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The Evolution of Textbooks: Students shouldn’t be protected from dissent

For weeks we have been trying to figure out what the State Board of Education should do about proposed revisions to high school biology textbooks. The board will meet tomorrow and Friday to vote on a series of textbooks that activists, including some scientists, say provide inaccurate and misleading information about Darwin’s theory of evolution — a charge that, if true, would mean the textbooks would violate state law. Activists on the other side — including more scientists — say that there are no serious errors in the textbooks, and that the complaints are part of a stealth effort by religious conservatives to corrupt science teaching with theistic doctrines.

The issue is fraught with emotion, especially in Texas, where vocal religious conservatives have tried for years — unsuccessfully, we are pleased to say — to have the biblical account of earth’s origins taught as science. It seems to us in this case, though, that some leading defenders of current textbooks have mischaracterized legitimate concerns that critics have raised. This time the debate isn’t creationism vs. evolution, as some textbook defenders have alleged. The issue is more complex and nuanced than has been indicated in much of the reporting and commentary.

Still, we’re not science experts, and that makes us reluctant to disagree with Nobel laureates and other scientists who have defended the textbook status quo. What troubles us is the willingness of some textbook defenders to overlook how scientists in thrall to their own dogmas can prejudice the unbiased pursuit of scientific truth. Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin wrote in 1997 that scientists “have a prior commitment to naturalism [and] we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations.”

Mr. Lewontin continued: “Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”

You see the problem. According to this creed, scientists are obliged to discount data that might gladden the heart of a vicar. The layperson can be forgiven for wondering if religious and materialist absolutists are two sides of the same coin.

The Discovery Institute, a nonsectarian Seattle think tank that’s the most prominent opponent of Darwinian orthodoxy, has raised a number of instances in which Texas biology textbooks appear to be inaccurate or misleading. To cite one example, three textbooks contain now-discredited 19th-century drawings by Ernst Haeckel, which show greater similarity among embryos of various species than actually exists. Publishers presumably agree with at least part of this critique, because last week they announced a series of proposed changes — two of the texts will abandon the Haeckel drawings in favor of photographs. Yet Discovery insists that disturbing errors and contradictions remain elsewhere in the books.

This ought to be easy; science is supposed to deal solely in facts. But the teaching of evolution is so entangled with politics that warring factions can’t even agree on the facts. (What did the flawed Miller-Urey “origin of life” experiment prove, if anything, for example?) This is an injustice to the people of the state, who have a right to expect their children’s biology textbooks to be a straightforward presentation of the most up-to-date scientific information, facts not privileged from a religious or anti-religious perspective.

Science is not religion. It does not propose dogmas, only laws, which are not accepted as true until empirically proved. The scientific method invites challenge to theories, because only by doing so can we be sure of what we know, and what we merely suppose. When dissenting scientists produce reliable data challenging prevailing orthodoxy on scientific terms, then respectful attention should be paid, no matter whom it pleases or discomfits. Students need reasonably complete and accurate information. They don’t need to be protected from dissenting scientific opinion.

This is what state law sensibly requires for Texas schoolchildren, and what education board members should keep squarely in front of them as they take their vote. We wish them more success than we had in separating substance from spin in this vital debate.