On the circus

Today I’m at the State Board of Education hearings on textbook adoption. Or, in other words, the once every-so-often meeting that helps to determine whether or not Texas makes itself a laughingstock with respect to the teaching of evolution. I guess this is sort of my first “live blog,” which is just weird.

I continue my love / hate relationship with Texas. On the one hand, this board meeting is democracy in action (not necessarily a good thing in a Republic): every idiot gets their say. On the other, their say means very little. The larger forces at work will drive both curriculum and the impact of that curriculum. Governor Perry has touted Texas for job creation while at the same time undercutting education both in spending and in direction. I live in an interesting microcosm where Texas is outsourcing its education to other states, letting others carry our burden for education, and then saying that they should come here to start businesses and take tech jobs. This same scenario is of course playing out between nations, as the United States outsources not just call centers, but essential aspects of education, research, and development, all in the name of an efficiency that often does not trickle down to the local level. There is an argument to be made for local inefficiency.

From another vantage, though, these forces favor advance. Texas is no longer the juggernaut driving textbook adoption that it once was, because the entire publishing industry has undergone such change. “Textbooks” themselves are almost things of the past, and the approval of electronic resources is moving away from national or even state control towards local control (ala recent law from our other circus, the Lege). Of course, this gives any school district the opportunity to undercut the education of its children by serving up Creationist and Intelligent Design prattle. But it also provides an opportunity for scholars, scientists, and educators to point this out. In an era where ‘publishing’ is both more of a niche market and more of a distributive endeavor, the opinions of content providers may matter as much (or more) than the opinions of consumers. And make no mistake, scientists are watching very, very carefully what publishing companies do here today. Watering down the fact and theory of evolution in your textbook will be viewed as capitulation to an anti-competitive, know-nothing attitude that does not serve our nation well. There is an argument to be made for local innovation, counterbalanced by global scrutiny.

OK, soapbox off. Here’s my testimony, for what it’s worth:

“It has been only a few short years since my previous testimony before the State Board on the need to teach evolutionary biology to Texas students. Much has happened in the scientific world since that time; can the same be said for those who promote teaching the supposed weaknesses of evolution, but who in fact are arguing for teaching intelligent design or Creationism? Let’s take a look at what factual errors the board would have made or has made based on what happened before, and compare the track records of the scientific and political communities.
“Previously, I testified on the validity of the experiments carried out by Stanley Miller, the so-called Miller-Urey experiments that show that biological materials can be created by gas discharge experiments. The Discovery Institute had chosen to highlight these experiments as a false “Icon of Evolution,” something that the scientists supposedly got wrong. Once this was brought to my attention, I wrote and published a refutation, “Gas, Discharge, and the Discovery Institute,” available via the NCSE. To my knowledge, the facts in this article have not been countered by the Discovery Institute.
“Imagine, now, that we had decided several years ago to utilize the materials backed by the Discovery Institute or others, that we had accepted that there were supposed ‘weaknesses’ or ‘flaws’ in the theory. While science moves on, advances, corrects and expands itself, the opponents of science teaching never seem to update their stories or ideas or facts. Indeed, recent work completely overturns the fly-by-night interpretations of “Icons.” An article in 2008, authored by Dr. Jeffrey Bada of the Scripps Institute, showed that “… contrary to previous reports, significant amounts of amino acids are produced from neutral gas mixtures.1″
“If we had allowed teachers to utilize materials that clearly have a philosophical, anti-scientific axe to grind, several generations of Texas students would have used factually incorrect material, and would quite literally have been lied to by the Discovery Institute, amongst others.
“The best source of science is scientists. If you choose to use facts, interpretations, or materials that are not validated by the scientific community, you will almost certainly find yourself in a position of trying to explain to Texas students, Texas parents, and Texas businesses why your actions have led to the willful propagation of falsehood. We cannot afford the loss of trust nor the loss of competitiveness.
“Please vote to adopt the recommendations of the Commissioner. Please do not on a whim attempt to change the contents of textbooks that have been labored over for months. I commend both the reviewers and the publishers for standing up for scientific integrity. In this era where the very nature of publishing is changing so quickly, good relations between content providers (in short, scientists) and the industry are essential, and watering down the fact and theory of evolution will almost certainly disrupt that relationship on a scale that reaches far beyond Texas.

1 Cleaves, H. J., Chalmers, J. H., Lazcano, A., Miller, S. L. & Bada, J. L. A reassessment of prebiotic organic synthesis in neutral planetary atmospheres. Orig Life Evol Biosph 38, 105-115, doi:10.1007/s11084-007-9120-3 (2008).”

And, at least in my own view, this absolutely impacts defense issues. Imagine a country trying to maintain a nuclear stance when many of its leaders or political entities refused to believe there was such a thing as fission. That’s sort of where we are with respect to biodefense and evolution. When we decide that diseases are just happenstance, acts of God, rather than evolving and evolvable entities (and this, at some level, was the Millenialist stance of at least some former administrations, including one where The Band Played On), then we automatically build our defenses on a contradiction. Not a Shining City on a Hill, but a house of straw.

Postscript: I would like to thank the Discovery Institute for accurately reporting my remarks (http://www.evolutionnews.org/2011/07/idiots_and_laughingstock_unive048641.html), since they seem to get virtually nothing else right.


- originally posted on Thursday, July 21st, 2011 at 4:21