A grey lining in Texas

As folks who follow me on twitter know, today was a pretty good day in Texas. I'm here watching the board vote on science supplements for public schools. I put together a 20 page report on the flaws in a supplement provided by International Databases, LLC, and presented it to the board. Most of the speakers opposed the ID, LLC supplement, and urged adoption of the supplements recommended by expert review committees.

As often happens, board member Ken Mercer asked many of the folks who testified a series of carefully crafted questions, meant somehow to trap them. It wasn't totally obvious where he was headed until the end of the day, but his questions about comparative anatomy and the supposed conflicts between anatomical phylogenies and molecular phylogenies was actually laying the groundwork for an attack on a supplement from Holt, an attack presumably coordinated at least in part with a creationist on the review committee.

Early on, the board made clear that they had little to no interest in adopting the ID, LLC supplement, and by the 2 hour mark (of four scheduled, we finished earlier) they were urging people not to even talk about it. I'd prepared a 20 page report detailing the supplements flaws, which I gave to the board even later in the day, but emphasized that they shouldn't force errors like those laced through the ID, LLC supplement into others. By the end of the day, Mercer himself â one of the board's biggest fans of creationism â proposed officially rejecting that supplement.

It quickly became clear that the board was going to focus on a few big issues in the 9 biology supplements recommended to them by their staff (and the review committees). They could only strike a supplement if it didn't meet the TEKS (state science standards), if it contained uncorrected factual errors, or if the materials didn't meet their standards. If the review committees of scientists and educators found failures to meet TEKS, or technical flaws, there was already a way for publishers to address that, so claims of factual errors were the main focus. And other than copious accounts of the errors in the ID, LLC supplement (I counted 708!), there were 2 main charges against the mainstream supplements.

The day before the hearings, news circulated about incoming board chair Barbara Cargill's comments about human and gorilla fetus drawings, which allegedly differed by only a single amino acid. This generated some amusement, but it prefigured today's fight over illustrations based on drawings of embryos first published by 19th century biologist Ernst Haeckel. Two publishers included close copies of drawings from Haeckel's 1874 book, the same sorts of illustrations that the board forced out of textbooks in 2003. By the end of the day, one of the publishers had already obtained alternative artwork, and the board had given the other one until September to present their new art.

Ron Wetherington, Steve Schafersman, and other testifiers tried to explain that there are legitimate uses of Haeckel's embryos, and I worked the room trying to explain "Haeckel's embryos, fraud not proven." The board was talking about it enough that they were obviously going to do something. I think that all the lobbying managed to convince key board members that this wasn't a big enough issue to get worked up over, that they weren't going to challenge the concept behind the drawings (developmental homology, Von Baer's law, etc.) but that the drawings themselves had to go. This is no great loss.

The bigger problem came after public testimony, when it was revealed that the supplement from Holt McDougal had been charged by one reviewer (young earth creationist David Shormann) with various errors, and that Holt had refused to fix the supposed factual errors. The publisher rightly noted that the purported flaws were in fact based on misreadings of the scientific literature, or simple lack of basic comprehension of key scientific facts (for instance, that humans are eukaryotes, and therefore all our cells are eukaryotic, even our red blood cells). Throughout, the reviewer pushed for language about evolution to be watered down.

For instance, the reviewer objected to the passage: "Darwin observed anatomical features of organisms and hypothesized that organisms that appear similar have a more recent common ancestor than do organisms that do not appear similar. Modern biology proves on the molecular level what Darwin noticed on the anatomical level. The number of amino acid differences in homologous proteins of different species is proportional to the length of time that has passed since the two species shared a common ancestor. Thus, the more similar the homologous proteins are in different species, the more closely related the species are thought to be."

Instead, they wanted the second sentence and after replaced with: "Yet modern biochemical phylogenies often contradict Darwin's anatomical phylogenies." (There may have been more after that, but if so, it was cut off in reproduction.) This is rather dramatically different. The first is true and justifiable scientifically, while the latter means essentially the opposite, and is not true. Holt replied:

The current wording is correct and will remain. As noted above, in most cases phylogenies based on molecular evidence are congruent with ones based on morphological evidence. Cases in which there are incongruities can be accounted for by factors with evolutionary dynamics.

It was this passage, and several similar ones in the creationist reviewer's complaint, that inspired Ken Mercer's frequent questions about "comparative anatomy," especially the congruence of anatomical and biochemical phylogenies. He also asked about convergence rather a lot. He was trying to build a case that this was a genuine flaw, and one handled improperly by Holt.

Holt continues to refuse to change their supplement, and the board did not approve it. The board also didn't allow Holt's representative at the meeting to address the factual challenges to their supplement. Tomorrow we'll be back in the meeting room, fighting to keep good science in the supplements, and to support Holt's strong stand for scientific integrity. If Mercer wins this fight, there's nothing to say he won't claim similar "errors" in other supplements, and continue demanding changes until the supplements are all creationist, or the publishers all walk out.

Other than Holt, all the recommended supplements were adopted, and it happened so fast I actually had to check with colleagues from Texas Freedom Network to see whether I missed it when I blinked. The vote was unanimous.

Tomorrow they take that vote again, and resolve the fate of Holt. The fight is far from over, but today was a major victory. Creationists were outnumbered in testimony at least 10:1 (thanks to NCSE members who showed up, and aggressive outreach by TFN, Texas Citizens for Science, and other allies). Of the anti-standards speakers who registered, several could not be bothered to show up in person, forcing a lobbyist for the Focus on the Family affiliate in Texas to make regular treks to read their testimony into the record. The first time, he testified on his own behalf, promising that scientists would testify later about scientific weaknesses in the supplements. Board members pressed him on what those flaws were, and he claimed not to know, and urged them to wait for the testimony. When he delivered that testimony himself, reading from a paper tugged from his pocket, I quipped on twitter: "Saenz earlier promised scientists would raise real scientific flaws. Apparently he keeps them in his pocket."

Saenz didn't endear himself when upon seeing me (the sole representative from NCSE, and indeed the only speaker from out of state), he tweeted: "Oh goodie! Group of liberal California science people telling TX SBOE how to teach. Why would we follow any advice from Cali? #sboe #txlege" Why the legislature would care isn't obvious, but I gotta say that wasn't the sort of Texas hospitality I was expecting. I wasn't bringing advice on behalf of California, but on behalf of the science education community, including NCSE's members in Texas. If nothing else, California schools presumably teach that one person is not a "group."

On the other hand, the newly-elected board members were charming and open to conversation, and asked some of the sharpest, most thoughtful questions of the day. Marsha Farney, who replaced Cynthia Dunbar on the board, said the board members agreed I was the best-dressed person testifying, Michael Soto had good questions and insights while we chatted about embryos, and Thomas Ratliff (who replaced Don McLeroy) was fearless in demanding that Saenz describe the supposed errors he was promising, and again in demanding to know whether the list of errors submitted for the Holt supplement was the result of a committee, or was just one reviewer's opinion.

But don't be lulled into a false sense of security. I overheard former board chair Gail Lowe talking to a reporter, and saying that she could imagine a much more heated battle over textbook adoptions, next time the state has money for it. Winning the fight for the Holt supplement will be key to showing the board that Texans won't stand for politicization of science education.

The best thing about the day was the stories of scientists, and nonscientists who've been touched by science. There was a grad student at UT (who I'd met at Netroots Nation last month) who is working on finding cures for cancer. The techniques he uses, he explained, rely heavily on understanding the shared ancestry of plants and animals. Indeed, he said, his research on cancer cures "would not work if not for evolution." He also noted that his evolutionary research project was initiated by a senior labmate who is himself a creationist. The colleague started studying evolution to find a weakness in it, and is now known as the lab evolution expert, and hasn't yet found the flaw.

A woman rose to testify, guided to the podium by a friend who explained "she's hard of sight." She explained that she was compelled to testify because of how important science education has been for her. "I am able to be here today because I am in a drug research study⦠getting medicine rather than placebo." She rightly attributed the research which is preserving her sight to strong science education, and to researchers' understanding of evolution.

On the downside, when a testifier talked about Expelled, and said Richard Dawkins had admitted there was no evidence for the origin of life, board member Terri Leo excitedly urged the witness to get her a transcript. I think there are better things for her to read.

I'll be back tomorrow, tweeting on #sboe yet again!


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I wonder how much of the problem could be avoided by ignoring the history of evolutionary science in favor of talking about the science today. Why in the world would a textbook need to have a hundred-forty year old drawings of embryos in it? I don't remember my high school chemistry or physics books using antique illustrations to teach the substance of the science. Defending science against creationism is hard enough without carrying baggage for the Darwin industry.

Thanks for all your work, Josh.
Elsa Salazar Cade

By Elsa Cade (not verified) on 22 Jul 2011 #permalink

Just want to say good on ya for doing what you do. Keep up the good fight.

By Physicalist (not verified) on 22 Jul 2011 #permalink

I don't suppose someone could lock the Texas SBoE in a room with David Hillis for a few hours so that he can explain to them the statistics of phylogenetic tree similarity, and how trees that "disagree" typically still are actually very statistically similar overall.

By Nick (Matzke) (not verified) on 22 Jul 2011 #permalink

Keep up the good work. And, find good barbecue while you're at it.

Credit where credit is due, good work Josh!

Re: Anthony McCarthy:
Embryos accurately redrawn in the Haeckel spirit would be didatic and provocative. A little history is also useful. Different from your run of the mill first-rate chemist or physicist, Darwin, Wallace, Haeckel and Huxley became public enemies because of their science. Teaching evolution was banned from German as well as US schools. It took courage to stand up for evolutionary biology back then, and some like Haeckel are still mistreated, even by scientists. Haeckel elaborated the first evolutionary trees showing common descent. He was among the first to argue that biological evidence confirmed the unity of life. On the technical side, he was the first, in 1866, to conclude that the cell nucleus bore the hereditary material and was the first to conduct experiments on the effect of isolation of embryonic cells on development. He coined such words as phylogeny, ontogeny, and ecology. He originated a singularly beautiful style of biological illustration. He described 4000 radiolarians and many cnidarians and sponges. I see only advantage in showing that the history of evolutionary biology is populated by real people with enduring ideas.

By Woody Benson (not verified) on 26 Jul 2011 #permalink

Thanks for continuing to engage the SBOE theologians on this issue. One needs to be patient and descriptive when dealing with fundamentalsists who can't tell the difference between science and a sermon on Moses.

Keep up the good work
Will Fraser

By will fraser (not verified) on 12 Aug 2011 #permalink