The Personal Blog of Stephen Sekula

Texas Science Textbook Adoption: A Glimpse into Anti-Science Forces in Texas


Some Texas Education Assocation (TEA) textbook reviewers are giving negative reviews to good science texts based on poor reasoning, misunderstanding of science, and in at least one case an outright falsehood. What happens now? Photo from Ref. 9.
Some Texas Education Agency (TEA) textbook reviewers are giving negative reviews to good science texts based on poor reasoning, misunderstanding of science, and in at least one case an outright falsehood. What happens now? Photo from Ref. 9.

What is science and why should I care about it?

Science is a reliable, reproducible, and verifiable process by which facts, and explanations of those facts, are established. The outcome of the scientific method is a useful and universally applicable framework of knowledge about the natural world. Knowledge gleaned from the scientific method has extended the human lifespan by a factor of two in just the last 100 years; it has enabled the development of radical technologies, such as electricity, computers, aerospace engineering, vaccines, medical imaging, the world wide web, and the global positioning system (GPS), also in just over 100 years; it has helped us to understand our humble place in the cosmos . . . we contemplative bipeds mostly trapped at the bottom of an ocean of air, confined to the surface of a tiny, pale blue dot floating in the vastness of space. [many thanks to Carl Sagan]

Why is Texas at all relevant to American science education?

Texas is a large textbook market for publishers. The review of proposed science textbooks therefore affects publishers’ choices about what books to sell nationwide. Bad reviews for textbooks in Texas can force publishers to change, water down, or not sell certain texts. What happens in Texas can affect much of U.S. public school science education.

What is happening in Texas?

Elements of the Texas State Board of Education seem hell-bent on changing the definition of science for all Texas students. The kinds of alterations that are proposed would equate science with religion or magic, and open the door to ways of thinking that are, by their construction, non-reproducible, non-universal, non-methodological, and therefore capable of producing no useful knowledge. Such a trajectory aims to set back our species, which has for so long climbed from the darker world behind to a world ahead that is more brightly lit by intelligence, understanding, and discovery. The anti-science forces that form a key part of the current Texas Education Agency’s (TEA’s) textbook review panels are a good example of what I mean.

In a press release [1] from the Texas Freedom Network (TFN), jointly released with the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), we heard today that textbook reviews for proposed science texts in Texas public schools have finally become available through the use of the state’s Public Information Act. First, it is sad that this review, carried out by a public body, had to be obtained through such a request. That is already a bleak sign for an ostensibly public process.

In the press release, TFN and NCSE state:

Ideologues appointed to official state review teams are pressuring publishers to weaken instruction on evolution and climate change in new high school biology textbooks up for adoption in Texas this year, documents obtained by the Texas Freedom Network reveal. The textbooks, once adopted, could be used in the state’s public schools for a decade.

The documents show that reviewers made ideological objections to coverage related to evolution and climate change in textbooks from at least seven publishers, including several of the nation’s biggest publishing houses. Failing to obtain a review panel’s top rating makes it harder for publishers to sell their textbooks to school districts or can even lead the State Board of Education (SBOE) to reject the textbook altogether. [1]

What is the evidence?

What is the evidence that backs up the claims made in the TFN and NCSE press releases? One need only look through the documents [2] made available by the Public Information Act request to answer this question.

For instance, in the review of the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt “Texas Biology Print/Digital Solution,” we find the following review team:

  • David Zeiger
  • Karen Beathard
  • Mary Kay Johnston
  • Jimmy Gollihar
  • Cynthia Ontiveros
  • Walter Bradley

In her overall comments on the textbook, Karen Beathard writes:

I understand the National Academy of Science’s strong support of the theory of evolution. At the same time, this is a theory. An an educator, parent and grandparent, I feel very firmly that “creation science” based on Biblical principles should be incorporated into evey [sic] Biology book that is considered for adoption. Students should have the opporunity [sic] to use their critical thinking skills to weigh the evidence between evolution and “creation science.”

First of all, it’s embarrassing that a textbook reviewer shows extremely poor attention to spelling in their own comments; the irony is certainly not lost on me, but I find it a brutally frightful thing that the referee’s own two-sentence critique wasn’t even run through a spell checker before entering the public record. It’s even more embarrassing when we learn more about Karen Beatard – she’s a Senior Lecturer in Texas A&M’s Department of Nutrition and Food Science, nominally tasked (by her own self-description as an “educator”) with educating students.

Second, Ms. Beathard uses an argument fallacy to initiate her own argument. If she really cared about critical thinking, she would learn that argument fallacies demonstrate a LACK of critical thinking – an inattention to the difference between good quality and poor quality arguments. The use of argument fallacies is a sure sign of a weak or indefensible position, as anyone learns in even the most basic critical thinking course. Her mistake is known as “Equivocation” – in this case, she uses the word “theory” to imply scientific theory, but actually through her use demonstrates that she means “opinion.” She tries to make the two meanings equivalent, deliberately leaving vague her true definition. A scientific theory is a strong, well-tested explanation of facts that incorporates facts, tested hypotheses, inferences, and laws. A “theory” in the popular usage (which is how she uses it), means “opinion” – no better than a guess. Shame on you, Karen, for demonstrating exactly the kind of lack of critical thinking skills that you then demand for students in your second sentence.

Third, somebody needs to inform Karen that teaching creation science in public schools is a violation of a now well-established line of Supreme Court rulings that clearly state that “Creation Science” is the same as “religion.” Public schools cannot teach it as science because it would then be an establishment of religion by a public institution, which is a clear violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. What she is demanding of the publisher is ILLEGAL, a violation of established constitutional law.

There is no evidence for any of the claims of creationism, so what she calls for in her second sentence is impossible for anyone – scientist or science textbook publisher – to deliver.

And who is Karen Beathard? Is she a research biologist with a Ph.D. in the field, giving her the credentials to understand what it means to understand the world through biology? No. She is a Texas A&M University Senior Lecturer in their nutrition science program [3]. She holds only a Master of Science in Nutritional Science [4] and no higher degrees; she is a registered and licensed dietitian in the State of Texas, according to information gleaned from her Texas A&M page. That certainly qualifies her to tell people how to balance their food needs with their nutritional or lifestyle parameters; it doesn’t qualify her to judge biological science, and it certainly hasn’t prepared her for critical thinking as applied to distinguishing a good argument from a poor one, or even science and non-science. This is not a person upon whose judgement we should rely for sound science education information regarding biology.

She also writes in other comments in the document:

While I understand the theory of evolution and its wide acceptance, there should be inclusion of the “creation model” based on the Biblical view of history. [5]

The Bible is not a science textbook, something she would do well to remember. It requires no evidence for its claims . . . which is the whole point of religion. Science demands falsifiability, religion demands faith. There is no overlap.

Other examples – utter lies in referee comments

I was more stunned by this gem, from Richard White, the SOLE reviewer of the McGraw-Hill book, “Texas Glencoe Biology Online Student Edition.”

Text neglects to tell students that no transitional fossils have been discovered. The fossil record can be interpreted in other ways than evolutionary with equal justification. Text should ask students to analyze and compare alternative theories. The statement that there are hundreds of thousands of transitional fossils is simply not true. Moreover, those fossils that are considered transitional are often subjects of disagreement among biologists.

The first sentence is an outright lie. Either this person is ignorant or a great deceiver, but either way the first sentence is a bold-faced denial of simple fact. Walk through any decent Natural History Museum anywhere in the world and you’ll see the transitional fossils laid out for all to see (and those are just the ones on display – we know about many, many, many more than that).

The second sentence is a reasoning fallacy. Yes, there are always other ways to explain the fossil record . . . but the ONLY one that has withstood the bloodbath of experimental science is Natural Selection. It’s withstood over 150 years of scientific onslaught, only to stand confirmed each time. There are no scientific alternative theories of nature; there are religious claims, but those are either untestable or demonstrably false by scientific testing (e.g. the Noah flood narrative, debunked for hundreds of years). There are no alternative scientific theories to compare to Natural Selection; implying otherwise is, at best, ignorant, and at worst is a lie.

The fourth sentence repeats the lie from the first sentence.

The fifth sentence is also a lie. Only a tiny, tiny, tiny number of active, publishing, peer-reviewed biologists would make claims that there is such a disagreement; the overwhelming majority of active, publishing, peer-reviewed biologists are convinced by the evidence that transitional forms exist not only by inspection, but by detailed examination. That fact has led to the creation of new, useful knowledge; the opposite view, that such transitions are a source of disagreement, leads nowhere and generates no useful knowledge. It’s an opinion, one counter to the evidence, and thus dangerous and useless.

Richard White apparently made SO many general comments that they couldn’t even be pasted into the spreadsheet that contains the assessment. We actually DON’T have the bulk of his comments, apparently, in the formal documents! There is a comment explaining this in the first page of the spreadsheet.

And who is Richard White? He was appointed by Gail Lowe, the chair of the Texas State Board of Education in 2011 [7]. He holds a B.S. in Electrical Engineering, a Masters in Engineering, and a Masters in Business Administration – in other words, no significant scientific research credentials at all. He holds no experience or degrees in education. He worked at Dell until 2012, and now is the FP&A manager at Bazaarvoice [8]. Not exactly shining science textbook review credentials, especially for biology, where he has absolutely no record of experience at all. This is not a person upon whose judgement we should rely for sound science education information regarding biology.


These documents, obtained about a public process by use of the state’s Public Information Act, reveal that some creationist textbook reviewers are providing bad reviews for biology texts with no foundation in science – not in fact, not in truth, not in method, and not in substance. They are, in at least one case, outright lying in their review; in another, we see the application of poor writing and even poorer reasoning and argument skills. It is ironic that these reviewers call for more critical thinking in children, when they themselves demonstrate none of it.

These document shed a worrying light on the review process. Will these reviews, made about books produced by very reputable textbook publishers, cause revisions that stifle scientific information while encouraging doors to be opened to nonsense? That’s the road that these reviewers have started us down in Texas; what happens next depends on too many factors to make clear predictions.