Phil Plait said there is good news out of Texas, the state’s not doomed, since the State Board of Education members said they don’t want to force intelligent design onto the biology curriculum. P. Z. Myers says doom still lurks, since that statement is part of the strategy of doom planned for Texas by the Discovery Institute, which is now pushing a “teach the weaknesses of evolution” tactic.
Doomed or not? Where is the tie breaker?
The tie breaker, Dear Reader, is you. Read the rest of the post to see what you can do to save Texas, and your state, too.
I’ve lived through at least two rounds of biology textbook selections by the State Board of Education here. Both times it was a hard fight to keep evolution in the books, the theory that cures cancer, treats diabetes, keeps Texas’ state fruit (no, not Rick Perry) in the pink, and makes stars out of our fossils.
The last time around, in 2003, the Discovery Institute flew in the shock troops, and though they were not allowed to testify in open hearings, they were allowed probably-not-legal access to the members of the SBOE, whom they gifted with every DVD, CD and book the public relations arm of DI could muster (and no, none of it made it into the public record, and no, the attorney general, Greg Abbott, did not investigate — he was busy supporting warning stickers against science in textbooks in Cobb County, Georgia; this is Texas, y’all: Politics is congenital).
Five Nobel laureates teamed up to work the issue; the SBOE tried to blow them off.
But in the end, four of eight creationists on the board acted honorably, and voted to keep evolution in the textbooks with no dilution. As big a victory as this was, it left the textbooks still lacking in the teaching of evolution. In the next round, we hope to beef up the teaching of evolution.
In 1999, Ken Miller testified to the SBOE; in a brilliant performance, he strongly rebutted all the false claims made against several publisher’s biology books. In 2003, Steven Weinberg testified, and then Andy Ellington gave a machine-gun graduate-seminar-quality, layman’s level tour through origins of life research that his lab at the University of Texas works in. (Big contributions from David Hillis, Sahotra Sarkar, and 300 scientists who signed petitions supporting evolution, in contrast to the much-ballyhooed
36 35 scientists who were hoodwinked into signing a DI petition that did not state its purpose or use. Plus organizing from the Texas Freedom Network, the Texas Citizens for Science, and great support from Eugenie Scott and the National Center for Science Education.)
So long as Texas strives to be what the tourism board claims it is, “a pretty, great state,” honorable people can be counted on to do the right thing, when all other alternatives have been exhausted.
But the appeals need to be made to people who count, people who can make things happen.
P. Z. urges letters to the SBOE members from Texas citizens. Those letters will help — especially letters from people who understand biology and evolution, and who make a good case for teaching it to kids. Letters from out-of-staters won’t hurt, either — calmly reasoned letters that avoid insulting the state, the state’s school kids, or the members of the board; they’ve heard all the insults before and are somewhat inured to them (no, not evolution in action; the philosophical immune system in action — evolution occurs in the next generation, remember).
Even better: Letters to people who can make things move in this state.
For example, Nancy Brinker was married to the restaurant guru Norman Brinker (Brinker International, which owns Chili’s, On the Border, Romano’s Macaroni Grill, and formerly Rockfish, On the Border, the Corner Bakery and several other brands). Nancy Brinker lost her sister, Susan G. Komen, to breast cancer. As a tribute, she started the Susan G. Komen Foundation to raise awareness of the disease and to raise and focus research money on finding treatments and cures.
Do you think think the fight against breast cancer needs kids who are schooled in evolution? Write to Nancy Brinker at the Komen Foundation. Tell her you want her to tell the Texas State Board of Education that we need kids who know evolution to help the fight against breast cancer.
Ever hear of Roger Staubach? He deals in real estate in Dallas, in a big way. People listen to him — he’s known as a very religious man. Which side of the issue is he on? I don’t know. But if a couple dozen letters were to appear at his office noting how important it is to the future of Texas that the state lead in science education, especially education of high school kids — and that evolution is a big part of that (25% of the AP Biology exam) — he might think three or four times before endorsing a stupid, anti-science proposal from Seattle. Staubach is a graduate of Annapolis — he knows the value of science.
Send a letter to Ross Perot. He studied a little of evolution on the way to becoming an Eagle Scout, in the convservation merit badge series, even if he didn’t earn Nature or Mammal Study or Bird Watching (I don’t know what badges he earned beyond the required ones). Remind him of the important role that understanding evolution has played in the conservation and preservation of our natural resources, and tell him you think Texas should have the toughest academic standards in the world, not the softest or most wrong. Perot led the Texas commission on education reform in the 1980s. When he talks about education, people listen.
Send a letter to Ross Perot, Jr.
Pick any other Texan of influence, and send them a letter: Green revolution hero Norman Borlaug (who lives in Dallas, and still teaches at Texas A&M), Attorney General Greg Abbott, Exxon-Mobil Chairman Rex Tillerson (Eagle Scout and oil guy, so his business is invested in old Earth geology and he is personally invested in doing the right thing), or anyone else you can think of.
Copy all your letters to Gov. Rick Perry. Copy them to the professional who heads the Texas Education Agency, the Commissioner of Education (an office which is technically vacant at the moment, with Robert Scott as Acting Commissioner). If you’ve got a lot of paper, copy them to the SBOE members, though sending them to the commissioner offers a better chance that the letter become part of the public record (in fact, you should ask that the letter be part of the record for the textbook selection process).
What to write?
Tell these Texans that Texas should be a leader in science, and a leader in academic rigor. Tell them that evolution, one of the greatest ideas of western civilization, is a key idea in science today, and that understanding evolution is a first step to unlocking so many biological mysteries we face: How to make better crops, how to protect the crops we have, how to prevent diseases and treat them, especially diseases that kill many prematurely like cancer and heart disease, and debilitating diseases like diabetes, and congenital diseases like cystic fibrosis.
Tell them that the problem with most textbooks is they do not emphasize evolution enough, probably trying not to offend anyone. Tell them that the chief thing the textbooks need to do is teach evolution well; weaknesses of a theory mean nothing if the theory itself is not understood. Tell them Texas’s current standard, requiring kids to know evolution and how it works, is a good starting point for strong academics, and should not be weakened in any way.
What are the barriers? You already know about the religious bent against science and evolution expressed by a majority of SBOE members; it is always a struggle to appeal to their expressed support for good academics and pursuit of the facts. The Gablers have both passed on, but their work chiseling away the science from science texts is carried on by a non-profit foundation. Texas has more than its share of right-wing wackoes who thing truth should come only from a pulpit, contrary to Ben Franklin’s warnings; many of these people are well-funded and otherwise well educated. Many of them are tight with the state’s politicians.
There is also serious discrimination against people who understand evolution in Texas. While Steven Weinberg testified in public, other Nobel winners in the state were reluctant to step out front (and in the end, their work outside the hearing room may have been more effective); but several world-class scientists begged that I keep their names completely out of the fight, in fear that local reaction to their support for evolution would make their personal lives difficult, if not actually endanger their research funding (Ben Stein, will you come testify for these distinguished men? I’m calling you out, Ben — come defend freedom in Texas, will you?) The barriers are formidable.
Climbing mountains gets more difficult as we age. Keeping the textbooks accurate, telling the truth, the whole truth and not slipping in a few fables that confuse things.
Texas isn’t doomed — yet. Keeping evolution in the textbooks, and keeping the biology curriculum strong, is an uphill fight in Texas every time new textbooks have to be approved.