Adventures with the Texas State Board of Education

Jennifer Raff —  September 17, 2013 — 26 Comments

I’ve written before about the ongoing battle to maintain decent science standards in Texas schools, and why this is not just a regional issue, but important for science education in the United States as a whole.

Today I went before the Texas State Board of Education to testify in support of the science textbooks currently under review. They’re all quite good on the subject of evolution, but there’s a chance that the board may require the textbook companies to modify them based on the testimony of their so-called experts (whose anti-evolution opinions can be read here). The outcome is very much in doubt right now.

I came expecting this to be a largely symbolic (though important) gesture, but I was completely wrong. The pro-creationism/Intelligent Design crowd was present in force, and even though they were vastly outnumbered by the science advocates, they were given extra time and friendly questions by some SBOE members, which amplified their voices.

Here are a few quotes from them:

“The best current perception is that natural selection explains survival of the fittest but not arrival of the fittest.”–Ide Trotter

(Scientists make) “boastful assertions of robust evidence for evolution, but (the textbooks) are actually poor on facts supporting it,” and “coincidentally support what the Bible says.”

“You can’t evolve a cat in the lab.”

“They have no evidence in those books to explain evolution”–Don McLeroy

“When we fail to present the weaknesses of Darwinian evolution, we teach indoctrination (of atheism)”

“Mutations don’t add any information”–Thomas Lancaster

Some of the pro-Creationism/Intelligent Design individuals who came out to testify against the proposed science textbooks

Some of the pro-Creationism/Intelligent Design individuals who came out to testify against the proposed science textbooks

There was quite a bit of media attention, which I was glad about (even though most of the press were gone by the time I gave my testimony later in the day).

Media at the Board of Education meeting

Media at the Board of Education meeting

One of the things I was struck by was the remarkable diversity of people who turned out to testify on behalf of the science textbooks. Professors, parents, students, pastors, and lawyers all took the day off to express their support for evolution.

A sampling of people present to speak on behalf of evolution/climate change education: Nikoloi Litvonyenkov (UT student), Kristen Miller White (professional geologist), Arthur Stewart (Senior minister, Midway Hills Christian Church), and Jennifer Darrouzet (Software engineer).

A sampling of people present to speak on behalf of evolution/climate change education: Nikoloi Litvonyenkov (UT student), Kristen Miller White (professional geologist), Arthur Stewart (Senior minister, Midway Hills Christian Church), and Jennifer Darrouzet (Software engineer). They all did excellent jobs!

We were only given 2 minutes (although some people got the opportunity to expand on their views when questioned by the board members).
Here is the testimony I gave to the board:

Good afternoon, my name is Jennifer Raff. I am a Research Fellow at the University of Texas, with a joint PhD in genetics and anthropology. I have taught biology and other science courses, conducted research, and mentored undergraduate and graduate students for about ten years.

I appreciate the opportunity to encourage you to adopt the science textbooks under consideration. Please do not be dissuaded by the testimony of anyone objecting to them on the grounds that they are controversial with regard to the theory of evolution. As an educator and researcher, who has spent my entire career working in the biological sciences, I can assure you that there is absolutely no legitimate controversy as to whether evolution occurred. Let me repeat that: there is no scientific controversy as to whether evolution occurred. Those who pretend otherwise either don’t understand science, or are promoting a religious or political agenda. Those agendas do not belong in a science classroom.

Using science education as a political battleground hurts students, hurts schools, and hurts Texas. Understanding evolution is critical for anyone who wants to be employed in a STEM field. I say this from practical experience: it would be impossible for anyone in my field to do top-level work without without a rigorous understanding of how evolutionary processes shaped human genetic diversity. Medicine and agriculture also require a thorough grounding in the theory of evolution, as natural selection can actually be seen in action in the evolution of antibiotic and herbicide resistance. These are just a few examples, but I could give you many, many more. We don’t teach evolution because of some political or religious agenda, like those driving hostility to the science. We teach it because it’s true. We teach it because it works. We teach it because it’s necessary for making scientific progress.

I myself have reviewed these textbooks. It is my judgment as a scientist and educator that they would provide a thorough scientific education for Texas students, and prepare them for advanced courses I and others might teach. That isn’t just my opinion; the community of experts and productive scientists with real expertise and hard-won credentials in this field is virtually unanimous on this subject. Please adopt these, on the recommendation of those subject matter experts, and put this sham controversy behind Texas. If you give our students sub-par curricula and textbooks, they will be unprepared for university-level courses. I have seen it happen before, and I would hate to see generations of Texas students find themselves ill qualified for STEM careers because the state crippled their education to satisfy an ideological agenda

Here is the Texas Freedom Network live blog of most of the talks. Unfortunately, mine wasn’t included, although Eugenie Scott of NCSE was listening to the proceedings and sent me a very nice message on Facebook thanking me for my testimony (bioanthropologists unite! She’s awesome). I will be posting links to more reports on the meeting as I get them, and will definitely be writing more about the TSBOE’s decision regarding the science textbooks as soon as it’s made. In the meantime, if you wish to show your support for evolution education, I encourage you to check out the hashtag #standup4science on Twitter, and contribute your own photos/comments there (and below).

Many, many thanks to everyone who came out in support of science education!

EDITED to add: If you want an example of the kind of testimony provided by the creationists, here is former SBOE Don McLeroy’s statement before the board (he was given considerably more time than I was, incidentally):

http://tfninsider.org/2013/09/18/don-mcleroys-strange-testimony-on-texas-science-textbooks-support-the-bible-and-adopt-these-books/#.UjolWRtT_lI.twitter

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Jennifer Raff

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Scientist, fighter, reader. In pursuit of the extraordinary.

26 responses to Adventures with the Texas State Board of Education

  1. 

    I applaud your efforts to publically set the record straight about science, and evolution specifically, and providing an ongoing intelligent case for keeping creationism, religion and politics out of the classroom.

  2. 

    Many thanks for standing up for the education of future generations.
    You do us all proud. If you are ever out to SoCal for a conference or lecture, etc., I would be honored to put you up to defray some of the costs.

  3. 

    Your testimony was excellent. Thank you for standing up for students

  4. 

    Thanks for your testimony, which was spot on. FYI, the hashtag is #standup4science (with the numeral).

  5. 

    Jennifer, you may or may not be aware of a Caltech symposium held several years ago that was an inquiry of science and religion titled Beyond Belief. My wife and I watched all of it but we were most impressed with Neil deGrasse Tyson’s portion. He eloquently spoke about the progression of science through the ages in relation to limits of understanding and made a very strong case for the power of science as a economic stimulant at a national level.

    Here is the link:

    http://thesciencenetwork.org/programs/beyond-belief-science-religion-reason-and-survival/session-2-4

    Hopefully this adds something of value to your very very worthwhile efforts.

    Arnold Klein

  6. 

    Nice post !

  7. 

    When I was in high school in Texas, my speech teacher gave us a prospective speech textbook to look at. There was an errata notice in the front informing readers that a reference to evolution would be removed before final publication. That was quite awhile back, but the debate in Texas has grown worse instead of better. Thank you so much for taking the time to testify.

    • 

      How interesting! You’re right–while researchers at Texas universities are making such marvelous discoveries about evolution and genomics, Texas elementary teachers are struggling to keep their classrooms from being dragged back into the 19th century.

  8. 

    Don McLeroy should be ashamed of himself. I’ve made this same comment elsewhere, but it’s something people should consider when critically evaluating Don’s ‘final death blow, non-argument argument’ testimony.

    The fact is that trying to slyly negate the theory of evolution with the principle of Occam’s Razor is inexplicable when your alternative argument is based on faith. Faith has shown its value to untold billions navigating the human experience. It is completely appropriate to hold strong beliefs that get you through the day, instill personal meaning and bring comfort to the heart.

    But, science is tangible testing and experimentation that allows us to arrive at a better understanding of our world. We didn’t eradicate Small Pox or Polio, create nuclear weapons, break the sound barrier, fly to the moon or create the iPhone by accident. These are the fruits of science, unbelievable all of them! And, all impossible without the application of scientific principles. These outcomes show that the scientific principles applied to them are accurate and factual. You cannot slice off the principles of science you don’t feel comfortable with. Gravity will get you when you walk off a bridge, whether you believe it or not. Science is the original Honey Badger… “Science Don’t Care.”

    Comparing the credibility of sound science to the faith required of the world’s religions is illogical. Why so? The creation stories of many of the world’s religions are different. By the logic used by the creationists present at this hearing, they should also be advocating for the inclusion of the Australian Aboriginal ‘Dreamtime’ story as well as the creation stories of Taoism, Hinduism, Islam in these textbooks. It seems peculiar that they wouldn’t want alternative religion-based creation stories included in these same textbooks.

    In fact, perhaps future printings of the Bible should include copies of the Quran, the Torah, The Book of Morman,The Mabinogion, the Four Books and the Five Classics, Dianetics, Tao Te Ching etc….so we have ‘alternative’ explanations available to all.

    But that’s the point isn’t it? We’re now allowed to disregard facts and argue blindly on conviction. And that’s a quick road to nowhere…and back…to Small Pox.

  9. 

    And Jennifer, good work speaking up for the principles of science and solid education. It’s important work.

  10. 

    Thank you Jennifer. I teach a dual-credit high school/college biology class. While my students are engaged and soak up the biology of evolution, I often run into neighbors and others in the community who casually dismiss it. They often point me to other biology teachers they “know” who “agree” that the evidence is more in favor of intelligent design. While part of my response to them expresses regret that they had such poor biology teachers, another part recognizes that we cannot completely address the deficit in science education at the classroom level. I truly appreciate the time you and others take to address this issue at the level where it will make a difference.

    • 

      Thank you, Cathy. Your role is so important–by the time students reach the university, if they don’t have a good introduction to the basic concepts of evolution, it’s much harder to explain. What could we be doing to help you and other high school biology teachers more?

  11. 

    There is a huge network of support services and mentors for those teaching intelligent design or some other form of creationism. Such strong backing gives it a legitimacy that it wouldn’t have on its own. I didn’t really understand evolution well until studying graduate level courses. (My biology and teaching courses were 30 years ago, though. Perhaps this education is stronger now) Biology teachers and their students might benefit from a similar support system. There is still a bit of a push back in some schools from parents and administrators about teaching “both sides” of the “controversy”. It would be helpful to have an organization to go to for help in handling those kinds of situations, even if the organization was just online.

  12. 

    You know, from a student perspective, I think some of the difficulty in understanding evolution well comes from how it is presented in general high school and introductory college biology (at least for me!). I am nearing the end of my BA in Anthropology with interests in paleopathology and physical anthropology generally, and I can honestly say that the very best course I took that dealt with basic evolutionary theory was my intro to physical anthropology class. Maybe it clicked because I was already familiar with the concept and details, but it seemed in general biology that the information load of “transcription, translation, protein structure, Hardy-Weinberg calculations”! crowded out the initial week or so of broad evolutionary background. In physical anthropology, a lot more time and detail went into explaining not only the mechanism and principles of evolution, but also its historical development and context. The other course that greatly enhanced my understanding of the subject was a history of ecology class based around Donald Worster’s “Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas”. Even though my biology instructors were awesome and taught the subject well, evolution easily remained this shadowy, mysterious force in the face of SO MUCH information that had to be learned in relatively little time. With these other courses, much of the material was solely concerned with the development of evolutionary theory and/or continually circled back to that initial “what is evolution?” lecture. Partially, I think that information crunch just reflects the nature of learning the sciences and the pressure of academics in general, but I wonder if the other approach could be integrated in a way that didn’t interfere with the goals of general biology education.

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