The Scientific Activist

Dear Texas,

Let me first of all say that despite our differences, I still consider you my home, even if I only get to visit a couple of times a year these days. Friends, family, football: you have it all for me. And, as I watched it get dark here in Oxford around 4 pm this afternoon, I have to admit that I really miss that warm Texas sun.

But, Texas, I have to tell you–pal to pal–that your recent actions have been so stereotypical. I mean, yeah, we get it. You’re conservative. Really conservative. And, you like Jesus. A lot. Tell me something new. But now I hear that you forced your director of science curriculum to resign for letting some of her contacts know about a talk from a well-known authority on intelligent design? And, on top of that, I had to hear it from the Austin American-Statesman? I had expected more from you, Texas. Really:

The state’s director of science curriculum has resigned after being accused of creating the appearance of bias against teaching intelligent design.

Chris Comer, who has been the Texas Education Agency’s director of science curriculum for more than nine years, offered her resignation this month.

In documents obtained Wednesday through the Texas Public Information Act, agency officials said they recommended firing Comer for repeated acts of misconduct and insubordination. But Comer said she thinks political concerns about the teaching of creationism in schools were behind what she describes as a forced resignation.

Agency officials declined to comment, saying it was a personnel issue.

Comer was put on 30 days paid administrative leave shortly after she forwarded an e-mail in late October announcing a presentation being given by Barbara Forrest, author of “Inside Creationism’s Trojan Horse,” a book that says creationist politics are behind the movement to get intelligent design theory taught in public schools. Forrest was also a key witness in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case concerning the introduction of intelligent design in a Pennsylvania school district. Comer sent the e-mail to several individuals and a few online communities, saying, “FYI.”

Agency officials cited the e-mail in a memo recommending her termination. They said forwarding the e-mail not only violated a directive for her not to communicate in writing or otherwise with anyone outside the agency regarding an upcoming science curriculum review, “it directly conflicts with her responsibilities as the Director of Science.”

The memo adds, “Ms. Comer’s e-mail implies endorsement of the speaker and implies that TEA endorses the speaker’s position on a subject on which the agency must remain neutral.”

You’re telling me that you fired her for not remaining neutral on whether Texas should be teaching religious pseudoscience? Come on. Who on Earth is going to buy such an absurd idea–that the the person in charge of determining what’s taught in science classes isn’t going to take a position on whether or not non-science should be taught in science classrooms? Surely you have a better excuse.

In addition to the e-mail, the memo lists other reasons for recommending termination, including Comer’s failure to get prior approval to give a presentation and attend an off-site meeting after she was told in writing this year that there were concerns about her involvement with work outside the agency.

Hmmm… where have I heard that one before? Oh, yes, now I remember:

President Thabo Mbeki stunned and outraged campaigners yesterday by sacking the country’s deputy health minister, the woman credited with ending a decade of Aids denialism at the heart of the South African political leadership.

Ostensibly the reason for firing Mrs Madlala-Routledge was that in June she travelled to Madrid to speak at an Aids conference without the President’s written authorisation.

Her real crimes, say insiders, were to challenge the President’s handling of the epidemic and help drive through the new treatment strategy. That happened earlier this year when liver transplant surgery forced Mrs Tshabalala-Msimang out of the picture. But “Dr Beetroot” came back. In the past few weeks she has, officials say, set about undermining the treatment plan.

Once again, Texas, this is all highly unoriginal. And, in the process, you’re lionizing small-minded shrill right-wing reactionaries like this one:

The call to fire Comer came from Lizzette Reynolds, who previously worked in the U.S. Department of Education. She also served as deputy legislative director for Gov. George W. Bush. She joined the Texas Education Agency as the senior adviser on statewide initiatives in January.

Reynolds, who was out sick the day Comer forwarded the e-mail, received a copy from an unnamed source and forwarded it to Comer’s bosses less than two hours after Comer sent it.

“This is highly inappropriate,” Reynolds said in an e-mail to Comer’s supervisors. “I believe this is an offense that calls for termination or, at the very least, reassignment of responsibilities.

“This is something that the State Board, the Governor’s Office and members of the Legislature would be extremely upset to see because it assumes this is a subject that the agency supports.”

Oh my. What will the neighbors say?

First, there’s Pharyngula:

Whoa. The Texas Education Agency is neutral on the subject of teaching good science? It’s bad if the TEA takes a position on the subject of science education?

Apparently, TEA members are supposed to close their eyes and maximize ignorance before making decisions. I really feel sorry for Texas.

And Thoughts from Kansas:

Indeed, we must inquire what the Texas Education Agency (TEA) is supposed to do if not endorse particular positions with respect to science education, especially those related to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS, statewide science education standards). Given that the state is gearing up to revise those standards, it is hard not to see this as a shot across the bow of the Texas education community, and an attempt to prevent scientifically knowledgeable folks from participating in discussion of what topics are scientific, and what scientific topics should be presented when in the educational process. I certainly hope this strategy backfires.

And The Austringer:

Apparently, not being a team player in the The Republican War on Science is a firing offense at the TEA. Why forwarding an announcement concerning a talk whose topic is highly relevant to the conduct of science education by an internationally recognized speaker should cause TEA administrators a problem escapes me. One is forced to wonder whether Ms. Comer would be looking for a new job if instead she were forwarding emails announcing talks by DI fellows about “intelligent design” creationism.

And Bad Astronomy:

If a speaker came advocating astronomy over astrology, would that cause problems for TEA? How about an HIV denier? Could they speak out against such a person?

Funny. I would think that it would one of TEA’s biggest goals to promote science over antiscience, and to actually teach people the difference between reality and fantasy.

Once again, Texas, this is all really uninteresting. Seriously, creationism was so 1925. I’d like to think that our society has advanced a bit over the last eighty years. Here’s a thought: why don’t we quit playing politics and actually teach our kids some real science? Just sayin’.

Sincerely,

Nick Anthis

Comments

  1. #1 Abel Pharmboy
    November 29, 2007

    What bewilders me is that this has gone down in a state that otherwise has some of the most progressive and productive scientific research institutions like M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Baylor, UT Health Sciences Center, UT-Austin, UT-Southwestern, Texas A&M, Texas Children’s Hosp, UT-San Antonio, etc. Heck, you’ve got honest-to-goodness Nobel laureates down there. What is going on???

  2. #2 chezjake
    November 29, 2007

    I agree wholeheartedly with everything you’ve said, but since when is “FYI” any kind of endorsement? Could not a pro-ID or even a neutral person have forwarded that email simply as an alert that there might be matters concerning the department’s policy brought up at the talk?

    It’s quite obvious that Ms. Reynolds was the one with an agenda and was after Comer’s throat. Why wasn’t Reynolds forced out for her partisan position?

  3. #3 Pi Guy
    November 29, 2007

    “Why wasn’t Reynolds forced out for her partisan position?”

    Because it’s the same as Texas’s partisan position!

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    November 29, 2007

    My estimation is that this is the opening gambit in what will amount to a herculean struggle.

  5. #5 Texas Reader
    November 29, 2007

    I went to Baylor in the early 80′s. My old testament history prof, who was a part time minister (he filled in at Baptist churches that were temporarily between pastors) told us that the Genesis stories were myths and that the world was not created in 7 days. There was no intelligent design crap at the school. Later some type of intelligent design program was set up at Baylor, then closed.

    Governor Perry, by allowing the TEA to become the bastion of the ignorant, is causing our state humiliation. Wish we could impeach him for it.

  6. #6 Ex-drone
    November 29, 2007

    At Minitrue, Comer unremembered that “Ignorance is Strength,” and her ungood e-mail was discovered by the Thought Police. Now, Inner Party member Reynolds will hire someone doubleplusgoodthinkful to carry on the doublethink work.

  7. #7 Larry Fafarman
    December 2, 2007

    The TEA has an official policy of neutrality on issues regarding upcoming science curriculum reviews, and Comer willfully violated that policy. Pure and simple. If she doesn’t want to follow TEA’s policies, then she should honestly admit that she shouldn’t work there.

    The forwarded email is not neutral. The email announced a lecture about a theory that intelligent design is part of a fundy conspiracy to take over the USA and the email bore the name of the National Center for Science Education, an outfit dedicated to promoting dogmatic teaching of Darwinism.

    Would you Darwinists be complaining if the shoe were on the other foot, e.g., she was pressured to resign for advertising a creationist lecture? I doubt it.

  8. #8 Nick Anthis
    December 3, 2007

    Firstly, intelligent design is not a scientific theory. Far from it. Secondly, someone pushing creationism would have no place determining science curriculum, so such a forced resignation would of course be wholly appropriate.

  9. #9 Allison Hoffman
    December 3, 2007

    �Ex-Texan Returns to Defend Science�

    I was born in Texas in the early 40�s. My family moved to California in 1951. I returned for a visit in 1959, saw signs over two drinking fountains, in a Safeway, that said, �COLORED� and �WHITE.� At my young age I was appalled and remember quite clearly saying to myself, �Texas is the iron- curtain-of-the-mind,� and I vowed never to return. For all these years, I never tell people where I came from. I have always been ashamed of my heritage�being on the wrong side of the civil war, and then blatant�in-your-face segregation. Now, add homophobia, and creationism.

    When I heard that Governor Perry had appointed a creationist to head the state school board, I thought it was time to do my part, to help Texans to be more open-minded, and accept science. I am a doctoral candidate, and I�m developing course material for high school age college classes entitled �Evolution vs. Creationism: Listen to the Scientists.� The idea is to bring some of our country�s top scientists into classrooms in the form of short video mini-lectures. About two months ago. I sent a website link to approximately 50 heads of science education in districts all over Texas. Only two returned an email expressing interest. One was Chris Comer (the one who lost her job over defending science), and the other was Steven Schafersman, Ph.D._President, Texas Citizens for Science. Chris Comer stated that she wanted to see the videos and needed some instructions to get her computer to play them. Stephen Schafersman returned an email saying he very much approved of the scientific relevancy of the videos, and would pass along the email link in his organization news letter.

    Think about it– Chris Comer got fired for passing along an email announcing a lecture to be given by Barbara Forrest (whose testimony at the Dover trial �blew-the-whistle� on the fact that I.D. is simply creationism renamed�therefore religion, and does not belong in schools because of the first amendment�read Judge Jones decision). If what Barbara Forrest is saying to the world is so horrible�enough to get the �Texas Education Agency, Director of Science Curriculum,� fired, then, if I were a citizen of Texas, who uses critical thinking, I would certainly be curious to hear for myself what kinds of things Dr. Forrest is saying that is so blasphemous. If Texans start watching these mini-lectures, with top scientists, they will have a chance to hear what Dr, Forrest said, and be able to judge for them selves. They are available directly through You Tube, or on http://www.evolutionvscreationism.info. If you want to evaluate them as potential classroom material, then go to http://www.scienceteachersandevolution.com. This site contains is a survey where you can evaluate the mini-lectures. These mini-lectures contain considerable footage with Barbara Forrest�probably everything she said at the fateful Texas lecture. It�s time that Texans began listening to credible scientists, and hopefully lifting the �iron-curtain-of-the-mind� that has shackled their thinking all these decades. It�s absolutely essential that all citizens, not just Texans, truly understand the �process� of science, and why keeping the integrity of that process is so important to our survival as a U.S., and world society.

    Allison Hoffman, Qualitative Researcher
    Scientific, Qualitative, Research, and Education, Inc. (S.Q.R.E.)
    http://www.sqreweb.org sqre@roadrunner.com

  10. #10 vesuviusjzeus
    December 14, 2007

    A related thought: Will the newly appointed president at Texas A&M try to wedge intelligent design into A&M, since the attempt failed at Baylor and the goal is to get it installed in some reputable university?

  11. #11 Larry Fafarman
    December 19, 2007

    Nick Anthis said,

    Firstly, intelligent design is not a scientific theory. Far from it. Secondly, someone pushing creationism would have no place determining science curriculum, so such a forced resignation would of course be wholly appropriate.

    So you think that the TEA is going to allow employees to send out announcements of Forrest’s conspiracy-theory lectures while not allowing employees to send out announcements of Discovery Institute “Darwin v. Design” conferences, Weikart “From Darwin to Hitler” lectures, and “Answers in Genesis” lectures and conferences? It ain’t going to happen.