Last night I attended the meeting sponsored by the tireless folks at CFI-Austin, "Will Texas Support 21st Century Science Education?" I arrived a little early and bumped into Matt Dillahunty. Soon I was glad I hadn't walked in the door ten minutes later than I actually did. The room filled up quickly, soon swelling to SRO status and quite possibly violating fire codes. I did a quick head count and stopped at 60, guesstimating about 20 more faces buried in the back of the crowd I couldn't fully see.
The enormous turnout was heartening for many reasons, not the least of which is that when the forces of ignorance and scientific illiteracy begin their campaign to dismantle science education in Texas this year, they're going to meet with some organized and vocal opposition quite prepared to humiliate them in their efforts every step of the way. The Christian Right may have a stranglehold on politics in this state. But as their ill-advised firing of Chris Comer, a bit of local political shenanigans that quickly became an international outrage once word got out through the intertubes, illustrated, when they try to mess with the realities of science, the real world is not so accommodating to their ideologies.
Steven Schafersman of Texas Citizens for Science was first to speak. Schafersman has spent 27 years on the front lines fighting creationists in their attempts to infiltrate schools, so he's seen firsthand just how much creationism has evolved in that time. But he described the current situation in Texas as "one of the worst situations that I've ever seen."
As many of you may not know, Texas has long been what's called an "adoption state" in terms of how textbooks are chosen for public schools. A small group of people in state politics chooses all the textbooks for the entire state. (Many states let each individual school board choose.) In Texas, the selection process had long been influenced by a fundamentalist Christian couple, Mel and Norma Gabler. The Gablers ran roughshod over every textbook submitted for approval, demanding deletions to evolution in biology texts, deletions to information about contraception in health texts, and other things. Censorship of textbooks in Texas got so bad that a number of textbook publishers would simply release "Texas editions" of their books. The idea that religious ideologues can effectively censor students' access to knowledge is chilling, to say the least.
Mel Gabler died in 2004, Norma last summer. With their passing, fundie whitewashing of textbooks stopped, though the selection process is still mired in politics. The pro-science community succeeded in thwarting the efforts of creationists and their well-funded leaders at the Discovery Institute in 2003 — a process that several ACA members including Kazim and myself participated in directly — but failed in 2004 when health texts came up for review, with the result that teenagers in this state are still not getting health texts informing them of the proper use of contraception to avoid unwanted pregnancy and STD's. Hey, what's a few dead kids as long as you're standing up for Jebus, eh?
Here's why the situation for science is so dire right now. Science standards are coming up for review later this year, and right now, the State Board of Education is not only run by a YEC, but out of the SBOE's fifteen members, seven of them are YEC's. Schafersman has described them as "very aggressive" and certain to make a set of standards that has already been graded an "F" even worse. (This was done by the Fordham Institute, a conservative organization, interestingly enough, but not one with a fundamentalist agenda.)
Chris Comer's firing in 2007 was part of an effort to purge pro-science individuals from positions of influence in Texas education. The whole thing of sacking her based on supposed insubordination and bad performance was just their little dog and pony show. The real goal is to remove anyone who has anything nice to say about evolution — let alone anyone who recognizes it as the foundational principle underlying all biology — from the rolls.
Now this part is important: Right now the fundies are running some fundie wingnut against Patricia Hardy, a non-fundamentalist, non-creationist Republican. If Hardy loses to this person, then the YEC's will flip to a majority on the SBOE and every schoolchild in Texas will be assured of a 19th century education. In other words, they'll be fuct, and Texas will become as bad a laughingstock as Kansas was a few years back.
What about the Democrats, you ask? Who are they running? Well, no one. Apparently the Democratic party in Texas doesn't care about the SBOE, preferring to devote its efforts toward the legislature. So that means there's no outright progressive, solidly pro-science candidate to vote for. The best we have is a moderate Republican. But that's better than nothing, I imagine.
Anyway, Schafersman reiterated that there is a "great deal of apprehension about what's going to happen this year." How exactly are the creos going to strike? Well, ID has failed stupendously, despite the efforts and the millions spent by Discovery. After Dover, even Dan McLeroy, the cretinous YEC dentist who heads up the SBOE (and who I remember seemed to think he was onto something at the 2003 textbook hearings by constantly asking UT biology professors if evolution was as well-supported by scientific evidence as gravity), is careful openly to acknowledge the lack of support ID has from the scientific community, and that it is thus inappropriate to teach.
But this is simply McLeroy's (and the rest of the YEC's) grinning Cheshire Cat face for the media. The agenda now is to demand that the "weaknesses" of scientific theories like evolution must be discussed in classrooms. You know, fair and balanced and all that. This is bogus for several reasons, not the least of which is that the things the creos trumpet as "weaknesses" — Jonathan Wells' foolish "icons of evolution"; Behe's broken record about "irreducible complexity" — aren't "weaknesses" at all for evolution. They're merely made-up hand-waving nonsense the creos throw out to impress the scientifically illiterate. Also, while the idea of addressing "weaknesses" in scientific theories is, in principle, supposed to be applied to all fields of science, when the rubber meets the road, it's only evolution that finds itself under the weight of that demand. Hypocritical much? Why yes. But these are creationists. What do you expect? Integrity? Honesty? Knowledge? Ha.
Remember, these are not people who care about knowledge. These are people desperately attempting to protect a bronze age religion from the modern ideas and scientific facts that defy its magical claims. Their whole lives are rooted in the desperate belief that there's a god willing and eager to grant them eternal life, and if this belief is debunked, then they're doomed to plunge into a whirlpool of existential despair and hopelessness they probably cannot escape. So if it's a choice between understanding science and hanging on to the hope they'll never die, they'll pick the latter, thank you. They're the modern day equivalent of the people who imprisoned Galileo and murdered Giordano Bruno, and make no mistake about it.
More shenanigans from the "Goddidit" crowd involve the Institute for Creation Research attempting to get accreditation in Texas so they can offer master's degrees in science education here. They'd been trying to do the whole process under the table, with the help of creationist sympathizers in the Texas GOP. Once Texas Citizens for Science got wind of what they were up to and made it public, things have been a little bit rougher for the ICR's efforts. Right now, the hearing to determine what to do about the ICR's application has been pushed back from January 24 to April 24. We'll be following this closely.
Schafersman then introduced Chris Comer, who got a huge round of applause for being, in effect, evolution's first "martyr" in Texas. Chris didn't and couldn't say much, as Schafersman had cautioned us there could be litigation pending concerning her firing, and so Comer was under orders from her lawyers not to take questions about the firing itself. (Good, I hope she takes the assholes to the cleaners and leaves them there naked.) But Comer did tell us that the "forces at play here are huge" and that the whole situation concerning science education in Texas is "far worse than I ever, ever dreamed it would be." As an indicator of just how thin the ice is on which we're all skating: there is an end-of-course biology test, currently optional, that will be required of all Texas students as of 2012. Last month there was an attempt to remove all references to evolution from this test, and it almost worked.
Schafersman told us all that, unlike Dover, where fed-up citizens finally got their own back by voting out all of the creationist idiots from their school board after the trial that had damaged their community was over, in Texas it will be harder to rely on the electoral process alone to fix the SBOE. Once again, the Christian Right controls the GOP here (mavericks like Hardy notwithstanding), and the Democrats don't want to play. So the key to saving science — and saving students — in Texas will be grassroots movements that constantly shine a light on what the creos try to pull whenever they try to pull it. Comer's firing was met by unanimous condemnation in newspaper editorials not merely throughout Texas, but the whole country and overseas as well. By keeping this kind of attention on creationism's sneaky BS, pro-science Texas citizens can ensure that science education in Texas does not fall victim to a religious auto-da-fé anytime soon.
If you want to keep up with this (and you want to keep up with this), bookmark the Texas Citizens for Science page as well as the Texas Freedom Network's Stand Up for Science campaign.
A final note. During the lengthy Q&A, a high school teacher whose name I didn't catch made an interesting point. Whatever goes on with the textbooks, it was his experience that students didn't really read their textbooks anyway. What with the internet able to provide all sorts of information to students directly, regardless of whether it's been vetted by Christian Right ideologues, wouldn't it be an easy thing for science teachers simply to encourage students to visit such sites as the Talk Origins archive, the Panda's Thumb, and others, to get the lowdown on the down low about real science? It was a neat idea, and certainly a fun suggestion of the way teachers can rebel if education standards are in fact undermined as badly as the creationists want them to be. I think teachers should do this anyway...but we still have to keep up the fight, and keep it as bloody as it needs to be.
Addendum, Monday: If you're one of the folks who's popped over from Pharyngula, welcome...and please Digg this article to spread awareness of what's going on in Texas. Thanks.