Rescuing Science from Politics, Texas Style

Shana Campbell Jones

Jan. 28, 2009

We will restore science to its rightful place. -- President Barack Obama, Inaugural Speech


As Governor of Texas, I have set high standards for our public schools, and I have met those standards. -- Former President George W. Bush, Aug. 2000 CNN Interview  


With former President Bush hightailing it back to Texas last week, you’d think the cowboy clichés might be right behind him, maybe waiting for the next Ann Richards or Molly Ivins to make them fresh and funny again. But, given the Texas State Board of Education’s recent decision to reject – yes, reject – anti-science pro-creationism language in the state’s science standards, I just can’t resist throwing out a few more Texas gems (especially since I lived in Austin, Texas for six years and still miss it).  So here goes: although I’m apt to worry the warts off a frog, it looks like my cows shouldn’t get runnin’ yet. 


Still, Texas matters. As the New York Times explained on Sunday, the Texas State Board of Education has been ground zero for curriculum wars for years.  Because Texas buys a lot of textbooks, publishers rely heavily on Texas standards – the textbooks that are ultimately written to meet Texas requirements are then distributed all over the country. A win for creationism, anti-global warming, or anti-sex education in Texas is a win that has national implications.


And, while my cows should stay put for the moment, I can’t call in my dogs.  As the Texas Freedom Network’s blog explains, although a big battle was won, the board’s right-wing chairman (a dentist who believes the earth is only a few thousand years old) isn’t giving up:

In a desperate last-minute maneuver, however, the board’s chairman introduced a garbled pseudoscientific amendment. That measure could provide a small foothold for teaching creationist ideas and dumbing down biology instruction in Texas. The amendment, which attacks a core concept of evolutionary biology – common descent – passed by a narrow margin. The chairman’s ‘Hail Mary’ pass is now under review by genuine scientists from Texas’ respected universities and colleges. In fact, it is absurd to think that education policy can be made without consulting such experts. We’re confident that once board members have time to huddle with those experts, they will throw a penalty flag, call back the pass and stop efforts by creationists to dumb down science education in Texas.


There’s a lot to say about this development. The fact that this “pseudoscientific” amendment is under review by scientific experts is important, but it’s too bad they have to waste their time. And let’s hope they know what they’re getting into. As several CPR Member Scholars have pointed out (see, for example, Rescuing Science from Politics, a book edited by CPR President Rena Steinzor and Member Scholar Wendy Wagner, scientists unfamiliar with policy-making often don’t realize that the professional world they live in – one where peers judge their research on its merits – is a far cry from the media and political circus that has surrounded science policy discussions in this country.


Finally, while it looks like science has won the day from an evolutionary theory perspective, stay tuned for shenanigans from the State Board on climate change. This fall, one of the board members vowed that she would refuse to approve any textbook that “blames global warming on the normal activities of everyday people.”


As Matt Freeman pointed out in this space not long ago, the Obama Administration is serious about reinvigorating science policy.  We need it.  Meanwhile, while Obama’s folks get working to bring us into the 21st century, a state board in Texas threatens to drag us back to the 19th. Maybe my cows need a run after all.

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