Sunday, September 21, 2003

Report on the Texas State Board of Education hearings

On Wednesday, September 20, 2003, several members of the Atheist Community of Austin attended a hearing at the State Board of Education to discuss science books. I testified in this hearing, and you can see my testimony posted previously on this blog.

Note (added 5/16/05): Some of the audio links may not work, as they were originally posted at the ACA web site before being copied to this blog. If enough interest is expressed in feedback, I may upload the audio files to a new location.

Part 1: The first page of speakers

To begin with, I'd like to say that the setup of the hearings was a complete farce.

Our friends at the Texas Freedom Network had an advance copy of the schedule of speakers, and they were kind enough to spend time going through the list and identifying everyone they could. They printed up a version of the list in which all pro-evolution speakers were shaded gray; then they gave us copies. Of the 150 speakers who were originally signed up, over half (I think 77) were originally identified as such, but it seems like quite a lot more were actually on our side.

However, you wouldn't have known this if you only watched the first few hours or so, because of the first page of 40 speakers, 35 were creationists. Another thing we noticed was that the board (most notably Terri Leo) had a tendency to try to dismiss many of the pro-science speakers as quickly as possible, while keeping the creationists on the stand to answer softball questions. At first people were staying on the stand for an average of ten minutes each. Later they began to speed up a bit, but we also took breaks. According to my notes, the initial flood of creationists ended at about 7:00.

By that time, of course most of the press had left. In fact, I walked into the hall during a break at around 5:30, and an anchor from Fox News was doing a wrap-up at that time. I didn't get to hear what he was saying. By the time we got to speaker number 41, four out of the five cameras were gone. And I think the remaining camera belonged to the court reporter, who had to stay anyway.

So anyway, if you're a "fair and balanced" news man, what impression do you think you're going to wind up with? Gee, lots of concerned citizens speaking out about evolution. Sure is a big, hot controversy. Most Texans seem to favor the practice of highlighting errors in textbooks. Well, I'm Chet Ubetcha for Fox News, good night.

But of course, after page one, nearly every remaining speaker (with a few scattered exceptions) was speaking against the creationists. And these were Texas educators, UT professors, professional biologists, and one Nobel Laureate. The real guys. Many people stuck it out to the end, including myself. Many others did not. Some, including a few board members, gave up around midnight.

Now, if you were an actual unbiased observer, you might think it's highly unlikely that the list could "just happen" to arrange itself in such a peculiar order. One might even say that it seems as though some evidence of "intelligent design" must be rearing its head, don't you think? You would, of course, be right. According to some people I spoke with, it sounded as if the front end of the hearing was stacked by Terri Leo, an extreme right wing creationist board member. It seems that before the hearings were public knowledge, Terri privately contacted a number of creationists, including her good friends at the Discovery Institute, and got them signed up immediately. Everyone else had to speak in the order which they became aware of the proceedings and requested a speaking role.

Furthermore, Ms. Leo had a certain incredibly annoying habit of blatantly fawning over many of the creationist speakers who had degrees or other trappings of credibility. Often she would keep them on the stand, supposedly asking them tough questions, but frequently rambling on at great length about her own personal opinions on what they had said. In other words, she had her own regular three minute speeches, which she would launch into at the drop of a hat any time she agreed with a speaker.

Okay, I'm through with Terri for the moment, though I'll get back to her.

Before the testimony began, many of the board members expressed concern about how many speakers there were, and how long this might go on. One person pointed out that since there were so many Texans, maybe they should move all the out of state speakers to last. (There were only eight.) They agreed on that, except for Terri. (Sorry, I said I'd stop talking about her, but...) She was quite upset that some of her star witnesses were moved to the end. Michael Behe, Jonathan Wells, and Bruce Chapman (head of the Discovery Institute) were all from out of state. However, William Dembski is from Baylor, so he got to speak in turn. He was one of the top forty. You'll notice that Terri Leo complained bitterly about Jonathan Wells not being able to "defend himself" when I spoke (about four minutes into the clip).

On the other hand, many of our side's heavy hitters were also moved to last. This included Robert Pennock as well as NCSE representatives Eugenie Scott and Alan Gishlick. So that was part of the reason I chose to stick out the entire night.

Besides myself, there were seven other people from the Atheist Community of Austin. Six were there to speak. In order they were: John Koonz, Michelle Gadush, Russell Glasser, Don Baker, Steve Elliott, and Martin Wagner. Two were just there to watch and lend moral support: Jeff Jones and Don Lawrence. We all sat in one corner of the room, quietly heckling the proceedings. Not being disruptive or anything; just sort of snickering, making whispered comments like "No it isn't!", "What a load of crap!" and that sort of thing. We also made several new friends with members of the TFN, many of whom were just as astounded as we were at the cluelessness of the creationist mob.

So I've said that thirty-five of the first forty speakers were creationists. One of the remaining five was John Koonz, a Texas teacher. During his presentation, John said that creationists habitually misrepresent their opponents and supporters, and falsely use out of context quotes. One of the board members asked John if he had an example of this behavior. John looked very uncomfortable as he said he didn't have anything specific "but I sent many examples in my mailed written testimony." They said they didn't have that yet.

During this uncomfortable pause, I had flipped over my talk and was pointing out Don Baker (who was sitting on my left) that I had a choice misquote by Jonathan Wells. Don nodded and said "Go for it!" I wasn't sure I should do that, but after getting egged on a bit, I finally agreed. I came running toward John intending to place the paper in front of him, but he just started walking away as I approached. I said "I had a quote for you, but never mind."

As I started walking back to my seat, one of the board members called me back. "Are you from Texas?" he asked. "Yes I am," I answered. "If he has an example, I'd like to hear about it," the guy said. So I presented the quote myself, getting to speak several hours ahead of my time. Here it is:

Using the research of Michael Majerus, Jonathan Wells claims, "Peppered moths don't rest on tree trunks." In an online response, Majerus said:

"This is just wrong. Dr. Wells, who gives the impression in his response that he has read my book, obviously has not. If he had, he would have seen that in Tables 6.1 and 6.2 I myself have recorded 168 peppered moths on tree trunks or at trunk/branch joins. If Dr Wells wishes his views to be taken seriously, he should ensure that his research is thorough."

You can read the original source of this quote by following this link. Apparently no one had an answer to it, although I think I got some murmurs from the audience. The board said "Thank you," so I went back to sit down. Then another one said "Who was that young man who just spoke?" I stood up and shouted across the room "Russell Glasser, I'm speaker number 73." Somebody took notes. I think Terri Leo probably started preparing to ambush me at that point. You can listen to my speech if you want to hear the results.

Part 2: Creationism evolves

Before going on to cover more speeches of the evening, I'd like to make some general comments about the tone of the creationists. And to introduce this topic, I'll say a few words about my meeting at the end of the night with Robert Pennock. Dr. Pennock is a philosophy of science professor at Michigan State University. His has written two books which I think should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand what the creationists are up to right now. Here are some links:
Tower of Babel
Intelligent Design and its Critics

Of all the authors I have read oncreationism, Pennock is the one who seems to most understand the modern counterparts of creationists, Intelligent Design theorists. He isn't afraid of their seemingly impressive science degrees, and he isn't fooled by their attempts to dress up in scientific clothing. If you only read about young earth creationists or even old earth evolution deniers, you're really not getting the complete picture of what's going on today. Creationists are learning to better and better hide their motivations. But as Pennock points out, the more they obscure their own points, the less they can claim to be doing anything that resembles real science. Real science is about concrete predictions and evidence. Intelligent Design is about legalism and smart-sounding mathematical hand-waving.

It was around midnight when Martin Wagner pointed out a man sitting on the floor and asked if that was Pennock. I realized I had no idea what he looked like, although this guy was way younger than I imagined. So after asking someone else to make sure it was the right guy, I went up and introduced myself. He turned out to be a very nice guy and seemed flattered by the attention. He also said he'd enjoyed my speech.

Much later that night, after everyone had finally gotten their chance to speak, I went to talk to him again. "I'd like to make an observation about the creationist arguments we saw tonight. I think creationism is evolving."

"That was the first sentence in my book," he replied.

Pause. "Oh, in that case I must have stolen it from you." (D'OH!)

So I went on to outline what he already knows: that creationists have changed continuously since the Scopes trial. First they wanted to ban evolution from being taught. Then they wanted to require Biblical creationism to be taught on equal footing. Then they started changing it to "Scientific Creationism" so that it wouldn't sound so much like religion. Then, just within the last ten years, it morphed into "Intelligent Design", where they don't even TALK about the so-called creator anymore.

But tonight, I went on to say, I think we observed something that I've never seen before. The Intelligent Design position is now so firmly identified with creationists that they've even started to back away from that position too. Now they don't claim to be trying to slip ID into textbooks; they won't even admit that their agenda is promoting ID. Instead, they are reduced to nitpicking evolution and nothing more.

Yes, there were some bumpkin creationists last night, who argued about the impossibility of an old earth and how "belief in" evolution causes teen suicide, nihilism, gout, and slow internet connections. But by and large, the great majority of those testifying against evolution had a very different strategy. They weren't trying to get ID put in the books. They weren't trying to remove evolution from the books. They were trying to introduce "errors" in the evolutionary sections.

These errors were mostly cribbed from Icons of Evolution by Jonathan Wells. Advance word got out about that to many people, and as a result lots of presentations were responses to Wells. I'll cover that later, but right now I'll repeat my favorite comment. One scientist used the cover of Icons as a visual aid, and in his talk he said something like this: "I have read this book. If this sort of writing were submitted to a peer-reviewed journal, I would reject it without a need for further explanation. In fact I would have a hard time accepting this book as a submission in an undergraduate writing class."

So lots of ID speakers covered the bullet points found in Icons. This included peppered moths, Haeckel embryos, the tree of life, beneficial mutations, etc., etc. The phrase "strengths and weaknesses" was used by many, many speakers last night, as in: "All we want is to to do a more robust job of teaching evolution -- both its strengths and weaknesses. We actually want MORE to be taught about evolution, not less." This was repeated so many times, not only by the speakers but also by Terri Leo in her customary rants, that I'm sure it was stressed quite often in the briefing papers and talking points that were distributed.

As Dr. Alan Gishlick (from NCSE) eloquently pointed out in one of the last speeches of the night: "If these examples that we've talked about endlessly tonight are as flawed as some critics have claimed, then why don't they ask that they be removed [from the textbooks entirely]? Instead they're asking you to leave them in, and then criticize them. This would have the effect of teachers saying 'Well, we've just made you learn this and now we're going to tell you it's wrong.'"

That's really what the Discovery Institute members were there for. They wanted to stick in their misleading examples of how evolution is bad science. Anyone who's read "The Wedge Strategy" (which was excellently explained by Martin Wagner, whose speech is now available on my web site) knows that this is a first step in a long term strategy. After trying to make school kids absorb this idea that evolution is full of holes, the next step is to claim "Oh, evolution is just not working; guess the only alternative is ID." And then, in the longer term, they hope to abolish evolution entirely and bring back Biblical Creationism.

Everybody knows this is what they want. Phillip Johnson has said it. Jonathan Wells has said it. William Dembski has more or less said it. But they're pretending they didn't say it. Scientists don't buy this story, which is why they're trying to avoid people who actually know things and switch tactics to stacking the school boards with creationists, so they can pass this gibberish off as science for kids and make it a matter of public record.

But the point that I made to Dr. Pennock -- and I think he agreed with me -- is that the creationists have had to slow down their strategy even more than they previously planned to. When questioned, lots of the Discovery Institute people actually went so far as to deny that they were trying to get schools to teach ID. They stammered and hemmed and hawed and said "Well yes, our institute ALSO supports ID researchers, but really this is an entirely separate issue, you see." The first out of town speaker had a hell of this time answering this question, and it was quite funny to hear how impatient one of the school board members got as he asked "Forget the institute. Would YOU, PERSONALLY, want to see ID taught in these books?"

In the original "Wedge Strategy" document, the idea of the wedge is described like this: "If we view the predominant materialistic science as a giant tree, our strategy is intended to function as a 'wedge' that, while relatively small, can split the trunk when applied at its weakest points."

When I visualize this wedge, what I picture is Phillip Johnson running at an enormous granite cliff, and poking at the side of it with a plastic toothpick, all the while cackling "Heh heh heh... it'll come crashing down any minute now."

So I asked Robert, how much farther does he think creationism will evolve? And his reply was: "I don't think they can go much farther. If they back away from their positions any more, they won't have anything left to talk about."

Part 3: More details of the creationist speakers

In this section, I'll be making quotes from the hearing transcript that is now available online from the Texas SBOE (click to download PDF file). Anytime you see a page number mentioned, this is from the transcript.

So the first forty speakers were heavily weighted towards creationism proponents. Here are some quick highlights of those four hours:

  • A speaker claimed he was brainwashed by being taught evolution.

  • Many speakers said "We have no desire to water down science, we just want to teach the strengths and weaknesses of evolution."

  • A young girl who was a high school junior earnestly argued that evolution is the cause of murder and teen suicide, and it teaches young people that they're not responsible for their actions.

  • Later, an older hick creationist made a similar claim: "Everyone has the nature of humanity or the nature of animals. Evolution teaches us to embrace our animal nature. Kids shoot each other in schools because they learned evolution and are not responsible for their actions." A board member bristled at this. She said she wanted to challenge this earlier but didn't want to pick on the high school kid. "I guess I'm the usual aberration. I studied evolution in school. I think I'm responsible and I do not subscribe to that concept." Ouch.

  • We were told that the question of origins is not science but philosophy.

  • We were informed that gravity, unlike evolution, is a fact rather than a theory. Why? Because, and I quote, "You can see gravity!"

  • During a particularly bad science-mangling presentation, Jeff Jones said to me: "This is what happens when you let mechnanical engineers call themselves scientists." On, there is an informal rule known as "The Salem Hypothesis." The Salem Hypothesis states that any creationist who claims academic credentials will, in most cases, turn out to be an engineer. This was confirmed many times over during the night. There were a heck of a lot of engineers who were referring to themselves as science experts.

  • The board caught on to this at some point, and one chemical engineer was asked point blank "Do you have any BIOLOGY credentials?" He did some nice tap dancing around the question.

  • We learned that kids would be more interested in science if there was more controversy. To that end, science classes should be "more like the Jerry Springer show." Seriously. (Later, when I told Jeff Dee about this suggestion, he said: "That's a great idea! And in return, I would like to be invited to your church so that we can make that more like the Jerry Springer show too. I'll hit somebody with a chair. I promise.")

  • A school teacher told a heart rending story of how she was encouraged to "dig deeper" into her subjects to engage students' interest... on every subject except evolution. When she tried to "dig deeper" there (i.e., teach these now-infamous "strengths and weaknesses") she was strong-armed by the school administration to stop digging quite THAT deep. It was a ripping good conspiracy story. No, actually I'm lying. She was boring.

  • An old guy brought a stack of nickels to the podium with him. Apparently he was out to illustrate a revolutionary new scientific claim: when you drop nickels, they fall down. You can read this for yourself in the transcript, starting on page 160, but you won't get the full effect. He lifted up his nickels very slowly and dropped them. Several times in a row. Most people would explain this amazing concept in about seven words and move on. (By the way, he was an engineer.)

  • A man who started out by touting his Ph.D. told us that "A law outranks a theory." This obviously brings to mind the question: A Ph.D in WHAT?? Three guesses. (Hint: engineering.)

As you can tell, the creationist speakers were something of a mixed bag. Members of the Discovery Institute and other people who had a clue about DI's strategy were scrupulously avoiding all mention of creationism, the age of the earth, and Intelligent Design. Meanwhile, blissfully unaware, the local folks were cheerfully shooting their comrades in the foot by mangling science, promoting religion, asking for the complete abolition of evolutionary theory from the books, and unintentionally insulting board members.

One creationist was praised by a board member for having read the textbooks and coming up with specific textual issues to discuss. She said she appreciated the effort to directly address the textbooks, and by implication, she criticized people who were coming to speak about general topics without bringing up a particular flaw in the books.

This sounds reasonable, but in fact it puts the pro-science speakers at a disadvantage. We're arguing that the textbooks are fine the way they are, and that the creationists are nitpicking and coming up with non-errors to insert in books. We are criticizing FUTURE changes to the books, and supporting current teaching methods. There is no way to do this by pointing to a particular page of the existing books.

The specific text he was criticizing (transcript p 107) was: "So is evolution a fact or a theory? It is both." and "It is useful to review, analyze and critique the strengths and weaknesses of evolutionary theory." The latter sentence was criticized for being hypocritical.

One fellow by the name of J. Budziszeski spoke (p 132). After straining my memory, I remembered hearing him frequently as a guest on "The Bible Answer Man" radio show. JB talked about how teaching evolution amounts to "propaganda", and used language like "dogma" and "orthodoxy" to equate science with religion. Then he proposed, again, that criticisms of Darwinism be taught in textbooks.

By this time, the board members had heard a fair bit about scientific standards of criticism and peer reviewed literature and standards. Because of this, they asked Budziszeski: "[A]re these purported weaknesses supported by science -- empirical scientific research? And what standard should we, as a Board, not being scientists, use to make that decision? Would it be peer-reviewed scientific literature?"

Of course, the answer IS that you need to refer to the peer-reviewed scientific literature. But J. couldn't say that, because that would completely eliminate the point he was trying to make. So he repeated his charges that students are indoctrinated, and said "What do you mean by 'a standard'? I think the standard is this: If what you find is that scientists are, in fact, disputing these things, then that controversy should be discussed." In other words: it doesn't matter that if the "scientists" are biologists or not; it doesn't matter if they've had their claims formally studied or not. If any scientist from any field says says something is a weakness in any context, then it is. Again: it's Jerry Springer science.

He did claim that "This controversy has appeared in peer-review journals." No mention of which ones, or whether they were in fact biology journals.

Throughout all this was the ever-present specter of the creationist minority within the Board of Education. None, of course, more prominent than Terri Leo. After agreeing with a speech, she would frequently keep the speaker on the stand for several extra minutes by asking them softball questions. She would also expand on their point in her own speeches for minutes on end and then finish with "Can you comment on that?" (Examples: pp 56, 66) During the pro-evolution speeches, she would argue against them -- though not nearly as often as she extended time used by the creationists.

Another, subtler board member was Don McLeroy. It wasn't clear at first that McLeroy was another creationist. His favorite tactic was to ask evolutionists "Do you think the theory of evolution is more strongly supported than [pick one: atomic theory, gravity, heliocentric theory, etc.]. You can catch this by listening to Amanda Walker's speech. He also appears to mock Robert Pennock for claiming something along those lines (518). He never seemed to follow up on the question after getting an answer, so I'm unclear exactly what his point was, other than perhaps trying to make evolution supporters look overzealous.

By the end of the night his position became a lot clearer. On page 508 you can hear him glowing praise Michael Behe. When Jonathan Wells spoke at last, he complimented Jonathan Wells by pointing out that his name was brought up more than Darwin.

I'll just wrap up this section with two more excerpts from my notes:

  1. "Piltdown man?!? Is this guy reading straight from the Chick tract?"
  2. Early in the hearings I was sitting behind a teacher named Amanda Walker. At one point she was showing a friend that Jonathan Wells himself had signed her copy of Icons of Evolution. It read: "To Amanda - brilliant, but totally wrong." I shouldn't have been looking over her shoulder, but I couldn't resist. I leaned forward and whispered: "How nice of him. He not only signed your book, he also described it."

Part 4: Highlights from the rest of the evening

Now that complete transcript of the hearings (in pdf format) is available, I won't summarize the arguments that were made throughout the rest of the evening. Instead, I'll quote some highlights from my favorite speeches and tell you what page number to go to so you can read the speeches for yourself.

Roger Paynter, page 157

This notable speech was given by a Baptist preacher against treating the Bible as science. Paynter is the person that Samantha Smoot referred to in her speech (see below) who got accosted by members of the Discovery Institute in the hall.

"Asking science to reflect on theological issues is out of the realm of science and beyond the scope of what the scientific community needs to be doing. If a scientist is a person of faith, and many are, that scientist still has to teach and research from an objective scientific point of view to retain any credibility.

"It is my deep conviction that creation flows from the hand of the creator, God, but that is a statement of faith and not something that I or anyone else can prove in a scientific experiment. It is not verifiable and repeatable. To lead children to believe otherwise is a disservice to them, a disservice to science, and most of all, a diminishment of the grandeur of God. We should take biology as seriously as we take the Bible, knowing that whatever we learn is true is not a threat to God, nor by the way, is it news to him."

Ken Evers-Hood, page 187

Another preacher. Many Baptists made a surprisingly good showing that night.

"First off, it is the arcane scientific minutia, that at least I have been hearing for the last several hours, pretending to the same status as the majority academy. I haven't heard anybody's been speaking from majority academies. I hear folks from institutes. When my child is looking to get into college, he's not going to be looking to get into the Discovery Institute. He's looking to get into UT."

Donna Howard, page 201

I'm highlighting this speech because it was among the most surprising presentations. It was a scathing attack on the school board itself and the ridiculous process of allowing politicians to decide the content of science classes. They didn't ask her any questions or speak any longer than her allotted time, of course.

"SBOE members are in no position to be debating science. That debate belongs in the scientific community. It is not your job."

"Meaningful oversight of this process is thwarted when SBOE members misuse the process to further personal agendas."

"Just as we have imposed higher standards on our students, we should require higher standards of our State Board of Education. In fact, we should be able to reject the actions of this Board due to factual errors or at least errors of omission, the omission of rationality and reason."

Amanda Walker, page 237 (audio)

Austin science teacher.

"The question here today is not whether or not evolution is a solid theory. The vast majority of the scientific community and the data from many labs worldwide confirm that evolution is the mechanism by which new species arise.

"The question here today is whether we Texans will allow our religious beliefs to damage the study of science in Texas when our students rely on us to make decisions that will enrich their educational opportunities."

Steven Weinberg, page 296 (audio)

Steven Weinberg is the Nobel Laureate physicist.

"The courts... are presented with testimony or testimony is offered, for example, that someone knows that a certain crime wasn't committed because he has psychic powers or someone sues someone in tort because he's been injured by witchcraft. According to current doctrines, the Court does not allow those arguments to go to the jury because the Court would not be doing its job. The Court must decide that those things are not science. And the way the Court does is by asking: What -- do these ideas have general scientific acceptance? Does witchcraft have general scientific acceptance? Well, clearly, it doesn't. And those -- that testimony will not be allowed to go to the jury.

"How then can we allow ideas which don't have general scientific acceptance to go to high school students, not an adult jury? If we do, we are not -- or you are not doing your job of deciding what is there that is controversial. And that might be an interesting subject to be discussed, as for example the rate of evolution, the question of whether it's smooth, punctuated by jumps or whether it's -- or whether it's just gradual. These are interesting questions which are still controversial which could go to students and give them a chance to exercise their judgment.

"But you're not doing your job if you let a question like the validity of evolution through natural selection go to the students, anymore than a judge is doing his job or her job if he or she allows the question of witchcraft to go to the jury."

Eric Hillis, page 316

Eric was a real dynamite 16 year old high school honors student. He is a student of Amanda Walker (see above). He gave an excellent speech, with delivery and content that was head and shoulders above many adults speaking that night. He received massive applause, which was well deserved.

"I plan to take AP biology in my upcoming senior or junior year, so I hope to use one of these AP textbooks in the future. I looked at nine of the 11 textbooks that are up for consideration tonight.

"When I took biology last year, my teacher taught about the different scientific evidence that supports Darwin's Theory of Evolution by natural selection. But she also talked about the different weaknesses that Darwin's original ideas had and that scientists have discovered since then. For instance, Darwin did not understand genetics as we do today. And he proposed only the mechanism of selection to account for evolution. In biology class, we learned about the many advancements in genetics and evolution that have been made since Darwin, such as genetic drift and the founder effects. So I looked at these textbooks to see if the strengths and the weaknesses of Darwin's ideas were thoroughly explained.

"I found examples in each book that discuss the strengths and the weaknesses of Darwin's ideas."

Russell Glasser, page 329 (audio, text)

This was undoubtedly the best speech of the evening. Just kidding. :)

As I had predicted in the story of part one, Terri Leo went after me with some questions, but I seem to have stopped her in her tracks.

"The purpose of a science class isn't to let kids 'decide for themselves' whether fringe science is real science. We don't put holocaust deniers side by side with World War II historians in history textbooks and let students 'decide for themselves' which ones are right. And we don't spend time in physics classes teaching cold fusion."

(Responding to Terri Leo) "I am not at all disputing that Dr. Wells holds legitimate degrees. ...I said that his ideas come from outside the scientific community because they're not published in peer-reviewed papers. It doesn't just take a bunch of initials after your name to make you be doing legitimate science. In order to do science correctly, you have to start with the evidence and lead to a conclusion, not start with a conclusion and then misrepresent evidence that's already available so that you could confirm what you already think you knew."

Edward Theriot, page 368

"One of the issues is the Tree of Life. The product of evolution is the Tree of Life and the principle that all life is related through that tree. The brief point I want to make here today in my three minutes is that these trees are not just a result of assumptions about evolution, but they make various predictions about evolution and other parts of Earth history that lead to other tests.

" I work on ocean, lake and pond scum, specifically diatoms. ...In Yellowstone Lake, I discovered a diatom that just lives in Yellowstone Lake. I did one of these comparative analyses I was talking about without reference to the fossil record and determined that that was most closely related to a group of other things in this genus. ...And it's said that the ancestor of the thing in Yellowstone Lake should look just like niagarae.

"Well guess what? After that, we cored the lake, went all through the core. There's an 11,000-year record at the bottom of the lake. All through the lake was these diatoms. At the bottom, it looked like niagarae within 1,000 years -- and I have samples at 40-year intervals -- this thing just slowly becomes Yellowstone ensis."

David Cannabella, page 379

"I've also read another book, the Icons of Evolution. ...This book is by one of the fellows of the Discovery Institute, Dr. Jonathan Wells, and it claims that much of what we teach about evolution is wrong.

"I have to say, as an editor of peer-reviewed journals, I have never read a supposedly scientific book that distorts basic facts as much as this one does. This book is slickly written, but it is full of half truths and errors of fact. This book has no original research and, in fact, it reads pretty much like a badly written term paper. In fact, I'm planning to use parts of this book in my course this semester to teach students how not to write about science.

"Additionally, I personally know 12 of the biologists who are cited in this book whose work is directly cited. Everyone of them feels that their quotes are taken out of context and misconstrue the intent of their original scientific papers. If an author submitted to me a scientific paper for peer-review in our Journal of Systematic Biology and took quotes out of context as this book does, it would be sent back with no further consideration."

Samantha Smoot, page 391 (audio)

Sam Smoot is head of the Texas Freedom Network, and wow, her speech was an eye-opener. Deviating from her prepared speech, Sam spent some of her time doing a recap of the Discovery Institute's behavior that evening.

"I want to deviate from my written statement and also add: Things have not only gotten away from science, I believe they've gotten out of hand. We had a Discovery Institute spokesperson say that science should be more like the Jerry Springer show. We had a Discovery Institute fellow mislead you earlier today about his affiliation. We had a Discovery Institute person you'll hear from later tonight on a radio show in San Antonio a couple months ago compare me and others to Nazis. And just a couple of hours ago, a minister who testified to you all was followed out into the hall by four people from the Discovery Institute who surrounded him, got in his face and one of them slapped him on the back and called him a bastard. I think things are out of hand here."

Incidentally, the person who allegedly called the minister a bastard later approached Samantha and claimed that he called him "pastor". Our own Jeff Jones, however, was present during the incident in question, and says that BOTH words were definitely spoken. According to Jeff, the DI people were angry because they'd assumed that the minister (we think it was Roger Paynter) would be on their side, and they tried to coordinate his speech ahead of time. They said "This all would have been avoided if you'd returned our calls."

John Yeaman, page 407

" a theologian, I want to say, we're often tempted to look for God -- a lot of people are tempted to look for God in the distant, the unknown, to find God in what is not known. And I've always preached that that is wrong, because those unknowns get known. And the effect is to get rid of God."

Martin Wagner, page 423 (audio, text)

This is our own Martin Wagner of ACA, and he did a smashing job of presenting the Wedge Strategy and revealing the real agenda of the Discovery Institute.

"A document titled 'The Wedge Strategy' produced by the Discovery Institute states that the goal of ID is purposefully religious: 'Design theory promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.' Jonathan Wells, in an article titled, Darwinism: Why I Went for a Second PhD., confesses, 'I asked God what He wanted me to do with my life, and the answer came not only through my prayers, but also through Father's many talks to us, and through my studies... my prayers convinced me that I should devote my life to destroying Darwinism..." And William Dembski, in a book revealingly titled Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology, plainly states, 'any view of the sciences that leaves Christ out of the picture must be seen as fundamentally deficient.'

"The claim that ID does not have a hidden religious agenda is actually kind of true; if these published remarks are any indication, what ID has is an overt religious agenda."

John Marshall, page 429

Some nice jabs at the hidden agenda of the Discovery Institute:

"I saw that everyone agrees that we're going to teach evolution to our children. I thought that's great. And everyone agrees that we're not going to put any type of creationism in the workbooks -- in the books, the textbooks. That's great. I saw we're not going to put any intelligent design in there either, which I'm very happy for, because I think it would be thrown out by the courts very quickly. So that's good.

"So what I'm wondering about is, what the heck are we doing here and why are we talking about this stuff? Because you know, why is the Discovery Institute here? It really worries me.

" point is that there are some hidden agendas here. And you hear them in the questions. You hear them in the questions to the people who are getting up to speak. There are some people here who are on this committee, on this SBOE, who have some hidden agendas. And I really wish everyone would come clean. And Discovery Institute, too, I wish you guys would come clean, whoever you guys are."

"...I read [Jonathan Wells'] article "Survival of the Fakest." And it started off as this innocent graduate student learning about biology. And lo and behold, he finds inaccuracies and discrepancies and it just makes him challenge everything.

"Well, what got me mad was later, I read that article that was just referred to where he explains how -- and this predates the "Survival of the Fakest," this article that he writes that he says, I'm going to devote my life to kill Darwinism, to destroy it. I have the exact quote in my speaker notes."

Andrew Riggsby, page 433

"To use a historical parallel, we would rightly object to a book which used the story of Washington and the cherry tree, but you don't fix that problem by questioning the existence of our first president."

"Doubting the overall the pattern of evolution on these grounds is like doubting that Texans at the Alamo were killed in battle because we don't know exactly who killed Bowie or Crockett."

"Or, in one last historical parallel, I can't figure out how the Egyptians built those pyramids, so I guess they didn't."

Michael Marty, page 441

"Good evening. It's been, I think, an extraordinary evening to watch a complete course in evolutionary biology taught in three-minute segments by 120 guest professors."

"What I'd like to point to is the educational system is a complex, interacting machine with many, many parts. They are the tests that the students take, there are the standards that the educators imposed, there are the textbooks that are supplied, there are the certification exams the teachers take, there are the courses that they take at the universities for which they learn the things that they will then be tested on and the certification exams upon which they go to the school and teach it all to the students.

"Now, what's quite dramatic about the things being talked about here today is discussion of changing one little piece in that system. It's like looking into a complicated working engine and saying, I think it would work better if that gear were changed. I'm going to make it bigger. And someone says, well, shouldn't we stop the car? And he says, no, I'll do it on the fly."

Part 5: And now let's welcome our very special guest stars...

Testimony from Texas natives ended around 12:30 AM, if I remember correctly. (I'll go back and check the tapes a little later.) That left the eight distinguished guests from out of town who had come to speak to the board. Apart from William Dembski, who spoke much earlier that afternoon, these were all the big shots on both sides.

John West of the Discovery Institute, whose testimony appears on page 487 of the transcript (listen to audio) got thrown a curve ball by one of the board members who had actually been paying attention to everyone else's testimony. We all know that the Discovery Institute reps like to pretend they're being extremely subtle and clever when they launch their attacks on evolution. If they don't want to be perceived as anti-science, they say they're supporting stronger science. If they don't want to be associated with young earth rubes, they emphatically state that they're not creationists. And if they don't happen to be talking about Intelligent Design on this particular occasion, by God, nobody had better impugn their honor by accusing them of slipping ID into textbooks.

But Dr. Bernal, the questioner, just wasn't buying it. Here's the excerpt from West:

DR. BERNAL: "Somebody identified the work that you-all do in Discovery as a political movement. In a political movement, the first thrust or one of the first thrusts was for you to attack the weaknesses, supposedly, or the things that you perceive to be the mistakes or the errors of evolution. After you complete that, then you come in with intelligent design and try to impose that as a science."
MR. WEST: "Well --"
DR. BERNAL: "Is that part of your program?"
MR. WEST: " far as the political movement and stuff, that is very interesting. Of course, this is a highly-charged issue. There's no question about that. But let's -- if you really want to be honest -- I mean, I listened, just like you did, for eight, nine, ten hours, people stigmatize my motives, make all sorts of charges and say motives are important. Well, then, let's really -- if you -- let's be fair about that. I encourage you all to go to a web-site called If you think that only the motives on this side -- you know, there's these people are motivated by religion who just can't stand evolution and there's no sort of science in it. Some of the people that you're hearing from are what I would call evangelist really for Darwinism. And I encourage you, go to -- many of their names, not some of the people here. Actually, some of the people who do do activities. ...I encourage you to go to this web-site and see how they talk about Darwin. It's almost like a saint. I mean, it really is. And worshipful. ...And so, you know, there are agendas on all sides. And -- but what should be in the textbooks is what is provable science."
MR. BERNAL: "When I first talked to you -- when I first asked you, it seemed like the beginning and the end was just to be a critic about the mistakes made by the people that believe in evolution. And now, you've kind of gone into -- into political mode that you do have another design. And that is, after you weaken the whole program of evolution, you're going to come in with ID, with intelligent design, and try to impose that."
MR. WEST: "No, I didn't intend to say that. I don't think I said that. What I said --"
MR. BERNAL: "I think you implied it, though."
MR. WEST: "What I -- well, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to. ...But what's before you I said, while we do support scientists who work on intelligent design -- and that's true. We've never made any apologies for that fact. But that is an emerging theory. And so there are legitimate questions about how well-established does a theory have to be as an alternative before you put in textbooks?"
MR. BERNAL: "Okay. But give me a direct, honest answer. Would you want to impose ID as a science into the textbooks?"
MR. WEST: "Impose it? I --"
DR. BERNAL: "Yeah, put it in. Include it. Is that your position, personally?"
MR. WEST: "Personally, my -- no, personally my position --"

Well, you get the idea. It goes on like that for several minutes. Terri Leo also jumps in and adds to the chaos for a bit. She even goes so far as to claim that there are agnostics who support Intelligent Design Theory, to which the obvious response would be "Yeah? Name one." The whole thing is really pretty funny. I wish I had the full audio for this, but I had never heard of John West, so I didn't bother recording him until I realized I was missing the fun.

Michael Behe (page 506; audio) did his usual presentation about the flagellum and irreducible complexity -- a concept which, of course, has never been peer reviewed (to this reporter's knowledge) and which has been roundly debunked by a whole lot of other scientists. Creationist board member Don McLeroy made some obsequious comments at the end of his speech about how great his book was.

Eugenie Scott, Alan Gishlick, and Robert Pennock all had excellent presentation; I can't add a lot to their words other than what I've already said in part two, so I'll just suggest that you click their names and listen to them for yourself.

And finally, Jonathan Wells got his turn in the light. Don McLeroy also had words of high praise for Wells, stating "Your name has been brought up tonight more than Charles Darwin's, so obviously you must be having an impact." Well, of course Wells was brought up a lot. He gave the board their briefing, after all. His organization orchestrated the entire farce we had just witnessed. I'm not so sure he's happy about the fact that everybody knows they were trying to influence the board behind the scenes.

Part 6: The envelope please... and the winner is...

On November 6, 2003, the State Board of Education voted to approve all 11 biology textbooks. Read the story at CNN.

Finally, a complete transcript of the hearings (in pdf format) is also available in pdf format.

Saturday, September 20, 2003

Testimony from the Texas State Board of Education Hearings

This speech was delivered before the Texas State Board of Education on September 20, 2003.

My name is Russell Glasser. I'm a software engineer at IBM. I have a ten-year-old stepdaughter who studies science in the Round Rock school district, and a sixteen-month-old son who will someday do the same. My parents both have PhD's in physics, and my father is involved in fusion research at Los Alamos National Lab.

Fourteen years ago, my father taught me what happens when you do science without sticking to the scientific method. Two chemists named Pons and Fleischmann claimed to have discovered something called "cold fusion". If true, it would mean that we could produce a virtually unlimited supply of energy at very low cost.

But Pons and Fleischmann chose to promote their ideas in a questionable manner. Instead of publishing papers in scientific journals that told other scientists how to repeat their experiments, they went straight to the press and told them that they'd made a breakthrough.

Their ideas were dead wrong, but they couldn't have known this because they didn't invite outside criticism. They didn't follow the peer review process that is a vital part of science. By trying to skip that process and go straight to the public, they wound up embarrassing themselves.

Unfortunately, I can see the same thing potentially happening to science education in Texas. Since evolution is scientific, there are legitimate criticisms of it. Science thrives on criticism. But many books that attack evolution come from outside the scientific community.

An example of such a book is Icons of Evolution by Jonathan Wells. Dr. Wells is a member of the Discovery Institute, and an advisor of this school board. He holds a PhD in Biology, but like Pons and Fleischmann, Dr. Wells has failed to follow the scientific method. His assaults on evolution are published in a book that's only found in popular bookstores, and not papers in mainstream, peer-reviewed scientific journals.

One example of Wells' work is his treatment of the peppered moth. In the papers that I have distributed to the board, I describe how Wells falsely used research done by geneticist Michael Majerus to make it appear that it refutes evolution. Majerus himself explains how Wells misrepresented him.

Science is designed to be self-correcting, and that's a good lesson to teach in our classes. But ultimately, published scientists figure out what constitutes legitimate science and then schools teach what they have found. It makes no sense to do this process backwards.

The purpose of a science class isn't to let kids "decide for themselves" whether fringe science is real science. We don't put holocaust deniers side by side with World War II historians in history textbooks and let students "decide for themselves" which ones are right. And we don't spend time in physics classes teaching cold fusion. A reasonable plan would be to let scientists agree on what is correct science first, and then bring their work to Texas textbooks.

Jonathan Wells and the Peppered Moth

(This was not read during the hearings, but handed in as part of the written testimony)

Jonathan Wells is a member of the Discovery Institute and the author of Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth? In his book, Wells argues that scientists frequently "misrepresent the truth" when presenting the evidence for evolution to the public. The book runs through ten such "icons," frequently using the work of mainstream scientists to bolster his point. Ironically in light of his thesis, Wells misrepresents the content of the work that he cites. His discussion of the peppered moth in chapter seven is an example.

Many biology textbooks use peppered moths as an illustration of natural selection in action. Typically, the books contain a series of photographs that display a light-colored moth and a darker moth side by side on a light-colored tree trunk, and the same moths on a darker tree trunk. These pictures show how moths blend in against certain backgrounds, making them safer from predators. Scientists have observed that birds find (and eat) fewer light-colored moths in areas dominated by light-colored wood, and they find (and eat) fewer dark-colored moths in areas dominated by darker, polluted wood. As a result, most peppered moths in light-colored areas are light colored, and most peppered moths in dark-colored areas are dark.

In Icons of Evolution, Dr. Wells bases his arguments on a book by Michael Majerus entitled Melanism: Evolution in Action. Wells argues that the peppered moth story is fake. He relies on two main points. First, he suggests that scientists are being dishonest because the moths in the pictures are dead moths pinned to trees. But the books do not claim to be showing an action shot of moths. They are merely illustrating how color affects visibility.

Second, Wells claims that the pictures are irrelevant because "Peppered moths don't rest on tree trunks." This is false, as he would have known if he had actually bothered to read all of Majerus' own book. As Dr. Majerus himself said in an online rebuttal of Wells' claims:

"This is just wrong. Dr. Wells, who gives the impression in his response that he has read my book, obviously has not. If he had, he would have seen that in Tables 6.1 and 6.2 I myself have recorded 168 peppered moths on tree trunks or at trunk/branch joins. If Dr Wells' wishes his views to be taken seriously, he should ensure that his research is thorough."

A scientist must start with the evidence and let it lead him to a conclusion. Instead, Wells started with his conclusion and distorted or misunderstood the facts in an effort to support the conclusion he had already reached. Using Jonathan Wells as an authority to attack science in textbooks is bad policy.

Letter from Michael Majerus to Donald Frack
"Icon of Obfuscation": an online review of Icons of Evolution
Majerus, M. E. N. (1998). Melanism: evolution in action. Oxford University Press