Did Science Win or Lose With the Adoption of
Supplemental Biology Instructional Materials in Texas?
The Commissioner of Education Agrees with the Changes Submitted by Holt McDougal,
but Politicization of the Biology Adoption Process Continues in Texas
by Steven Schafersman, Ph.D.
Texas Citizens for Science
2011 August 15
"Why should Holt McDougal have to change anything in their instructional materials that is not a factual error? And yet Holt made five such changes to its biology materials--materials that only a few weeks before they defended as being scientifically accurate and factually correct..."
As explained at some length in my analysis of the Holt McDougal supplemental biology instructional materials, Holt was unlucky in having an aggressive Young Earth Creationist (YEC)--David Shormann, appointed to the Texas Education Agency (TEA) Biology Review Panel by State Board of Education (SBOE) Chairwoman and YEC Barbara Cargill--randomly selected to review its biology materials. Dr. Shormann (who has a Ph.D. in limnology and who writes Creationist science materials for home schools and private religious schools used by children of Fundamentalist Christian parents), incompetently and speciously reported in his biology panel error report eight bogus "errors" he identified concerning the evolution content in the Holt McDougal biology materials (note: he identified content errors only in materials about evolution, a reliable give-away of his motivation). The rules allowed a single review panel member to report errors and oblige the publishers to respond to them. This Holt did in the official TEA Error Report with Holt McDougal responses that contains Holt's original responses.
In my analysis--which I sent to Holt McDougal, the Texas Education Commissioner, the TEA science curriculum staff (now one person), and published on the TCS website--I found that all eight of Shormann's purported "errors" were bogus and was able to corroborate the scientific reliability of all eight of Holt's responses. I wrote that Holt's original responses were all scientifically accurate and that really nothing in the text of their biology instructional materials needed to be changed. All of Shormann's charges of alleged factual error were wrong. I did offer some suggestions for scientifically-acceptable additions that would clarify the different scientific issues and make the text more acceptable to those who objected to it (these would be David Shormann and the six religious radical creationists on the SBOE). In fact, eight SBOE members were ready to strike the eight reported errors and adopt the Holt biology materials unchanged, and they could have prevailed on an 8-6 majority vote (one Board member was absent), but a compromise was reached at the last minute to avoid public acrimony. The compromise was that Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott would be given the responsibility of reviewing revisions suggested by Holt, having the revisions (characterized as edits or small changes in the text) reviewed by advisers (presumably his TEA science staff and outside scientists), and then making a decision.
As explained in the memo signed by Associate Commissioner for Standards and Programs Anita Givens, "the Commissioner [Robert Scott] offered to work with Holt McDougal to identify appropriate changes that could be made to its biology product in response to eight errors identified by the review panel." Holt met with the TEA staff on July 27 "to present its revisions to the biology submission in response to the concerns identified by the review panel" and with Commissioner Scott on July 28. Givens continues: "After conducting research, discussing the issue with experts, and considering the recommendations of staff, the Commissioner of Education determined that Holt McDougal has sufficiently addressed all eight of the reported errors." Holt's suggested revisions, i.e., it's second response, are contained in a second chart given to the TEA on July 27 and the Commissioner the next day. Much to my annoyance, after working as fast as I could, I completed my analysis on July 26, the day before Holt met with the TEA, so my analysis had no influence on their suggested revisions. As we will see, it also had no influence on TEA's acceptance of Holt's proposed revisions. If Holt had been able to read my work perhaps some of their offered revisions would not have been so scientifically damaging.
The first problem I see with Anita Given's memo is that it disturbingly mischaracterizes the issues. The eight errors were not identified by the biology review panel (consisting of 19 members) as stated but by only one member as described above and in my analysis. Also, Shormann's explanations of why the alleged "errors" were erroneous were grotesque misrepresentations of scientific knowledge as first recognized by Holt McDougal in its original responses and second by me in my analysis. The eight SBOE members who wanted to strike the bogus errors understood this during the meeting on Friday, July 22. I know this for certain because I talked to each one of them about this specific topic. They publicly mentioned these specific concerns during public debate when they considered adopting the biology materials since I tried to explain the issues to as many of the members as I could before the meeting began. Anita's memo was written with her misleading language, of course, to not upset the State Board's radical anti-evolutionists which include Chairwoman Barbara Cargill.
I should mention that the first vote on the motion to adopt the Holt materials without the controversial changes failed 7-7 on Thursday, July 21, with Ms. Cargill casting the 7th No vote to deny this (the vote would have succeeded 8-7 if the missing member--Mary Helen Berlanga--had been present). On Friday morning I arrived early and explained to the Board member who voted with the six radicals how unfairly Holt was being treated (Holt was unlucky to get the single aggressive creationist at its review table; the other major publishers had essentially the same thing in their materials and were not penalized; etc.) and he wanted to change his vote. That's why the vote Friday would have been 8-6. Also, I talked to several other Board members Friday morning and they were eager to bring the matter back for more discussion and another vote to strike the changes for the same reasons. There would have been an acrimonious debate between the six anti-science Republican radicals and eight pro-science conservatives and moderates, but science would have won. It was obvious, however, that most of the members wanted to avoid public controversy so an agreement was reached to let Commissioner Scott settle the matter. This turned out to not be a good idea.
Analysis of Holt's Revisions of its Biology Text as Accepted by the Commissioner
To follow this second analysis, you need to have a copy of the TEA chart that contains both Shormann's bogus, unscientific "errors" and Holt McDougal's original responses. Having a copy of my first analysis would also be useful. In what follows below, I consider the eight "errors" in sequence and also repeatedly refer to a third document, Holt's suggested revisions, offered to and ultimately all accepted by the Commissioner, that appears again in chart form opposite Shormann's purported "errors." This chart accurately describes the changes officially made by suggestions and negotiations with the TEA. I was able to compare these revisions to pdf's (not posted on the web but available) of the actual revised Holt McDougal biology materials showing all the changes made, and they match perfectly. So only the second Holt chart needs to be posted on the web.
Applying Darwin's Ideas: Biochemistry, p. 384 ("error" 1)
Creationist Shormann asked that the text that describes genetic change over time be changed from "should have changed" to "might have changed" because species change can take place, according to Shormann, by epigenetic change without genetic change. My first analysis pointed out the creationist trick here: Shormann conflates phenotypic changes in a species brought upon by environmental influences with species evolutionary changes brought upon by genetic modification. The former can indeed be caused by epigenesis. The context of the Holt text, naturally, deals with regular genetic and evolutionary change, so Shormann is trying to weaken connection between the two by using the irrelevant example of epigenetic and environmental effects which were not part of the lesson in the first place. We know he is doing this because he provides a specific example of a lizard that evolved very quickly due to genetic and possibly (for the skull) epigenetic reasons. Holt specifically says that epigenesis is not studied in high school.
[Note added, 2011 September 5: David Shormann used the Italian Wall Lizard, Podarcis sicula, as an example of how a species can "change" without a corresponding change in its genes. I suspected he got this from a Creationist source, since the scientific literature completely accepts the phenotypic change as an evolutionary change. Indeed, the original journal article is titled, "Rapid large-scale evolutionary divergence in morphology and performance associated with exploitation of a different dietary resource." I just discovered that Creationist source: Answers in Genesis "anatomist" David Menton says in an AiG News Note that the lizards did not evolve because, he says, the phenotypic change involving the appearance of a completely new muscular valve in the gut is "simply an enlargement of muscles already present in the gut wall" by "plastic response to the environment" "acting on pre-existing genetic information." Whether the lizard evolved by genetic or epigenetic changes by natural selection in response to environmental changes is irrelevant to the Holt text example in context. This is still an example of evolution and the text should not be changed from "should" to "might."]
Over the decades, between 1970 to 1995 to my personal knowledge, the SBOE and TEA have required publishers many times to weaken and compromise the scientific content of Texas textbooks by editing statements about evolution to be more tentative and hypothetical; this is accomplished by adding qualifying words such as "might" and "may" to passages containing evolutionary content. This is precisely what the Catholic Church required Galileo to do in his book describing the conflict between heliocentric and Copernican astronomy in the early 17th century. Barbara Cargill herself openly and repeatedly asked for such wording during the 2009 SBOE meeting debate about the Earth and Space Science (ESS) standards, asking that the wording of certain positive ESS standards about the age of the Earth and universe, the evolution of fossils, and the origin of life be revised to give them more "humility" and "tentativeness" (she actually used those words). A request for changes such as these is a deliberate attempt to mislead and confuse students about evolution by subtly suggesting that evolutionary explanations about the origin of life, adaptations, fossils, species, and especially hominin fossils (the evolutionary ancestors of humans) are not really as strong as scientists know them to be. She won several such concessions by very close majority votes and the qualifying language was added to the ESS standards. Similar changes were made to the Biology standards. As I stated at the time, this was an example of scientifically-ignorant public officials politicizing the process and mandating the specific wording of science standards, a despicable practice. This is why, as I frequently state, textbooks with the title "Texas Edition" on the front cover truly means "Edition To Keep Students Misled, Confused, and Ignorant."
In their initial response, Holt wanted to keep the original wording for good reasons. Epigenesis was not part of the original text nor should it have been. Remarkably, in their second response to the Commissioner, I found that Holt's own editorial team ultimately offered to change the text to this: "For example, if species have changed over time, the genes that determine their characteristics might also have changed," and this was accepted by the Commissioner. This change is precisely what Creationist Shormann asked for. So now "should have changed" has been edited to become "might also have changed." Contrary to my suggestion for improvement, the ambiguity of not distinguishing epigenetic and genetic change remains and the direct connection between genetic and phenotypic evolutionary change is weakened by using the qualifying word "might." This is really unacceptable in a modern biology textbook. Of course genes change if species change over time in an adaptative phylogenetic sense rather than an environmentally modified epigenetic sense, the precise sense of the passage on p. 384. The genes "will" change, not "might" change, in this sense used in the context of the instructional materials. I conclude that this is an example of the publisher's deliberate self-censorship: weakening a text's content to avoid being rejected or, as usually happened in the past, forced to make unwanted changes by the Commissioner. This revision weakens both the accuracy of the textual passage and the scientific integrity of the instructional materials. Science loses here.
Complexity of Cells ("error" 2)
Creationist Shormann made the completely untrue claim that a red blood cell "cannot be referred to as a eukaryotic cell." Holt quite correctly responded that erythrocytes are highly derived eukaryotic cells. Imagine my surprise that Holt voluntarily removed the term "Eukaryotic" from the title of the section, thus completely capitulating to incompetent Creationist bullying. The willful revision is an example the publisher's deliberate self-censorship that weakens both the accuracy of the textual passage and the scientific integrity of the instructional materials. Again, science loses.
Comparing Hominoid Skulls ("error" 3)
Creationist Shormann mistakenly claimed that human and chimp skulls were not homologous for a completely untrue reason that involved a deliberate attempt to deceive the reader using sophistry. He used the large genetic difference between a tiny region on the two species Y chromosomes to suggest that this applied to the whole chimp and human genomes and made their similarities non-homologous. In addition, Shormann stupidly suggested that the chimp and human similarities were caused by convergent evolution rather than common ancestry, the undisputable opposite situation of which he desperately wanted to hide. Holt's original response pointed out the evidence for these facts in detail, but in their suggested revision to the Commissioner Holt simply provided documentation that the other two major publishers use essentially the same activity in their biology materials. This response was fortunately accepted--and probably grudgingly accepted, since the TEA and SBOE Creationists couldn't go back and change the content of the other publishers as they wanted to (no one at their tables had objected to this content!). So Holt did not have to change the wording of this activity, a very important one for documenting the fact of human common ancestry with and evolutionary descent from ape-like ancestors. Amazingly, most high school students never learn this but now it is possible they will. This time science wins but for the wrong reason, a victory but not a great one.
Applying Darwin's Ideas: Whale Macroevolution and Fossil Succession ("error" 4)
Shormann objected to the diagram of the transitional whale fossils: he inaccurately claimed that four intermediate fossils do not make an evolutionary transition and that the whale fossils are all incomplete, implying that this was a significant problem that damages the identified transition's scientific accuracy. From an actual paleontological standpoint, nothing could be further from the truth. The fossil whale transition from land-dwelling to fully-marine mammal is now an icon of evolutionary explication that wonderfully and fully demonstrates the occurrence of macroevolution. There are now at least seven fossils known in the whale transition. Furthermore, comparative anatomy--which dates from the early 19th century--is used to identify missing bones and allows the vertebrate paleontologist to construct a complete skeleton. Finally, several fossils exist for each whale species and their totality allows a complete skeleton to be reconstructed with complete confidence in its accuracy and reliability. This makes the incompleteness of any single fossil whale irrelevant, since a complete reconstruction is almost always possible. Fully complete vertebrate fossils are very rare, but this does not reduce the value of finding partial skeletons for phylogenetic inference.
Holt noted these things in its initial response, but in its second response to the Commissioner it did not state these facts but rather offered this to the student: "Over the years, scientists have collected a series of fossils that support Darwin's hypothesis about whale evolution. The skeletons shown here are illustrations based on this fossil evidence. Be aware that complete skeletons are rarely found for any fossil species." This change was accepted. So the student sees mitigating and qualifying language that weakens the case for macroevolution (complete skeletons are rarely found so we can't be really sure of our evolutionary conclusions). In fact, scientists are very sure about macroevolutionary transitions since they are precisely what evolutionary theory predicts. You can't ask for or expect anything better than this example of whale fossils. So Holt is again engaging in unnecessary self-censorship. Students certainly lose when they study this diagram because they will be misled and confused.
Holt does tell teachers, in the teaching notes, to point out to students that "extensive sets of fossil evidence do exist [and] it is not necessary to have a complete skeleton to make strong deductions about the form of an animal, how it lived, and its evolutionary relationships." Precisely. Why not tell students up front, in the text of the student instructional materials rather than only in the teacher's materials, that this is the case? The teaching instructions certainly do mitigate the damage caused by Holt's willingness to compromise its student text with irrelevant qualifying language, but this only works if the teachers happen to read the teaching instructions and then follow them. Most won't do either. Students need to have the major points emphasized and repeated to be both instructional and remembered: these would be that the vertebrate fossil evidence is more than sufficient to demonstrate the fact of macroevolution. Since Holt McDougal compromised the language of its instructional materials to weaken the evidence for evolution that a student actually sees, when it wasn't necessary to do so, is self-censorship. This continues the tradition of publisher willingness in Texas to weaken the scientific integrity of their own texts in order to placate the all-powerful TEA and SBOE and win their approval to sell textbooks in Texas. The sad thing in this instance is that there was no reason to continue this unscientific practice of pandering to anti-evolution prejudice, since Holt could have just offered to include a brief discussion that explained to students why incomplete skeletons are no hindrance to full and accurate evolutionary deductions (as explained above), which is precisely what I recommended it do. Thus here, once again, science loses.
Applying Darwin's Ideas, Congruence of Genetic and Anatomical Phylogenies ("error" 5)
Creationist Shormann objected to statements on p. 384, and a specific example in Figure 10, that said that
A comparison of DNA or amino acid sequences shows that some species are more genetically similar [and] these comparisons, like those in anatomy, are evidence of hereditary relationships among the species [and] the relative amount of difference is consistent with hypotheses based on fossils and anatomy.
Shormann claimed these statement were in error since "in comparative biochemistry [the correct term is molecular systematics], anatomical homologies may not be evidence of close common ancestry." As I discussed in my analysis, this is certainly true but is a minor problem that can be overlooked in high school, since most molecular and phenotypic phylogenies are congruent and students should be taught the most common application first; they can deal with the infrequent incongruencies and their more complex explanations if they become graduate students in biology. Shormann wanted the Holt text to state that, "These comparisons may suggest patterns of descent inconsistent with expectations based on comparative anatomy," an attempt on Shormann's part to mislead and confuse students about the nature of evolutionary patterns seen in nature and to suggest that homology is not a good predictor of evolutionary descent, a frequent IDC obsession. The vast majority of comparisons suggest patterns of descent consistent with expectations based on comparative anatomy--this is a well-supported deductive generalization with thousands of corroborating examples.
Rather than get into the details, Holt McDougal offered to revise the offending text by adding the phrase "in most cases," so the offending passage now reads
A comparison of DNA or amino acid sequences shows that some species are more genetically similar than others. In most cases, these comparisons provide evidence of hereditary relationships among the species that are consistent with hypotheses based on fossils and anatomy.
I accept this change as a reasonable resolution, since it is a true statement, although it should have stated, "In the great majority of cases" to emphasize the molecular/anatomical congruence when examining evidence of hereditary relationships. Science wins here but could have been better.
Applying Darwin's Ideas, Comparisons of amino acids that make up hemoglobin in several species, Figure 10 ("error" 6)
Creationist Shormann objected to a table that showed how much the amino acids in hemoglobin in several species differed from humans with the species closest in evolutionary relationship to humans (gorilla, monkey) having fewer differences and species more distant from humans having greater differences, just what one would expect for a hypothesis of hereditary relationship based on fossils and anatomy. Shormann wanted to add a second table comparing insulin amino acid differences of some mammal, birds, and fish to mice in which the mammals exhibit greater differences from the mice than the birds and fish. He then wanted to have the text compare the two hereditary patterns (phylogenies) and ask the student why they differ, implicitly suggesting that such comparisons are not valid and there is no valid scientific reason to tell students that phylogenies based on fossils, anatomy, genetic, and molecular data are congruent due to their shared evolutionary histories and ancestral-descendant relationships. Holt said, correctly, that the structure of insulin is more highly conserved than that for hemoglobin and therefore should not be used for phylogenetic reconstruction, but the general pattern of phylogenetic congruence due to hereditary relatedness stands.
Holt offered to insert language in the teaching notes:
Point out to students that any phylogeny is a hypothesis, whether it is based on anatomical evidence or molecular evidence. The hemoglobin data in Figure 10 strongly confirms [the] phylogeny based on anatomical similarities. Not all phylogenies based on molecular evidence are consistent with phylogenies based on anatomy, but in the large majority of cases there is congruence between molecular and anatomical data.
I accept this change as a reasonable resolution. It is a true statement and does state "in the large majority of cases." Science definitely wins here.
Similarity of both Anatomical and Molecular Features Documents the Common Descent of Organisms ("error" 7)
Creationist Shormann objected to a passage that stated that molecular differences among species are proportional to the length of time that has passed since the species shared a common ancestor, so that the more similar homologous macromolecules are in different species the more closely related the species are thought to be. The exact wording is this:
Darwin observed anatomical features of organisms and hypothesized that organisms that appear similar have a more recent common ancestor that do organisms that do not appear similar. Modern biology proves on the molecular level what Darwin noticed on the anatomical level. The number of amino acid differences in homologous proteins of different species is proportional to the length of time that has passed since the two species shared a common ancestor. Thus, the more similar the homologous proteins are in different species, the more closely related the species are thought to be.
Predictably, Shormann wanted an extreme and inaccurate statement inserted: "Yet modern biochemical phylogenies often contradict Darwin's anatomical phylogenies." Yes, some molecular and phenotypic phylogenies do not match, but this certainly does not occur "often." The correct frequency is "rarely." Shormann, of course, wants to cast doubt on the accuracy and reliability of evolution to explain relationships visible in molecular and phenotypic data and subtly suggest to students that some other explanation is possible and even preferable. He can't say IDC is another explanation, but that what he intends to suggest by inserting false information to weaken the evolutionary inferences and thus mislead and confuse students.
Holt initially responded that this passage's wording is correct and does not need changing. I agreed in my analysis. Both of us stated that in most cases phylogenies based on molecular data are congruent with ones based on morphological data, and this constitutes extremely strong evidence for evolution. Holt also said that, "Cases in which there are incongruencies can be accounted for by factors consistent with evolutionary dynamics." I identified some mechanisms and explained that these other examples can be ignored in high school biology since they are usually discussed in graduate school. When phylogenies fail to match, systematists must investigate the reasons and explain why, but this does not need to be explained to high school students. Instead, they need to have the idea reinforced that congruent phylogenies of different data are extremely strong evidence for evolution.
So what did Holt agree to do? It offered to change the language to this:
Darwin observed anatomical features of organisms and hypothesized that organisms that organisms that appear similar have a more recent common ancestor that do organisms that do not appear similar. Modern biology investigates on the molecular level what Darwin noticed on the anatomical level.
The Commissioner agreed to this change and why not. It constitutes an extreme weakening of the original wording that completely removes the very strong evidence for evolution: the usual similarity between molecular and anatomical hereditary patterns (phylogenies). The similarity in patterns has been reduced to something not even ambiguous or suggestive--it is now missing entirely. Most noticeably, the word "proves" has been replaced by the word "investigates," an extremely weak and banal substitution. The original statement--"Modern biology proves on the molecular level what Darwin noticed on the anatomical level"--is completely true and the sentence should not have been compromised. While the new wording does not technically contain any false statement, it also possesses no pedagogical value since it does not impart the accurate knowledge that students need and science expects them to have: that there is great evidence for evolution when comparing the patterns of molecular and phenotypic (usually anatomical) data. Now the educational value is lost and students will remain misled and confused. Science loses here, big time. This is the only passage that Creationist SBOE member Ken Mercer specifically identified as the one he wanted changed to make it more tentative and he certainly got his wish.
Audiovisual: Similarities in Macromolecules and Phylogenies Based on Them ("error" 8)
This final Shormann-identified "error" deals with an animation that treats visually what the previous topic treated textually. Holt asked teachers in the "Teachers Resources" section to "Remind students that molecular homologies can provide evidence of common ancestry." The subsequent materials had two suggested questions to ask students, the first of which is to ask "how could it be determined which two of the organisms shared the most recent common ancestor" using molecular data of homologous proteins? The correct answer provided is that the two with the least amount of difference share the most recent common ancestor. The second question asks "How is the evidence from macromolecules different from Darwin's evidence of common ancestry?" The correct answer is that Darwin did not have access to molecular data. Creationist Shormann doesn't accept any of this despite its universal use within the biological community of molecular systematists, but he can't ask the publisher to omit it. Instead, he suggested this revision to cast doubt on the method:
Revise "Teacher Resources". . . to state: "Remind students that a phylogeny shows evolutionary relationships among life forms based on their anatomical or their biochemical similarities and differences. Ask: Do phylogenies based on comparative anatomy and comparative biochemistry always agree with each other? [Correct answer:] (No)
As I explain in my first analysis, he then confuses the issue by wanting the publisher to use convergent evolution as explanations in ways that confuse and mislead students, ultimately having them write, "It claims that close common ancestry is often not the source of homologies."
Commendably, Holt clearly states in its original response to Shormann's criticism that, "The current text is correct and will remain" and refused to confuse students about incidences of convergent evolution, a topic not covered at this level. In my original analysis, I endorsed Holt's first response. But Holt's new response in the second chart, offered to and accepted by the Commissioner, is this:
The following language was added, "Remind students that a phylogeny shows evolutionary relationships among life forms based on their anatomical or their biochemical similarities and differences. Ask: Do phylogenies based on comparative anatomy and comparative biochemistry always agree with each other? (No)"
In other words, Holt offers, and the Commissioner accepts, to do exactly what David Shormann asked them to do: insert an unnecessary reminder to tell teachers to warn students about the reliability of phylogenies that suggests the method doesn't always work. Holt thus undermines the goal of this audiovisual to get students to understand why phylogenies based on comparative anatomy and molecular sequences provides excellent evidence for evolution. Now it is true that phylogenies based on comparative anatomy and biochemistry don't always agree with each other, but what of it? They almost always do agree. The reasons for noncongruence are understood by biologists and should not concern high school biology students who need first to receive an education that teaches them the most important facts: phylogenies of organisms from different types of data (almost always) match and thus provide outstanding supportive evidence for common ancestry and macroevolution. Holt's capitulation to the Creationist agenda with this item undermines the pedagogic value of its efforts, misleads and confuses students, and therefore, once again, science loses.
After examining and explaining the details of Holt McDougal's responses to the Creationist criticisms and their accepted offers to revise their materials, I find that science won convincingly once, won twice with one adequate and one lucky response, and lost five times by capitulation to Creationist intimidation. This is not an "unequivocal victory" for science. As you can see from reading the detailed analysis above, the following statement (also here) is not true:
With Holt's materials finalized, we can now say with certainty that all of the materials approved from the nine publishers are in line with fact-based science and free of creationist attacks seeking to undermine science.
In fact, in the sole case of the evolution content of the Holt McDougal biology instructional materials, the opposite is true: Creationist-inspired intimidation by politically-elected and politically-appointed public officials resulted in the (choose your verb) qualification, compromising, weakening, or undermining of fact-based science. The non-evolution parts of Holt's materials and all parts of the other publishers are indeed free of the malign effects of the politicization of the science materials adoption process, so I can certainly endorse a claim of victory for those. But not for the case of the unfortunate Holt McDougal biology materials concerning evolution.
For the most part, just as the two cited references state, the final version of Holt biology materials that discuss evolution do include language explicitly affirming the evidence for evolution, and why shouldn't it after 140 years of scientific acceptance. Also true is their claim that the final version of Holt's materials does "not include creationist arguments against evolution," and why should it, for not only would this be illegal, but the Creationists on the State Board of Education and the Biology Review Panel never tried to insert creationist arguments (since they knew it was illegal). These State Board Creationists aimed only to weaken or compromise the discussion of evolution for tactical and framing reasons. Their campaign is one of marketing, not science, and rhetoric is therefore of prime importance in their program.
Let me be perfectly candid. The five bad changes in the Holt biology materials will have little effect on student learning about evolution, since in most cases the teacher's attitude toward evolution determines student learning and acceptance, not small details in specific textual content. First, many teachers won't teach the content so it doesn't matter whether it's good or bad. Second, good biology teachers will ignore the qualified items in Holt. Third, most biology teachers will teach it as asked but the students won't understand the information during the brief time it is covered so will have a faulty knowledge of it in any case. Fourth, Holt is only one of three giant publishers whose classroom materials dominate the public school marketplace so any inadequacies will be diluted by the large population. So I am not claiming any real ill effects on evolution instruction in Texas biology classrooms. On this scale, the overall positive changes in both standards, textbooks, and digital materials since 1990 concerning the dramatic increase and improvement of evolution content is far more important and this truly has been a major victory for science education in Texas compared to the 1970s and early 1980s, and one for which I take some of the credit through my advocacy and writings.
The radical Creationists on the SBOE didn't have the votes this year to force all the publishers to edit their materials to conform to their corrupt and pseudoscientific understanding of evolution, with its explicit weaknesses; anti-materialist critiques of natural, random, stochastic, mechanistic, and deterministic processes; imagined inability of modern science to explain biological complexity; and imagined hoaxes, frauds, and scams perpetrated on students and citizens by corrupt, venal evolutionary scientists. We were spared the worst possible outcome and only got five small qualifications. So yes, what we got was certainly a small victory compared to what I just described could have happened if the radical religious right Creationists on the State Board had eight votes rather than six. But this is not an unequivocal, final victory as it has been falsely characterized. This is not the "end to a campaign to undermine science education in Texas." This campaign continues and a battle was fought two weeks ago with wins and losses on both sides. There will continue to be future battles.
So what's the real problem here? Simple: Despite all the attention focused on the situation in Texas, politicization of the standards and textbook adoption process continues. In this case, it occurred right under our noses and even the watchdog organizations in Austin failed to see it (all except mine, of course). For decades in the past, the Commissioner and publishers would sit down in private meetings and the publishers would be told what to change in their text to satisfy the religious concerns and prejudices of the SBOE members. No publisher would complain about or criticize the TEA or SBOE either in public or private. They just accepted the situation as business as usual to avoid losing millions of dollars in textbook purchases in a state with over a thousand school districts and millions of students. Things are better now since the entire operation must be conducted more openly, in public meetings before television cameras, reporters, and live bloggers. Even the private "negotiations" between publishers and Commissioner and TEA staff in which textbooks were censored and edited, so common in the 1970s and 1980s, are more open now. This is the first time I knew when they were occurring and was able to get documentation of the final results (which I am sharing with you). But the politicization still occurs and principle, responsibility, and integrity are thrown out the window. Ask yourself, why should Holt McDougal have to change anything in their instructional materials that is not a factual error? And yet Holt made five such changes to its biology materials--materials that only a few weeks before they defended as being scientifically accurate and factually correct, a characterization I fully endorsed.
There's more to this story. Publishers are so used in Texas to having their science and social studies instructional materials censored and edited to align with the ideological, political, and religious prejudices of public education leaders that for decades they not only did not resist the process, they self-censored or pre-censored their biology and history textbooks to avoid tempting the Texas inquisitors (this apparently didn't work for the social studies textbook publishers last year). This is exactly what Holt did on July 27. All of the textual changes accepted by the Commissioner of Education were ones that Holt McDougal itself suggested in its responses (and only a few weeks after defending the materials' original content!). Why? The reason is the same as in the past. Publishers have some but not total integrity. If they overtly present science as a successful method of discovering the truth about certain issues that are controversial to extremely-conservative and religious individuals who also happen to be textbook adoption decision-makers, they know they will be obligated to make changes that could be worse than what they might suggest themselves to escape the wrath of the censors. Those that don't comply out of some sense of professional pride or scientific hubris have their materials rejected (this happens from time to time with smaller publishers who don't know the implied rules). This has happened several times in my memory over the last thirty years. It is easier for all concerned to not tempt the decision makers too much by being too positive or certain about scientific knowledge, especially when they command a majority of the SBOE. Thus Holt felt obliged to suggest small specific changes that, while not being scientifically or factually inaccurate, nevertheless qualified and weakened the positive statements about evolutionary knowledge that their materials originally contained. I documented all five of these small changes in detail above.
But there is even more to this story. Commissioner Robert Scott is not a scientist but he has some understanding of science and respects it. I know this because I have discussed the issues with him. But while accepting Holt's suggested revisions is his decision, he was obliged to obtain the review and probably consent of several individual "advisers" and "stakeholders." These would certainly include SBOE Chairwoman Barbara Cargill, State Board members Ken Mercer and David Bradley who both expressed a specific interest in the process, and possibly even Creation Scientist David Shormann himself, since he was appointed by Ms. Cargill and all the so-called "errors" were identified by him (all four are Young Earth Creationists). Holt certainly anticipated this going into the "negotiation" process: They knew they were not going to be able to leave their materials scientifically unaltered and they would have to offer some small changes that they characterized as "scientifically acceptable" (they are not but are small enough that no one cares now; see my sympathetic justification above). But Commissioner Scott's advisers also knew they couldn't ask for the moon. There had to be small tokens of changes offered and accepted so both sides could claim victory. The Texas Freedom Network columnist asked, "We wonder how the anti-science forces will try to spin this one." Well, they won't have to spin it; they can legitimately claim a victory for the small changes made. (Jonathan Saenz of Focus on the Family Liberty Institute did in fact claim such a victory on Twitter--"Victory! SBOE unanimously votes to require changes to errors in science materials, related to evolution, before adoption.#sboe #txlege"--but he jumped the gun a bit by writing this on July 22, the final day of the SBOE meeting and long before the specific Holt revisions were announced on August 15.) Yes, a small victory, not an unequivocal, final one, but I expect Evolution News & Views to announce this soon (they haven't yet so the DI may be smarter than I thought). Texas Freedom Network, National Center for Science Education, and others can also claim a victory and have done so. Even though Texas Citizens for Science is not going to claim a grand, unequivocal, final victory, I am announcing a small mitigated victory for the Holt revisions and a decent, excellent victory overall thanks to the new political reality. I am not going to whine about the few bad results; I am just gong to report them for the benefit of Texas citizens and future stakeholders. Did science win or lose? Both, but mainly won overall, and that is certainly a positive change in Texas.
A Holt McDougal representative told me explicitly in Austin during the July 21-22 SBOE meeting that his company was prepared to make any changes required by the TEA (that preserved scientific and factual accuracy, of course, as the five ultimately bad changes literally did if not in spirit) so his company could sell their books in Texas. I knew this was true because it has been true for 30 years and nothing has changed. The other two major K-12 textbook companies, Glencoe McGraw Hill and Pearson (and all the ones they gobbled up) would do and have done the same over the decades, so I'm not faulting Holt here. Holt was plainly unfortunate to have their materials assigned to Shormann's table and I hold the company blameless for the small changes they were obliged to make within a instructional materials adoption process that reeks of intimidation, implied threat, and unfair authoritarianism. Each of the five biology review tables had a Creationist on it conveniently nominated by one of the State Board's six radical Creationists, but the others were not as aggressive as Dr. Shormann and thus had no effect on the remaining publishers materials, especially the other two major publishers who only had to correct legitimately factual errors (invariably found in all new and revised instructional materials). I told the Holt rep that eight of the Board members wanted to adopt his materials without required changes but he would have to stand up and defend them in front of the Board. He would have been allowed to do this but did not want to, preferring to work behind the scenes. This is typical of all the publishers, too. They don't want to expose themselves and be forced to speak on the record in public. The process is ripe with politics and that is a reality. Texas public education is 100% political; this would be okay if principle, responsibility, and integrity were always part of the process but they are often abandoned when topics such as evolution, origin of life, global warming and climate change, the religiosity of our country's Founders and their view of the role of religion and government, and teenage birth control are considered. This is why Texas public education is so bad: it is heavily politicized and the teachers can't do anything about it.
Evolution instruction in Texas biology classes has been improving over the three decades that I have been working on the issue. I am satisfied with the results despite the 2009 setbacks, since political conditions in 2011 mitigated almost all of the problem. But much more work needs to be done. For example, I tried to motivate the biology standards writing panel in 2009 to add a standard that would require instructional treatment of human evolution, as Florida recently did, but it refused. The members just did not want to tempt anyone on the State Board to remove that standard. The excuse they gave to omit human evolution ("we want humans treated the same as other animals and not given anthropocentric preference") was disingenuous, since without a standard requiring it, few teachers would dare to teach it even if publishers include human evolution (as some do now). Of even greater importance to me is the fact that Texas health science textbooks are censored of information about teenage sexuality, birth control, and contraception. They heavily cover sexually transmitted diseases but unaccountably omit information about strategies to avoid having unwanted sex and about barrier contraception (condoms) that protects teenagers from both STDs and pregnancy. Okay, this is not really unaccountable; there is a really sick reason this happens. I have asked before: Why do Texas public education officials hate their state's teenage young women so much to wish to keep them ignorant of potentially the most important knowledge they will need for the rest of their lives? Is their desire to create a Texas pro-natality policy due to a wish to promote free enterprise by increasing the number of consumers and cheapen wages so corporations can grow and thus survive, or do they wish to use deliberately inculcated ignorance as a tool to punish female teenagers--who break the public officials' religious moral code--with unwanted pregnancies? I don't know, but I intend to investigate the issues again when health science instructional materials come up for adoption again. In 2004, the health books arrived pre-censored by the publishers, so I am interested about what will happen they are up for adoption again.
Texas Citizens for Science Last updated: 2011 August 22 [September 5]