Government & Politics

Reason’s greetings: BESE sees the light in textbook debate

Last week, concerned citizens appeared before the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education  to discuss new high-school science textbooks being considered.

Parents and professors, pastors and teachers, students and scientists, evolutionists and creationists all voiced their opinions… and – glory be –  a Christmas miracle occurred!  Unanimity was born, for every last citizen agreed that Louisiana high school students deserve to learn “the very best science.” The committee’s voice vote was brief and uneventful. The textbooks were approved. Hallelujah, right?

Not quite. The widespread agreement over “the very best science” was rather superficial because the term means vastly different things to different people.

To their credit, many of the textbook critics who testified actually reviewed the books in question and said the treatment of evolutionary theory was, in their view, biased and flawed. Textbook supporters, on the other hand, rarely referred to the books in their testimony. They had faith in the two state committees that recommended the books, and they preferred to discuss the creationist motives of the critics.

Irony resulted. Evolutionists talked about religion and creationists focused on science.
If this were purely a debate about the new textbooks, the creationist critics might’ve won on points because they adhered more closely to the topic at hand. But, fundamentally, the debate wasn’t about texts, nor was it even a debate about evolution versus creationism. The testimony was a battle over science itself, and how science should be taught in high school.

The latest tactics used by textbook critics reveal a clever shift in their effort to dismantle how evolution is currently taught. Textbook critics avoided words such as “creationism” or “intelligent design.” While they stuck to their “teach the controversy” line of argument, this time the “controversy” referred to was between old and new science, rather than between intelligent design and evolution. Creationists actually claimed the textbooks under review didn’t include enough material about evolution; to them, the “very latest” science had been excluded, especially new data that fomented “debate” about evolutionary theory. They told the board to hold off on a recommendation until more up-to-date science texts become available.

I have to admit, that’s pretty crafty.

The BESE committee members were no help in sorting the wheat from the chaff during Tuesday’s public testimony. Other than occasional pleas to stay on topic, and a lone demand by texbook committee Chairman Dale Bayard for “proof that man originated from primates,” the members sat silent and opted not to question any of the highly educated citizens offering testimony.

First up was the Rev. Gene Mills, president of the Louisiana Family Forum, and John W. Oller, a professor of communicative disorders at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. Mills criticized the new biology texts as being “biased and inaccurate when covering scientifically controversial issues.”

Then he turned it over to Oller to present a detailed critique. Oller described the texts as doctrinaire, dated, and uninspiring. Holding degrees in language and linguistics, Oller shocked no one when he complained the science books gave short shrift to the foundations of language (his specialty). Then Oller treated the audience to a short video of a fetus appearing to smile in the womb while hearing spoken words. He said this was a good example of some of the “very latest science” that the new textbooks lacked.

Southeastern Louisiana University philosophy Professor Barbara Forrest testified next. As part of the Louisiana Coalition for Science, Forrest had sparred with Mills and Oller on other occasions. She noted that Oller was a “young earth creationist” who often worked with Mills’ Family Forum. Forrest tried to broaden the context of the discussion beyond the textbooks, to the motives of her opponents. She had documented the Family Forum’s many attempts to insert creationism into the science classroom over the years, their most recent success being the Louisiana Science Education Act, a Trojan horse law letting districts  use “supplemental” materials to “teach the controversy about topics such as evolution and global warming. (Forrest’s analysis of that law is here.) Forrest said that when the Family Forum encourages schools to teach non-existent controversies, they are undermining academic integrity rather than defending academic freedom, as they claim. Every claim offered by the Family Forum contesting evolution has been refuted in court, Forrest said.

A half dozen pro-textbook speakers followed Forrest. I was embarrassed that an LSU Professor like Jeffrey Gimble had to spend the better part of his day away from the lab so he could testify that intelligent design is not science. Presbyterian pastor the Rev. Clint Mitchell told the board that we need to “keep religion out of science class,” and LSU biology professor Bryan Carstens bluntly stated, “The theory of evolution is not controversial among practicing biologists.”

Opponents stuck to the textbooks. LSU electrical and computer engineering Professor Emeritus Charles Voss, who has a web site devoted to the “negative aspects” of evolution in biology textbooks, said that macro-evolution is an “unproven” and “unobserved” theory, yet is presented as fact by evolutionists.

Award-winning biology high school teacher Patsye Peebles said that textbook opponents “have an unfortunate misunderstanding what is and isn’t in the realm of science. By opening the door for their ‘both sides’ of any issue, you allow non-science and pseudo-science into the science classroom, at the very strong risk of confusing students about the real nature of science.”

Peebles makes an excellent point. But while the “misunderstandings” she refers to may indeed be “unfortunate,” they’re hardly random or coincidental. Creationist outfits actively spread these misunderstandings, sowing confusion with specious talking points, like when they sneer at the term “theory” by saying “Evolution is only a theory.” Well, as Forrest has argued, theory is an incredibly strong word in science.

A theory such as evolution has stood the test of time.  It explains the observed evidence and accurately predicts new fossil discoveries and withstands 21st century genetics research. It is an amazingly powerful explanatory model. No other scientific explanation for the life around us compares.

Rather than do the half hour of research it would take to answer their concerns, the creationists testifying before BESE repeated the same “questions” about evolution we’ve been hearing for years on end. A good example is the old “I don’t understand how a complex organ like an eye can evolve from simpler organisms.”  Gov. Bobby Jindal, an Ivy League graduate in biology, has used that one various occasions. It’s funny. You’d think that if this really were about open inquiry in the pursuit of knowledge, creationists wouldn’t blithely discount mountains of peer-reviewed scientific research in order to focus on bogus pseudo-scientific molehills.

I’m all for free thinking, open inquiry and debate. “No friction, no thought” is one of my mottoes. In fact, I have a Platonic bias against first appearances, and am sure most of what we think of as scientifically “true” today will be viewed as “error” in 1,000 years. And as a former instructor, I’m all for young minds unsheathing their skeptical swords and hacking away at the conventional wisdom.

That said, the new creationist strategy apparent at the BESE hearings was profoundly anti-scientific in its approach. When you disparage scientific “theory,” and insist that others recognize your self-generated false “controversy,” and demand “proof” while ignoring expert opinion and mountains of evidence, and continually raise the same old pseudo-scientific questions that have been answered long ago… then you are plainly engaging in unhealthy, closed-minded skepticism.  The aim is to extend a circular debate rather than pursue and distill knowledge.

And that’s what irritates me the most about this latest turn by the creationist movement: They misuse an important analytical tool like doubt in order to undermine, rather than enhance, the education of young minds. We can’t doubt our Bible literalism, so let’s focus doubts on the science that makes us uncomfortable..

Theories like evolution, gravity and atomic structure enable us to understand, predict and appropriate our world. Which, I might add, allows us to be more effective stewards of Creation, as the Bible commands.  And high school students need to learn basic scientific literacy before they can profitably engage in skeptical doubts about one of the cornerstones of modern science. Students needn’t believe in evolution, but they need to learn it because it’s the accepted science as currently practiced. If they want to speculate about a possible Kuhnian paradigm shift in evolutionary theory, that’s what university-level philosophy of science classes are for.

With its Louisiana Science Education Act , Louisiana is at the front of this un-enlightened, retrograde dispute about evolution. And creationist advocates such as Gene Mills are about as talented and as savvy as you can get. The contours of last week’s anti-textbook testimony reflected his strategic influence. As Mills told me after the debate, he said he was disappointed in the vote  but couldn’t help but notice that his opponents’ testimony came off as an “effort to shoot the critics, which does seem like censure.”

That’s the newest creationist strategy, and it’s rhetorically formidable: the debate is framed as a  free speech issue. Why can’t students have the “very best science” textbooks, ones that reflect the current scientific “controversies” surrounding evolution?

This is just another demonstration of the hard right’s clear understanding that controlling the context of the debate is more important than having the facts on one’s side. It’s fascinating to see creationists turn the tables on the evolutionists, portraying them as doctrinaire, hidebound, and unscientific.  The final absurdity will be when they say their critics should take a page from Darwin, and not be afraid to think outside the box.

While I applaud their political acumen and moxie, I’d like to know: what’s the creationist endgame here?  I understand their desire to stir up enough doubt with a false controversy about evolution, so more high school students will believe the creation story, (or its slicker cousin, intelligent design).

But what I don’t get is how creationists expect to win a victory of any lasting significance. Are they just trying to run out the clock before the apocalypse, or do they truly think that conventional science is about to come around and in the coming years, new discoveries will comfort the young-earthers and evolution-doubters? Can they really believe that future discoveries won’t confirm that life has been evolving on earth for billions of years? And beyond that, even if they’re able to shoehorn pseudoscientific theories into classrooms, won’t they get punished with expensive lawsuits by civil-liberties groups? Hasn’t the state had enough of that?

And what about when Louisiana high school students underperform on standardized biology tests, and are not admitted entry into the most prestigious universities? Won’t they come under fire then? And finally, Mr. Marketplace won’t be too keen on hiring Louisiana’s “young earth” paleontologists and “intelligent design” biologists – surely the financial pressure from the business community would bring an end to their gambits. So, it seems to be that, despite their clever tactics, the best the creationists can hope for is a short-term victory in negative relief. They might knock down evolution a few pegs, but their overall project points to a dead end.

High school senior Zack Kopplin, a vocal opponent of the Louisiana Science Education Act , testified that listed hundreds of jobs for scientists and none for creationists. This is a solid point, but it’s not totally accurate. There does seem to be a place for conservative creationists to gain employments: in top-level leadership positions in Louisiana politics!

Louisiana Rep. Frank Hoffman, R-Monroe, and Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa, the coauthors of law Kopplin criticized, have only enhanced their political careers. Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter was happy to reward the Family Foundations with a $100,000 earmark, deeming their creationist crusade “important.”
Jindal is convinced that when he travels the country, talking about all the good things he’s doing in Louisiana, it’s a boon for the state. Perhaps not!  For example, when he does national press interviews and talking about how swell it is that Louisiana students are wasting class time learning bogus anti-science controversies, that’s not good for the economy. Will businesses want to relocate to such school systems? Indeed the effects are already being felt as New Orleans will miss out on a scientific conference next year because of the Louisiana Science Education Act, signed into law by Jindal. That’s 2,000 professionals spending their money over five days in Salt Lake City, rather than cash-strapped New Orleans.

GOP star Sarah Palin, who has been called one of the most knowledgeable energy experts in the United States, is a proud creationist. The daughter of a science teacher, Palin has stated her belief that the earth is 7,000 years young, and humans and dinosaurs co-existed because once she saw an image of a human foot in a dinosaur fossil. Like her state party, Palin apparently believes that if evolution should be taught, it should be taught alongside creationism. If! Retired Judge Darrell White, a textbook critic, testified at the hearing and decried the “mindless nihilism” of evolution. He said one of the Columbine killers wore a shirt that read “natural selection,” and held up a similar shirt for emphasis, and implied that Baton Rouge might be in danger of a similar massacre.

The real nihilism, I believe, is electing leaders who help anti-science groups tear down our knowledge base under the mantle of academic freedom.

It’s baffling that rising political stars such as Palin and Jindal, who hail from states whose economies are yoked to the fossil-fuel industry, would support challenges to the scientific foundation that helps their states develop and prosper. Do they think Big Oil is just itching to employ “young earth” scientists who don’t understand how evolution impacts the fossil record they use as horizon markers to find out precisely where the oil is?

So here’s a potential solution to this fraudulent debate: Big Oil needs to join the academics and scientists who are fighting against creationism in the classroom. We’ve seen how strong Big Oil’s influence is, even in the wake of a catastrophic oil disaster. If they can mount a “Rally for Economic Survival” against a moratorium, surely they can arrange a “Rally for Economic Survival of the Fittest” against bad science. (Perhaps the name might need to be tweaked, but you get my drift.)

If the oil industry weighs in and says they need graduates grounded in solid science, that might cut through the current bogus rhetoric in this false, anti-science debate. If Big Oil could rally the business community around the message that bad science costs Louisiana jobs, I think they would carry the day and Louisiana high students could finally get this creationist monkey off their backs.

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About Mark Moseley

Mark Moseley blogs at Your Right Hand Thief. Until mid 2014, Mark Moseley was The Lens' opinion writer, engagement specialist and coordinator for the Charter Schools Reporting Corps. After Katrina and the Federal Flood he helped create the Rising Tide conference, which grew into an annual social media event dedicated to the future of New Orleans.

  • Tim

    You ask, what is their end game? Religionists who espouse the existence of supernatural powers are plainly irrational. So I am not surprised they act irrationally when they face issues such as how to defend their personal faith from reality.

    This is an important topic. Thanks for writing about it.



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