“I disagree with all these experts. Somebody has to stand up to these experts.”
“They are the experts, but science doesn’t operate on consensus.”
“Genetics is the foundation for modern biology, not evolution…Genetics goes back to a Christian monk who did precise data.”
–Don McLeroy, Chair of the Texas State Board of Education, March 27, 2009
The debate on the teaching of evolution and Texas continues to evolve, mutate and creatively adapt though news sources, ranging from the Dallas Morning News to the Discovery Institute, are declaring premature and decisive victories. It depends on whose version of events one would like to believe. As they say, “perception shapes reality.” The truth of the matter is that the story of the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) is a sordid, implicit, complicated one and isn’t anywhere close to resolution. The continuing struggle is not about science or even scientific process. Or even about fifteen elected adults in agreement that their sole purpose in public service is to ensure that students in public schools are learning concepts in line with international scientific standards. (Seven of the members are ideologues; six are equivocating ideologues; and two, Berlanga and Nuñez, are clear, concise voices of reason who have the humility–and audacity–to defer to the experts.)
If the issue is not one of sound science, what is it then? It is a fierce battle over language and the concepts language can potentially carry into the classroom.
What has been decided in a final vote by the SBOE on March 27 is a document of words that will guide science curriculum standards for a decade. The final draft is a convoluted, compromised collection of doublespeak. As SBOE chair Don McLeroy publicly declared as a defense for why experts are not needed: “There is stasis in the fossil record.” Perhaps it is more accurate to say that there is stasis in the document, and that is a very sad milestone for Texas and beyond.
A larger issue is one of language and concepts, as guided by the document in question, making their way into textbooks. What is at stake could likely affect other states: Texas has economic clout as a buyer of textbooks which gives the SBOE the power to meddle in pre-publication matters in ways that publishers are willing to accommodate. SBOE’s range of power in mitigating language is directly based on the curriculum standards. Other states that do not have leverage in volume sales or a similar structure in adopting textbooks stand a good chance of being disadvantaged by decisions made in Texas.
One outstanding example of how this could play out for other states is in the wording of an amendment–now a standard–that requires students to “analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning any data on sudden appearance and stasis and the sequential groups in the fossil record.” According to Dan Quinn of the Texas Freedom Network, “McLeroy had argued that such data disproves the concept of common descent and will demand that publishers say as much in new textbooks [that] are adopted in 2011.”
Most news reports are accurate on one point. It is true that the SBOE discarded the two decades-old language of teaching the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution theory. That decision came early in the proceedings; it was a compelling ruse for the string of compromised amendments that would follow. Amendments, now standards, that have groups like the Environmental Defense Fund issuing statements hours after the final vote. That is all to assume that the superorganism by the name of the Texas SBOE is capable of arriving at sound conclusions based on consensus as informed by the best and brightest minds that the scientific and activist community has to offer. In its current configuration, it is not.
LARAY POLK is a multimedia artist and writer who lives in Dallas, Texas. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
For transcripts/commentary from the three-day proceedings, see Texas Freedom Network at http://tfnblog.wordpress.com