked Questions About the Texas Science Textbook Adoption Controversy


Steven Schafersman

Still Under Construction

1. The Discovery Institute says it wants to help students understand the flaws in evolutionary theory. Why is that a problem?

The problem is that the Discovery Institute (DI) is pulling a bait-and-switch con game with the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE), the press, and citizens. The DI keeps asking for flaws (weaknesses and criticisms) of Darwinism and Darwinian theory to be presented in the textbooks, but the books already contain this information. All the biology books point out that Darwin had no knowledge of modern genetics, and that he was ignorant of evolutionary mechanisms other than random mutations, natural selection, and genetic variability. Research in the twentieth century has corrected these defects in his original theory, and modern evolutonary theory is much stronger. The Texas science curriculum requires that both "scientific strengths and weaknesses" of theories be presented in science textbooks, and the biology books contain these now (historical weaknesses and modern strengths). The curriculum also requires that textbooks be free of "factual errors," and that is also the case; the books are examined by a university panel that looks for errors and reports any to the State Board.

Now, what about flaws in modern evolutionary theory. There are two answers to this: First, the biology textbooks are written for introductory high school students, and justifiably contain only reliable knowledge about evolution that has been thoroughly tested and corroborated, and thus has achieved universal scientific acceptance and consensus. Second, of course there are flaws in modern evolutionary theory; as I frequently point out, all scientific theories are incomplete because nature is subtle and scientists are not omniscient. Scientific theories--the most reliable knowledge we humans possess--are subject to change as new evidence is discovered. This is a strength of science, not a weakness. The problems, flaws, gaps, and controversies of evolutionary theory (or any scientific theory) can only be studied and comprehended by individuals who have advanced beyond the introductory stage of their education, such as college biology majors and graduate students. To cover these at an introductory level only confuses students, not educates them. High school biology textbooks today do a fine job of presenting the historical weaknesses and flaws of modern biological theories, and that is enough to show introductory students that scientific knowledge is discovered by a methodical and systematic process that continues today, one of humanity's most exciting endeavors. Furthermore, good science education shows students that the scientific method is based on the practice and skills of critical thinking, which they have the power to use in their own work in the laboratory, classroom, and life.

2. What do you believe groups like the Discovery Institute and the ID proponents ultimately want?

The Discovery Institute and ID proponents have a number of goals that they hope to achieve using disingenuous and mendacious methods of marketing, publicity, and political persuasion. They do not practice real science because that takes too long, but mainly because this method requires that one have actual evidence and logical reasons for one's conclusions, and the ID proponents just don't have those. If they had such resources, they would use them, and not the disreputable methods they actually use.

The DI has both an immediate goal and an ultimate goal. The immediate goal is to diminish the evolution content in modern biology textbooks that will soon be adopted in Texas. To achieve this, the DI used three devious tactics. First, they presented the SBOE with an analysis of the biology textbooks that claimed the books were deficient in presenting the "scientific weaknesses" of four evolutionary topics: the Miller-Urey experiment, the Cambrian explosion, peppered moths, and drawings of vertebrate embryos. Unfortunately for the DI, their entire analysis was derived from the book by creationist Jonathan Wells, Icons of Evolution. This book has been reviewed and refuted by a number of scientists who have revealed that it is a paragon of pseudoscholarship and pseudoscience. It misrepresents scientific data, quotes scientists out of context, uses illogical and specious arguments, and in general presents a false picture of modern evolutionary theory. The DI analysis of the Texas biology books was quickly examined and discredited by a number of Texas scientists, including myself. In fact, the biology books presented these topics correctly when used as examples of evolution and the abiotic origin of life. (There was one exception: one book still used the faulty Haeckel drawings of vertebrate embryos, but all the others had long corrected or omitted these.) The problem with the DI's purported "weaknesses" is that they are not scientific, as required by the curriculum.

The DI hopes the SBOE will compel the biology textbook publishers to insert these bogus, unscientific weaknesses in the books to weaken only the evolution and origin of life topics. By focusing on these topics, they hope that students will learn that only evolution is controversial and teachers will avoid or water-down their presentation of these "controversial" topics. This will accomplish their goal of damaging scientific instruction about evolution in public schools. Indeed, just the publicity from the controversy now makes all Texas biology teachers think twice about how they present the topics. Almost all high school biology teachers in Texas today avoid discussion of human evolution, and many teach about evolution in the context of ecological "adaptation" and genetic "change," not in terms of speciation and common descent, which fundamentally distorts the topic. The DI wants this distortion to continue and increase.

The DI's second tactic was to give the SBOE the same papers they extracted from the scientific literature that they had presented to the Ohio Board of Education in an attempt to convince them that genuine scientific controversy existed about evolution. These papers, all written by legitimate scientists, investigated different aspects of evolutionary theory and contained speculative and differing views about specific aspects of the theory. While not unusual, the DI claimed these papers showed that evolution was a "theory in crisis," and that this must be presented to high school students. "Teach the controversy," they said. But this tactic was a deliberate misrepresentation. The National Center of Science Education contacted the authors of these papers to ask them for their correct meaning; most replied and all who did repudiated the DI interpretation of their work. Some aspects of evolutionary theory are controversial and are the subjects of advanced research among evolutionary scientists, but these aspects do not (and should not) find their way into introductory biology textbooks. To claim that the presence of these controversial aspects--similar to those all scientific theories possess--means that evolution itself is controversial and that this should be presented in introductory biology textbooks, is completely wrong and extremely devious.

The DI's third tactic was to obtain and publicize an open letter signed by 24 Texas university professors and a statement signed by 40 Texas "scientists," all asking that Darwinian evolution be fairly taught to Texas students, including the "weaknesses" and flaws, and that Darwinian theory should be questioned. As it turned out, only a few of the professors were scientists, and only a handful of the scientists were biologists. Some actually never signed a statement but were only contacted for their assent; they were not aware how the DI was going to publicly use their names, and they later objected to their exploitation. I did a detailed analysis of these two statements and showed why they were illegitimate and irrelevant to the Texas controversy. For example, the two statements constantly refer to "Darwinian theory" and "Darwinism," not modern evolutionary theory. If I really thought they were truly referring to Darwin's theory, I would have signed the statements! But they don't: the DI was trying to use these statements to attack modern evolutionary theory using their patented bait-and-switch technique, and that was a misrepresentation.

The ultimate goal of the DI is to get intelligent design creationism inserted into the Texas science curriculum. They are not asking for this now, but that is their future intent. They tried to get intelligent design inserted into the Kansas and Ohio science curricula, but failed. Now, the DI officers and fellows think Texas is their best hope for a small victory that will lead to achieving their ultimate goal. Members of the Texas SBOE are overwhelmingly conservative and religious, and the DI thinks most can be convinced to vote in favor of their effort to insert bogus "weaknesses" about evolution into textbooks. If this succeeds, the DI will next ask that the Texas science curriculum be revised to accept intelligent design. Working step by step to achieve change is an old political practice, and this time the DI is trying this strategy. But even religious conservatives may want to vote to make changes to the state's public school science textbooks and curriculum that are opposed by the state's scientists and business leaders, so the DI may ultimately fail again.

3. Didn't the Discovery Institute officers publish a Zogby Poll that they claimed showed that Texas citizens overwhelmingly supported their views in the biology textbook adoption controversy?

The DI used a flawed Zogby poll to prove this claim, stating that 83% of Texas citizens "say the state board of education should approve biology textbooks that teach both Darwin's theory of evolution and the scientific evidence against it." However, as most people well understand, poll results can be manipulated depending on what questions are asked and how the statistics are interpreted, and the results can be misrepresented--as was done here. Zogby is notorious for having a history of preparing polls for political advocacy organizations that tend to show results favorable to the client's political interests (see Mooney). These polls show just how easily public opinion can be manipulated to serve political goals. The Zogby poll in Texas used questions whose wording forced poll respondents to answer in a way that supported the Discovery Institute's interests and claims. For example, respondents were asked to agree or disagree with the following two statements:

Texas law requires that textbooks be "free from factual errors." Should the state board of education apply this standard to how biology textbooks present Darwin's theory of evolution?

Texas law requires students to analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information. Should the state board of education apply this standard to how evolution is presented in textbooks?

Even I would have voted "yes" to these two questions as they stand, since they only ask if evolution should be taught according to the state's science curriculum requirements. However, there is more here than meets the eye. First, the state's science curriculum requires that all scientific topics be presented this way, not just evolution, and respondent are not asked if all scientific topics should be taught that way, and that actually doing this would be essentially impssible. Second, scientific evidence and information are required, but the question omits the fact that the client has only pseudoscientific evidence and information. Third and most importantly, the conclusion that the DI draws from their results--that biology textbooks should teach the scientific evidence against Darwin's theory of evolution--is misleading. As discussed above, the biology books now present scientific evidence against Darwin's original theory, but they do not present the bogus and inaccurate "evidence" (actually, pseudoscientific arguments) against the modern theory of evolution that the DI actually wants them to present and is trying to get the Texas SBOE to force the publishers to insert. So the questions deliberately and deceptively omit vital information that any rational person would need to know to agree or disagree with these questions based on an informed opinion.

4. ID represents a break with traditional young-earth creationism. Have you seen any evidence that these two camps have managed to broker a truce and work together in the common goal of undermining Darwinism in the public mind?

Yes. There are actually dozens of divergent creationist views, but at bottom they all hate Darwin and modern scientific evolution--in fact, they all hate modern science (and its method of critical inquiry) in toto, but they can't openly express that view since it would inform the public that they are only pretending to be scientists. All use pseudoscientific methods to a greater or lesser extent in promulgating their views. Since pure Biblical or religious creationism has no legal legitimacy in public schools, textbooks, or science curricula--as mandated by a number of Federal Court decisions--creationists have had to turn to pseudoscience to subvert secular science education. But this was an easy turn for them, since creationist pseudoscience has been an American tradition since the 1920's and the days of George McCready Price. Intelligent design is recognized as just another form of creationism, albeit a very sophisticated form with many scientific trappings and arguments.

The most surprising new twist in this saga is that young-Earth creationists are now passing themselves off as intelligent design creationists to feed off of their new popularity. Recently in Texas a new creationist organization formed, Texans for Better Science Education (TBSE). As I expected, they went the pseudoscience route and printed the usual quotes by scientists out of context and bogus "scientific" reasons why evolution is false. It was fairly easy to show that this group was composed of the most credulous, ignorant, and vulgar young-Earth creationists by revealing their prior website and non-publicized beliefs (they removed this original website when the connections were revealed). But what really surprised me was their new tactics: as with the ID proponents of the Discovery Institute, the TBSE members asked for only "weaknesses" of evolution to be inserted into biology textbooks, not creationism or intelligent design. Even more remarkably, they defined intelligent design as "the idea that there was a 'master creator' who designed life; proponents of this idea argue that evolution is at best an unprovable theory that should be taught as just one of the possible explanations for the origin of life." This is not the definition of ID that Behe, Dembski, and other ID theorists use, since they accept quite a bit of modern evolutionary theory (just not all, as do scientists). Laughably, the TBSE members were pretending to be ID theorists to gain some of their celebrity, in exactly the same way they pretend to possess scientific knowledge to gain some of science's legitimacy and prestige; these are the marks of true pseudoscientists.

5. What is "intelligent design"?

William Dembski defines intelligent design (ID) as the "science that studies how to detect intelligence." This is extremely misleading. Detecting intelligence is certainly important to the ID program, but there is much more, such as distinguishing intelligent design from apparent design and explaining how design is manifested in nature by the intelligence. But wait a moment--these last two topics are ignored by the ID proponents. They want to persuade listeners and readers that if the ID advocates can just demonstrate the presence of design in nature, then one must conclude that the design is due to intelligence, thus proving the existence and action of intelligence. There are so many missing logical steps here that their argument becomes invalid, not to mention missing explanations of the processes involved.

6. Is intelligent design a legitimate scientific topic or is it just another form of creationism?

Intelligent design is a form of creationism because it unavoidably posits the existence of an intelligent designer who designed and created all species of fossil and living organisms. The ID proponents are coy about the true identity of the intelligent designer, allowing for the possibility that it could be a natural super-human extraterrestrial alien, but no one seriously thinks this is a possibility, because such aliens are obviously more interested in sexually molesting and experimenting upon the bodies of abducted humans than in designing tapeworms, petunias, and mullets. Perhaps if there was some actual evidence for a super-alien designer, scientists would take the idea more seriously. In any event, ID proponents all have a common characteristic: they are all believers in a supernatural deity, and many of them have identified the designer with this entity. So ID advocates are really trying to pervert science by slipping supernaturalism into its practice.

7. Are the proponents of intelligent design legitimate scientists as they claim?

No, none are legitimate scientists. I agree that some of the ID proponents have received scientific training, but this training was gained to learn terminology and understand biological processes in order to better oppose the scientific establishment and its support for evoluiton. Many of the ID advocates are knowledgeable about science and some even have science doctorates, but these individuals are not scientists because they do not behave like scientists. Real, legitimate scientists share the following characteristics:

The ID proponents fail all of these tests, thus clearly revealing themselves to be pseudoscientists, not real scientists. No one seriously recognizes the major ID proponents, including William Dembski, Jonathan Wells, Stephen Meyer, or Paul Nelson as legitimate, practicing scientists; they would charitably be characterized as scholars or philosophers, less charitably as polemicists and popularizers, still less charitably as creationists and pseudoscientists.

But what about Dr. Michael Behe, who is a tenured biology professor at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. I fully agree that his scientific work conducted prior to earning tenure at Lehigh was legitimate science, and he was a real scientist then. But now his "research" focuses on intelligent design, as he himself states, which is a philosophical, pseudoscientific program. There is little his university can do about that: For example, a famous psychology professor at Harvard has for many years conducted research into the abduction of humans by extraterrestrial aliens, something in which he devoutly believes; his Harvard colleagues have tried to get rid of him, but tenure ultimately prevented that. In addition, Professor Behe has engaged in many debates with legitimate scientists in the popular philosophical literature and on the Web, and he has refused to change any of the illogical arguments he uses to reason to his conclusion. His book, for instance, Darwin's Black Box, is one long argument from ignorance, which has been pointed out by dozens of knowledgeable scientist reviewers, including me, but he obstinately refuses to acknowledge this. You would never know it from Michael Behe that his book has received universal criticism and condemnation from the scientific community. This is not the mark of a true scientist.

Dr. Behe actually accepts quite a bit of modern evolutionary theory, but he insists--contrary to all evidence--that an intelligent designer was necessary to get the evolutionary process going early in Earth's history by somehow creating the first "irreducible complexity" in nature. He and his other ID associates identify this intelligent designer with the Christian God, but he claims this is irrelevant for a scientific understanding. Well, that's nonsense; the identity and characteristics of any presumed intelligent designer would have to be susceptible to empirical study by other scientists, but this can't be done when dealing with the supernatural. Many scientists, including myself, have published reviews of his writings that demonstrate that his concept of irreducible complexity of structures and processes is wrong, and criticize him for his refusal to explain the methods by which the intelligent designer actually created the first complex organism. But Behe continues to indulge in ad hoc arguments to maintain his beliefs. This is not the mark of a true scientist.

8. The ID advocates claim that their work has been published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, and that other scientists have cited their work in this literature in papers that "support intelligent design in biology." Are these claims true?

No. Only one work that marginally supports ID has ever been published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, and this was not in a science journal, but was a book published by a legitimate scientific publisher: W.A. Dembski, The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities, Cambridge University Pres, 1998. As Dembski states, "this book was published by Cambridge University Press and peer-reviewed as part of a distinguished monograph series, Cambridge Studies in Probability, Induction, and Decision Theory. . . . Commenting on the ideas in this book, Paul Davies remarks: "Dembsk's attempt to quantify design, or provide mathematical criteria for design, is extremely useful. I'm concerned that the suspicion of a hidden agenda is going to prevent that sort of work from receiving the recognition it deserves. Strictly speaking, you see, science should be judged purely on the science and not on the scientist." (Quoted in L. Witham, By Design, San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2003, p. 149.) The Design Inference examines the question of how to recognize intelligent design; it does not provide scientific evidence or justification for concluding that organic life is designed, nor did it intend to. So while it is true to say that a work about ID by an ID proponent has been published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, it is false to claim that any work has been so published that actually supports the existence of intelligent design, which is what the ID advocates want you to believe. The distinction is clear.

What about papers published by legitimate scientists in the peer-reviewed scientific literature that "support intelligent design in biology" and sometime cite ID theorists, such as Behe and Dembski? Dembski names four with his comments:

D.D. Axe, "Extreme Functional Sensitivity to Conservative Amino Acid Changes on Enzyme Exteriors," Journal of Molecular Biology, 301 (2000): 585-595. This work shows that certain enzymes are extremely sensitive to perturbation. Perturbation in this case does not simply diminish existing function or alter function, but removes all possibility of function. This implies that neo-Darwinian theory has no purchase on these systems. Moreover, the probabilities implicit in such extreme-functional-sensitivity analyses are precisely those needed for a design inference.

W.-E. Loennig & H. Saedler, "Chromosome Rearrangements and Transposable Elements," Annual Review of Genetics, 36 (2002): 389-410. This article examines the role of transposons in the abrupt origin of new species and the possibility of an partly predetermined generation of biodiversity and new species. The authors approach in non-Darwinian, and they cite favorably on the work of Michael Behe and William Dembski.

D.K.Y. Chiu & T.H. Lui, "Integrated Use of Multiple Interdependent Patterns for Biomolecular Sequence Analysis," International Journal of Fuzzy Systems, 4(3). The opening paragraph of this article reads: Detection of complex specified information is introduced to infer unknown underlying causes for observed patterns [10]. By complex information, it refers to information obtained from observed pattern or patterns that are highly improbable by random chance alone. We evaluate here the complex pattern corresponding to multiple observations of statistical interdependency such that they all deviate significantly from the prior or null hypothesis [8]. Such multiple interdependent patterns when consistently observed can be a powerful indication of common underlying causes. That is, detection of significant multiple interdependent patterns in a consistent way can lead to the discovery of possible new or hidden knowledge. Reference number [10] here is to William Dembsk's The Design Inference.

M.J. Denton & J.C. Marshall, The Laws of Form Revisited, Nature, 410 (22 March 2001): 417; M.J. Denton, J.C. Marshall & M. Legge, (2002), "The Protein Folds as Platonic Forms: New Support for the pre-Darwinian Conception of Evolution by Natural Law," Journal of Theoretical Biology 219 (2002): 325-342. This research is thoroughly non-Darwinian and looks to laws of form embedded in nature to bring about biological structures. The intelligent design research program is broad, and design like this thats programmed into nature falls within its ambit.

Contrary to Dembski, not one of these four papers supports intelligent design. They all deal with non-Darwinian (i.e. non-natural selection) evolutionary processes that are either speculative or more or less accepted by legitimate biologists. The intelligent design program may indeed "be broad," but it is dishonest to pretend that scientific papers that ignore intelligent design and contain no empirical evidence or rational arguments for it nevertheless "support" it. This is yet another deception by intelligent design advocates, whose entire program depends on their ability to fool the very people they are trying to persuade.

9. You examined the textbooks under consideration. As you know, the Discovery Institute has rated them and given most low grades. What is your assessment of the books? How would you rate them?

The eleven biology books I examined were adequate to excellent in their presentation of evolution and the origin of life (the only sections I examined). Only one had an obvious error, the faulty vertebrate embryo drawing. The DI's low grades were given as a rhetorical device to draw attention to their lack of content that the DI thought was necessary to present the "weaknesses" of evolution as required by the curriculum. However, the "weaknesses" the DI identified were scientifically invalid and mendacious, since their effect would actually weaken, diminish, and distort the accurate presentation of evolutionary and origin of life theories, as also required by the science curriculum.

10. Why should people outside of Texas care about this battle?

Texas spends $350-500 million a year on public school textbooks. This is an extremely large market that publishers seriously evaluate. But that alone is not the source of Texas' power, since other large states spend an equal amount. The reason Texas is so important in this battle is because Texas is the largest "adoption state," a state in which the textbooks are adopted by a central authority (the State Board of Education), paid for by the state with the annual earnings of a multi-billion dollar permanent trust fund, and then distributed for free to the state's school districts. Only fifteen individuals--the members of the SBOE--decide what textbooks can be used in Texas. In the past, they had enormous power to control the content of the books according to their own ideological prejudices, but much of this power was stripped from them in 1995 by the Texas Legislature due to frequent abuse of the process, business community complaints, and national embarrassment. Now, they can only reject books if they contain factual errors or do not conform to the Texas curriculum (the TEKS, or Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills).

Unfortunately, the SBOE still gets to decide what is or is not a factual error and whether a textbook actually conforms to the TEKS, and the members have thus continued to misuse their powers. The legislation stipulated that independent panels would evaluate the presence of factual errors and TEKS conformity and report this to the Board, but members of the current Board have disregarded these reports in the past and intend to do so in the future. For example, an environmental science book was rejected last year because it said that industries cause air pollution. Needless to say, the fact checker didn't make this judgment, but the Board decided the statement was prejudicial to the Texas petrochemical industry and asked the publisher to change it. When the publisher refused, the book was rejected.

In the past, publishers would write their books books for the Texas school market as determined by the ideological, political, and religious biases and prejudices of the Texas SBOE, the country's lowest common denominator, because separate textbook editions could not be produced in a cost-effective manner. Thus, textbooks written for the Texas market were used throughout the United States, giving the Board gate-keepers enormous power to control textbook content. The result, needless to say, was the use of biology books throughout the country that diminished or omitted evolution (and I won't even take the time here to describe what happened to the content of history, civics, health science, and social studies textbooks).

Efforts by groups in the 1980's and early 1990's, including mine, led to major changes and reforms in science textbook content, science curriculum, and adoption procedures. Today, publishers can publish a "Texas Edition" that contains whatever dumbing-down the SBOE mandates, and school districts in the rest of the country could purchase the regular scientifically-accurate edition. The Texas Legislature reformed the state's public school curriculum by removing the reactionary SBOE from the process and having the Texas Education Agency (a completely professional and pro-education agency) write the curriculum and adopting it as a matter of statutory law. The current TEKS curriculum is scientifically accurate and requires a satisfactory amount of evolution instruction (in theory if not in practice). Furthermore, students are tested on this knowledge, so they are required to learn it if they wish to do well on the state's standardized exams for graduation. The bottom line is that Texas no longer has the power it once had to influence or control textbook content, and the individuals who wish to use the remaining power are now more limited in the damage they can cause. Nevertheless, they can still reject and displace scientifically-accurate textbooks in Texas if the books contain material to which the board members object.

11. What can people in other states do to avoid the type of battle Texas has experienced?

First, the governor should ideally appoint members of your state's board of education to ensure that they are properly qualified, but if they are elected--as is the case in Texas--pay attention to their views, backgrounds, and characters. In Texas, extreme right-wing ideologues are elected with the sole intention of damaging textbook content because they run in a low-profile race that most voters ignore.

Second, monitor the activities of your state's board of education if it has anything at all to do with centralized adoption of your state's textbooks or if it controls the content of your state's curriculum. Creationists tried to change the science curriculum in a number of states in recent years to add intelligent design (which was being passed off as good science, not the sophisticated type of creationism it really is).

Third, examine the textbooks that are used in your school district to see if they contain accurate information. I am concerned about the evolution content in biology books, and that can be checked quickly, but you may be interested in other disciplines such as history, government, or health.

Fourth, access the websites of Kansas, Ohio, and Texas Citizens for Science in addition to the National Center for Science Education to see for yourself what has happened and is happening now. The NCSE is the nation's foremost organization that monitors and opposes efforts by creationists to use political means to damage science education in the United States. The NCSE publishes a journal that exposes the frequent efforts of creationists to censor science textbooks and state science curricula. Some of this happens at the state level, but much more happens locally.

Copyright © 2003 by Steven Schafersman
Texas Citizens for Science
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Last updated: 20 October 2003