Biblical Biology?: Texas State Board Of Education Continues Descent Into Scientific Illiteracy

At a public hearing held earlier this week, the former chair of the State Board of Education, Don McLeroy, delivered a speech better suited to his local church.

Texas creationists continue to call for textbooks that reflect “biblical principles.”

At a public hearing held earlier this week, the former chair of the State Board of Education, Don McLeroy, delivered a speech better suited to his local church. He urged the current SBOE to adopt the textbooks as proposed, saying, “Even though these biology books are full of unsubstantiated, dogmatic statements supporting evolution, there’s still two major reasons why you should adopt these books.”

“First, by so doing, you will strike the final blow to the teaching of evolution.”

He further claimed that the evidence supporting evolution is “incredibly weak” and that the new textbooks merited adoption because they “coincidentally happen to support what the Bible said.”

The goal, according to McLeroy, is to encourage students to question an established scientific theory. “Young creationist students will be able to sit there and say: ‘Is this all the evidence they have for evolution? Well, maybe God didn’t use evolution.’”

McLeroy’s sectarian stump speech took up the better of 10 minutes – a clear violation of hearing guidelines, which allot each speaker two minutes only. It’s unclear why McLeroy, a dentist, received such preferential treatment, but given his vocal creationist leanings, it’s arguably evidence that a dogmatic faction of the SBOE deliberately favored his remarks.

And McLeroy didn’t stand alone in this anti-science campaign. David Shormann, a self-identified “research scientist” and publisher of homeschool curriculum, informed the SBOE that the textbooks didn’t adequately cover epigenetics, a subject he believes points to evidence of intelligent design. SBOE members even permitted Shormann to hand out signed copies of The Mysterious Epigenome, a tome that, according to Shormann at least, proves that evolution just can’t explain the complex cell.

Don’t get the idea that The Mysterious Epigenome is a scientific text. Its primary author, Thomas E. Woodward, is a theologian. He heads the Theology Department at Trinity College, a fundamentalist institution in Florida, and advertises himself as an expert on Christian apologetics. The book’s secondary author, James P. Gills, is a cataract surgeon.

They’re hardly cutting edge researchers. But Shormann told the SBOE that their work totally disproves the theory of evolution. He even asserted that the material under debate is “two years” behind the creationist curriculum produced by his own publishing company.

In response, SBOE chair Barbara Cargill told Shormann she hoped “publishers were listening” to his critique.

It remains a mystery why publishers of science textbooks should listen to Shormann and his discredited creationist friends, given their clear lack of qualifications. In fact, the presence of unqualified, but adamantly creationist, reviewers and the preferential treatment granted to their public supporters became an issue during the hearing.

According to reports published by the Texas Freedom Network, an AU ally, Cargill addressed the criticism by arguing that dieticians were qualified to review biology textbooks because they took classes in “food science.” That explanation failed to satisfy concerns from members of the scientific community, who have consistently pointed out the obvious pitfalls of allowing non-biologists to review biology texts.

The testimony offered by respected scientists, like Dr. Arturo de Lozanne of the University of Texas at Austin, directly contradicted the “evidence” offered by religious fundamentalists. But given Cargill’s response to criticism, and her favorable treatment of creationist testimony, the situation should still cause concern for supporters of sound science education.

As we’ve already noted, this issue has already been settled thanks to our landmark victory in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. That ruling acknowledged that neo-creationist “intelligent design” isn’t really science at all, and therefore has no place in public school science classes.

McLeroy and Shormann have only confirmed that ruling’s findings. Their proudly sectarian remarks remove any doubt that the debate over Texas textbooks is really fuelled by dogma, and not legitimate scientific critique.