How ultraconservative Texans are rewriting your kids’ textbooks and bringing global-warming denial into science class

This month, there is a high-stakes battle playing out on the Texas State Board of Education, where a powerful ultraconservative faction is struggling to rewrite the standards for the state’s textbooks and infuse them with right-wing views. Among other things, the group aims to rehabilitate Joseph McCarthy, downplay the contributions of the civil rights movement, bring global-warming denial into science class, and give history a pro-Republican slant. The implications reach far beyond the Lone Star State. In fact, thanks to the peculiar economics of textbook publishing, Texas has the power to shape the materials children read in classrooms nationwide.

That’s the teaser for an important Washington Monthly piece, The Revisionaries, on “the rabble rousers who are rewriting your kids’ textbooks.”  Ironically, Texas leads the country in wind power with nearly 9000 MW (see “U.S. wind energy industry installed 1,649 MW in third quarter, more than Q2 and Q308“).

Here’s the key paragraphs from the WM piece on how our folks like creationist Don McLeroy — who “is one of the leaders of an activist bloc [on the Board] that holds enormous sway over the body’s decisions” — are dumbing down our kids’ textbooks and hence our kids:

A similar scenario played out during the battle over science standards, which reached a crescendo in early 2009. Despite the overwhelming consensus among scientists that climate change exists, the group rammed through a last-minute amendment requiring students to “analyze and evaluate different views on the existence of global warming.” This, in essence, mandates the teaching of climate-change denial. What’s more, they scrubbed the standards of any reference to the fact that the universe is roughly fourteen billion years old, because this timeline conflicts with biblical accounts of creation.

McLeroy and company had also hoped to require science textbooks to address the “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific theories, including evolution. Scientists see the phrase, which was first slipped into Texas curriculum standards in the 1980s, as a back door for bringing creationism into science class. But as soon as news broke that the board was considering reviving it, letters began pouring in from scientists around the country, and science professors began turning out en masse to school board hearings. During public testimony, one biologist arrived at the podium in a Victorian-era gown, complete with a flouncy pink bustle, to remind her audience that in the 1800s religious fundamentalists rejected the germ theory of disease; it has since gained near-universal acceptance. All this fuss made the bloc’s allies skittish, and when the matter finally went to the floor last March, it failed by a single vote.

But the struggle did not end there. McLeroy piped up and chided his fellow board members, saying, “Somebody’s gotta stand up to [these] experts!” He and his allies then turned around and put forward a string of amendments that had much the same effect as the “strengths and weaknesses” language. Among other things, they require students to evaluate various explanations for gaps in the fossil record and weigh whether natural selection alone can account for the complexity of cells. This mirrors the core arguments of the intelligent design movement: that life is too complex to be the result of unguided evolution, and that the fossil evidence for evolution between species is flimsy. The amendments passed by a wide margin, something McLeroy counts as a coup. “Whoo-eey!” he told me. “We won the Grand Slam, and the Super Bowl, and the World Cup! Our science standards are light years ahead of any other state when it comes to challenging evolution!” Scientists are not so enthusiastic. My last night in Texas, I met David Hillis, a MacArthur Award-winning evolutionary biologist who advised the board on the science standards, at a soul-food restaurant in Austin. “Clearly, some board members just wanted something they could point to so they could reject science books that don’t give a nod to creationism,” he said, stabbing his okra with a fork. “If they are able to use those standards to reject science textbooks, they have won and science has lost.”

We gotta stand up to experts and shout them down!  But wait, isn’t McLeroy now an expert, sittin’ on a high-falutin’ Board of Education?  Hmm.  Maybe we should just shout everyone down all the time, then the Texas State Board of Education would be like a real middle school classroom — one that didn’t have any teachers or other “experts” supervising the kids, that is.

23 Responses to How ultraconservative Texans are rewriting your kids’ textbooks and bringing global-warming denial into science class

  1. T Lehman says:

    Good old Texas. They also teach and practice a different Science of Economics than does California. No state personal income tax.

    It seems Texas is progressive. They are tolerant of assorted tests of hypothesis. I am not afraid of Texas being skeptical in science. That is what science is all about.

    Unemployment rates are low in Texas.

  2. Steve says:

    I thought it was the liberal elite that controlled education in America. At the university level, liberal profs undoubtedly outnumber conservative profs, probably by a large margin. When you get to high school and younger, you have teachers unions, which seem to be largely intertwined with the Democratic party. So I’m surprised that conservatives would have any chance at all of influencing textbooks. Given the dominance of liberals elsewhere, I’m sure the Union will survive a little ‘cooking of the (text)books’ by conservatives. (The real answer is diversity of materials – the more people publishing textbooks, the better.)

  3. Steve L says:

    T Lehman is a nitwit. What tests of assorted tests of hypotheses are being advanced by the Texas School Board? None. Intelligent design produces no science (what experiments are advocated? what experiments have been performed?). AGW denial produces no science (same questions). There are only political agendas being advanced — ones with no scientific basis. And the promoters of those agendas are trying to teach children (and anyone else listening) that political viewpoints ARE science. Keep the curriculum to hypothesis-testing if you like — that would be anathema to proponents of Intelligent Design and AGW denial, too.

  4. From Peru says:

    Creationism, Climate Change denial, surely complemented with a good dose of Anti-Communist nonsense.

    The activity of the Anti-Science bunch of ultra-right-wing conservatives is astounding!

    With respect of “weight whether natural selection alone could explain the complexity of cells”, it is actually a good scientific question, but before addressing it, it MUST be clear that Evolution is both a FACT and a THEORY:

    1)FACT: life changes with time,and this change is what we call EVOLUTION. We know this because:
    a)Direct observations both in the lab and in wildlife showed notorious changes(even the birth of new species!) in timescales of a few decades.
    b)the FOSSIL RECORD, showing how apparently totally different organisms are linked by hundreds of transitional fossils. Notorious examples are the Therapsid-Mammal series, the Dinosaur-Bird series, the Ape-Human series.

    2)THEORY: there are various theories that could explain the MECHANISM behind the EVOLUTION(i.e. TRANSFORMATIONS) of lifeforms. We now have, for the evolution of one-celled lifeforms:
    a)Classical Neo-Darwinian: this is the result of combining the theory of Natural Selection with Genetics. It considers all transformations slow and gradual and driven by the combination of mutations + natural selection.
    b)The Symbiotic Theory of Lynn Margulis: explain the birth of the complex eucariotic cells by the symbiotic merger of simpler bacteria. It was confirmed by the discover of DNA inside Mithocondria(that were once an efficient aerobic bacteria) and Chloroplasts(that were once a species of photosynthetic cyano-bacteria). There are now impressive advances, like the chronocyte model, that explain the very beginning of Eucariotic cells that follow the path beginned by Margulis.

    But the Anti-Science gang surely want to use the indication to “weight whether natural selection alone could explain the complexity of cells”, to introduce the “Intelligent Design” nonsense.


  5. Stuart says:

    Nobody expects the Texas Inquisition!

  6. Logic Deferred says:

    Because Texas is such a large textbook market, they commonly dictate the textbook standards for the entire country — publishers aren’t going to revise their texts on a state by state basis, not after they’ve committed to such a large run for Texas.

    The one time I recall any serious blowback on this was in the above mentioned creationist campaign of the 1980’s. The Secretary of Education in California at the time (whose name now escapes me) refused to accept the Texas mandated texts and used California’s even bigger market to compel the publishers to redo and eliminate the anti-science tripe that the TBE had tried to force onto the entire country.

  7. JMG says:

    In my home state of Georgia, Cobb County required stickers to be placed on the front of science textbooks, essentially a Surgeon General’s warning, stating that evolution is only a theory and there is no consensus on its validity.

    I also fought a religious zealot in my high school – a mother of a classmate – who was offended by the anti-Christian viewpoints in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and went to the school board to have it removed from the reading list, even though her son had been provided with an alternate reading selection that the mother approved.

    It’s amazing how much power Christian Conservatives have in this country.

  8. Chris Dudley says:

    The solution is simple. Disaccredit Texas colleges and universities so they can’t field football teams until the standards are revised. In a religious war, you need to go after the truly sacred cow.

  9. Andy says:

    It would be great if a lot of folks beyond Joe R. shed a light on Mr. Mc Leroy’s statement “Our science standards are light years ahead of any other state when it comes to challenging evolution!”

    Send a letter to the editor of your local paper. Texas’ school board dictates which textbooks are used across much of the Nation because of the very large number of students here. Similar to how California determines the sort of car everyone drives by their air standards.

    Texas has no income tax but does have one hell of a sales and property tax rate.

  10. requiring students to “analyze and evaluate different views on the existence of global warming.”

    require students to evaluate various explanations for gaps in the fossil record and weigh whether natural selection alone can account for the complexity of cells.

    So, textbook authors – take these requirements and run with them. Consider them a mandate to teach science processes and not just facts (which is the right way to do it anyway).

    The intent is clearly to obfuscate, but if the textbook authors do it right, the effect can be to clarify – so that it’s not just “scientists say this is true” but “I say this is true, because I went through the analysis myself”. Vastly more powerful.

  11. We are not going to change Texas. We can scream and “tut-tut” all we want to make ourselves feel good but their own citizens will have to fight it out in an academic civil war that I want no part of.
    Fortunately, my family is safely ensconced in Massachusetts.
    When I was on my local school board we found many excellent textbooks in all subjects that did not cater to Texas standards. Texas has been a problem for a long time as far as textbook publishing is concerned, but they did not greatly influence textbooks in New Jersey when I was on our local school board (1996-2003).

  12. Dr. Eisner, I remember “Don’t Blame Me, I’m from Massachusetts” too. Proud of a true American heritage from Emerson’s self-reliance to abolitionism to the technologies of MIT.


    Still, the atmosphere continues to deteriorate.

    And what’s this business about accelerated clearcutting in Massachusetts state forests?

    I thought that was our problem out west, where we still have some shreds of virgin forest still at stake! It seems in this crisis, just about every house has something to clean up.

  13. alexy says:

    Indirectly related…

    The attached is beginning to get some traction among “the delayers”. You may wish to comment.

  14. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    So they want the rest of the world to give the Der Spiegel response to all Texans.

  15. Rabid Doomsayer says:,1518,667626,00.html

    “Chimerica Against the World.”

    The US domination of world affairs will eventually come to an end, Don McLeroy would speed up that process.

  16. Anna Haynes says:

    2 thoughts.
    Viscerally: it’s time for Texas to secede.
    Problem solving: is there a way, say via “no school left behind” standardized test questions & results, to quantify the ignorance – and, effectively, shame states into getting decent textbooks? Perhaps the textbook writers/publishers could then use “not sold in Texas” as a “purveyor of quality” selling point?

  17. From Peru says:

    Catherine Devlin:

    Great Comment. Really is time to turn the moves of the Reactionaries against themselves!

    Evolution science has done a lot of progress in the last decade. Some notorious examples:

    -The innumerable “feathered dinosaurs” some of them even with wings(like Microraptor). Archaeopteryx is no longer alone, now has a very BIG family!

    -The new Hominid fossils,like “Ida”, the ancestor of nearly all primates and the new “Ardi” (Ardipithecus Ramidus), the ancestor of “Lucy”(Australopitecus Afarensis).
    By the way, here can be discussed PALAEOCLIMATES and their role in evolution: Ida lived during the PETM super-greenhouse, “Ardi” during the Pliocene.

    And no Paleoclimate-Evolution content in any textbook can miss the Permian-Triassic “Great Dying” that nearly anhihilated our Therapsid ancestors (together with more than 90% of all Permian species) and the more likely cause of it was…
    … Extreme Greenhouse Event that ended in an Anoxic Event!
    (likely trigger: a Flood Basalt eruption that burned the coal present in a COAL RICH BASIN of Western Siberia)

  18. Jim Eager says:

    alexy said: “The attached is beginning to get some traction among “the delayers”. You may wish to comment.”

    Only among people who have no idea what the phrase “airborne fraction” means.

  19. BBHY says:

    Why don’t the Boards of Education from a group of blue states get together and pool their textbook purchases to gain even greater leverage than Texas?

    California, New York, Oregon, Washington, Illinois, and Maryland combined should easily have enough clout to drive the textbook market.

  20. Chris Winter says:

    From the GRL abstract cited by alexy: “This is an important claim, because so far only about 40% of those emissions have stayed in the atmosphere, which has prevented additional climate change.”

    Artfully worded. Can be taken to mean CO2 has not caused the current climate change, or (more properly) that emitted CO2 caused less climate change than if all of it stayed in the atmosphere.

    “It is shown that with those uncertainties, the trend in the airborne fraction since 1850 has been 0.7 ± 1.4% per decade, i.e. close to and not significantly different from zero.”

    First, an uncertainty in measuring CO2 of twice the measured rate of increase says “sloppy technique” to me. Second, the finding of negligible increase over that period is an outlier, hence suspect.

    Dr. Knorr then takes this estimate of negligible CO2 increase and scales down the land-use change emission to make things come out right. I don’t have to steal his e-mails to surmise that he’s playing games. That’s just speculation, of course. Still, I have little doubt that this paper will soon be debunked on RealClimate.

  21. The Terrence says:

    Education should provide all view points when there is no scientific proof that can be validated to firmly ascertain historical fact.

    I think it takes more faith to believe in evolution that creationism, though personally, I think the truth is somewhere inbetween.

    The article is ridiculous. I live in Texas and our children are not being dumbed down. What are leftists afraid of? Everyone is entitled to make a choice in these matters, including our children. Evolution is “billions of years” from being proven and our nations children should not be force fed it because whiney scientists don’t agree with any other point of view.

    It’s not politics, it’s freedom.

    And with the rampant corruption in DC (which is my home) I would be first in line to support cessation. At least then MAYBE we could have rule by the people as opposed to the bankers, the FED and Wall Street.

  22. Chris Winter says:

    The Terrence wrote: “Everyone is entitled to make a choice in these matters, including our children.”

    I believe Texas allows you to home-school your children, if you feel the education the local public schools provide is unsuitable for them.

    However, that is not what the article says is happening. It tells us that a vocal minority in Texas is, in practical terms, dictating what the school textbooks everyone uses say. Where’s the free choice there?

    “Evolution is ‘billions of years’ from being proven and our nation’s children should not be force fed it because whiney scientists don’t agree with any other point of view.”

    I guess you think there are no facts — that everything is just someone’s arbitrary opinion. Post-modernism run amuck.

    By the way: My analysis in message #20 is wrong. That’s because I misunderstood the meaning of the term “airborne fraction.”

    Re-thinking: It does a body good. You should try it sometime.

  23. Zen Faulkes says:

    Comments #2 and #8 confuse K-12 schools and universities. The Texas State Board of Education approves standards and textbooks for the former, but has no influence on the latter.