Evolution wins in Texas

Sorry for not posting an update last Friday, but I was in the Board meeting and then on a plane. I gather most of you found the news update at NCSE's website, where traffic hit record levels.

As you recall, the Texas State Board of Education met on Thursday as the Committee of the Full Board to hear public testimony and to debate among themselves as much as was feasible. Friday was the official board meeting, when the final votes on new science supplements were taken. In the end, all of the good supplements were approved (some with minor tweaks still to be made) and the creationist supplement was rejected. How we got there, and what the tweaks were, is a tale in itself.

Late on Thursday, the board had taken its first vote to approve most of the 9 supplements recommended to them by review teams appointed by the board a few months ago, but had hit a snag with the submission from Holt McDougal. Those reviewers were mostly scientists and teachers, but creationist board members had put a few creationists onto the panels. Reviewers worked in groups of 3, each group reviewing 3-4 supplements. For the most part, the panels were supposed to make recommendations by consensus. The team reviewing Holt's submission had a negative report from one reviewer (that file was obtained by Texas Freedom Network through a public records request). That reviewer's history of young earth creationism is well-established. On Thursday, the staff of the Texas Education Agency weren't sure if that report had been approved by the entire panel (as they were supposed to be), or just by creationist David Shormann. They had treated the report as an official list of errors, including sending it to the publisher for them to make changes. The publisher rightly refused, sending a compelling list of responses (that PDF is a file handed out at the meeting; TFN scanned it, and I had tweeted pictures of it during the hearing).

On the basis of that complaint and the publisher's refusal to fix the purported errors, the board was not prepared to add Holt's submission to the list of textbook supplements they would approve on Friday. That list had been tweaked by the end of Thursday to require some illustrations based on 18th century drawings published by Ernst Haeckel to be redrawn, and to fix some typos in another submission, but the fireworks I'd expected had been largely absent. The Holt book was the likeliest point of contention on Friday.

That night, TFN and I huddled to find a way forward. We talked to the publisher, with the TEA staff, and with others involved in the review process, trying to find out where that list of errors came from, and what the best way might be to show the board that the supposed errors were - in fact - correct, and that making the publisher change the text would actually insert errors. Furthermore, we feared that if the board voted to classify this list as errors, it would open the door to the board then forcing other publishers to root out similar statements, including any reference to the consilience of evolutionary trees based on anatomy and those based on molecular data. Also any reference to human red blood cells being eukaryotic.

Ultimately, it turned out that 5 people from the review panel (but had not reviewed the Holt supplement) were going to sign a letter explaining that the Holt statements were accurate, the complaints were not, and that the board should approve it as it stood. There wasn't time overnight to locate the scientists referenced in the creationist complaint, and let them tell the board that the claims were wrong. We hoped that 5 reviewers would trump the three who supposedly signed off on that erroneous list of errors.

It turned out the next morning that our case was stronger than we expected. TEA staff had not been able to locate anything to show that all three of Holt's reviewers had actually signed off on this contentious list of errors. That meant it could well have represented the views of a single reviewer, not a consensus list as policy required. That gave pro-science board members a hook. NCSE and local science activists always emphasize that political bodies should listen to their experts, and if an expert panel really had signed off on that list, it would have been hard for us and for friendly board members to suddenly say "don't listen to your experts!" Fortunately for us, that review panel didn't quite follow the right procedure, and we didn't have that problem.

We also had sharp, engaged board members. Michael Soto, a new board member since the 2009 hearings, had done his homework. He called several college biology department deans, and asked what textbooks they use in their introductory biology labs. Then he looked at a copy of that book (Cambpell and Reece for those keeping score), and found the same essential ideas being expressed there that were being attacked in Holt. On that basis, and the letter from reviewers, he made a motion to drop the list of disputed standards, and to add Holt to the list of approved supplements. As the board members discussed it, it started to look like 8 of the 15 would back the amendment.

Ken Mercer, a conservative member with a penchant for stunts, tried to derail the process in various ways, to split up the list of "errors" and otherwise peel off one of the votes for Soto's motion. When that seemed to be failing, he called for a recess and started twisting arms. Before long, it became clear that a compromise was in the works, whereby the Commissioner of Education (a political appointee who runs TEA) would work with Holt to massage the disputed language, and the board would approve the supplement conditionally. Under this scenario, they'd have to have 8 votes against Holt next time to take it off the approved list if its changes didn't meet the board's desires, not 8 votes in favor as it would need under Soto's motion. Soto agreed to withdraw his motion, and the compromise plan passed unanimously. The full slate of good supplements quickly passed unanimously as well, and then the creationist submission from International Databases, LLC, went down unanimously.

To be clear, then, the board never agreed that the items on listed were genuinely errors, and the Holt submission was approved without having to remove those items (though they will be rephrased). Creationists got nothing that they wanted from this process. Indeed, because of changes forced by creationists in 2009, these supplements cover lots of evolutionary content, and have no attacks on evolution. This cannot even be construed as a victory through even the rosiest lenses. That hasn't stopped creationists from trying to move the goalposts and declare victory, but reporters I talked to on the scene saw through that ruse.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that, even after the Discovery Institute had sent a public comment to the board claiming that every supplement except that from ID, LLC was inadequate, the DI didn't even show up in Texas. Other than minor quibbles with one person's testimony and an attempt to rewrite the outcome of a radio program, has been quite disengaged from the Texas process. Sure, they put up an attack on Ken Miller and the textbook he co-authors with Joe Levine, but it was all pro forma, a rehash of the complaints they made in the 2003 Texas textbook fight.

Pro-science testimony on Thursday outnumbered creationist testimony by a factor of at least 3-4:1, and could well have been higher. On several occasions, people who'd testified earlier showed up again later in the day, to read testimony which they assured us had been written by someone else, usually someone much more qualified, who alas could not make it. In one case, we were promised a report of major flaws in the submission from Pearson (the Miller-Levine supplement), but it never materialized.

Last week, science advocates, including my own NCSE, but especially Texas Freedom Network and Texas Citizens for Science, simply out-organized the creationists, turning out more supporters, giving our board allies more material to work with, and we won an unqualified victory.

We still have to make sure that the revisions demanded of Holt are accurate, and that'll keep me busy for a few days yet, but the major fight is over. And in the most consistently contentious state board in the country, science won big.

In retrospect, I may not even have needed to pull an all-nighter to put together a 20 page, 9 point font, surprisingly well-researched report on the many failings of the ID, LLC submission (I am now, for what it's worth, fairly conversant in trilobite systematics). Given how bad that supplement was, I don't care whether that report was the final straw that killed that supplement, or just another nail in its coffin. It's well and truly buried now, and any time ID, LLC crops up again, we'll be ready. The really fun and effective parts of these hearings are the parts I can't talk about, the behind the scenes negotiations, the quiet conversations, the preparatory outreach and research that makes it possible for friendly board members to ask the right questions at the right time, to resist bad deals and to forge good ones. That work turned up the report from Shormann before the hearing, so we knew what might be coming down the pike, and forged friendships beforehand that ensured we knew the reviewers, and could reach them and help them prepare and sign a letter supporting a good supplement.

Thank you.

congrats. This prompted a donation to NCSE.

I followed the #sboe with great interest! Thank you for your wonderful work. I have just joined the NCSE.

In retrospect, I may not even have needed to pull an all-nighter to put together a 20 page, 9 point font, surprisingly well-researched report on the many failings of the ID, LLC submission (I am now, for what it's worth, fairly conversant in trilobite systematics).

Is that report up on the web or will it be? Mmmmm trilobite systematics.

By Mike from Ottawa (not verified) on 26 Jul 2011 #permalink

Very fine work by you, NCSE, and TFN! It feels incredibly good to win when you're on the side of right thinking and good science.

Thanks, Joshua.

By Charles Sullivan (not verified) on 26 Jul 2011 #permalink

This was much appreciated effort. Texas has a strong economy - it's well worth the fight to also have high quality education.

By AGreenhill (not verified) on 28 Jul 2011 #permalink