August 11, 2022

How bad it is on Texas’ textbook review board

These are some of the most notable nominees on the Texas textbook review board:

Walter Bradley was an engineer who coauthored a book, The Mystery of Life’s Origins, which essentially launched the “intelligent design” movement. He and Raymond Bohlin of Probe Ministries are both associated fellows of the Discovery Institute. Another engineer, Richard White, and David Zeiger who teaches in a private Christian school, and Ide Trotter, spokesman for the grossly-misnamed creationist group, ‘Texans for Better Science Education’ -all advocate teaching scientifically discredited “weaknesses” of evolution in Texas science classrooms.

In addition to these, we also have board member, Ken Mercer, who argues that morphology and biochemistry somehow represent two different discordant trees rather than one twin-nested hierarchy. Then there’s board chairman Barbara Cargill who was called out for trying to influence specific changes outside her charge or ethical boundaries.

I can hardly imagine a less appropriate panel to govern over the standards of science education.

25 thoughts on “How bad it is on Texas’ textbook review board

  1. Is there any way you can show a conflict of interest on this one? Someone directly associated with a group that is one of the involved parties should surely not be allowed to make decisions on this matter?

  2. Ugh! As an engineer myself, I am thoroughly embarrassed by all these evolution denying engineers, and frankly, I don’t even understand where they are coming from. It’s true that a lot of engineers believe some weird shit, astrology, karma, and Asian “medical” practices like acupuncture come up disturbingly often. However, actually believing the Earth is less than 10,000 years old is something that I’d say even an engineer’s limited understanding of science wouldn’t countenance.

    1. I think there are penty of engineers who aren”t familiar with, say, radiometric dating, but the simple fact that we can see stars that are over 10,000 light years away makes a very strong argument for the universe being quite a bit older than 10,000 years. Clear evidence that the universe, and even the earth, are actually quite old crops up all over nature. You have to be deliberately ignorant of it not to notice. And once you do discover the contradiction, if you resolve it by saying, “therefor all the science must be wrong” you’ve failed the test of rationality.

      But, yeah, I think you’d be hard pressed to find an engineer who knows nothing about nuclear stuff, doesn’t know about relativity, doesn’t know enough chemistry to realize that melt patterns in ice + a gas spectrometer could be used to directly measure the age of ice, doesn’t know enough biology to realize the implications of mutations in non-coding DNA and what those imply about the generational gap beween the last time two closely species had a common ancestor in the same species, don’t know enough trig to measure the sky, and a thousand other subjects. An engineer has no excuse to believe in a young earth.

      1. If you go the route of distant starlight (which is my favorite by the way), you need to be prepared for two “sophisticated” rebuttals.

        1- Speed of light changed over time. Answer: No it didn’t. We have measured the speed of light in the past, about 168,000 years ago, thanks to SN-1987A. Before it went supernova, it was surrounded by a empty shell of gas (approx). Because the gas cloud is so large, and because it’s so close, modern telescopes can accurately measure the angular size of that gas cloud. We know that the triangle of us, the star, and a point on the surrounding gas cloud makes a right triangle. Finally, we saw light coming from the gas cloud that bounced off the gas cloud and originally came from the supernova about 8 months after we saw the supernova. What follows is literally high school trig. No matter how you try to alter the speed of light, the only consistent solution is that the speed of light is basically the same then as it was today.

        2- Speed of light is different approaching Earth than it is going away from Earth. Relates to the anisotropic convention. The answer is: All of known large-scale physics is consistent with the speed of light being faster in one direction than the reverse direction (trust me, it is, and the math is annoying for the level of this conversation). However, it is also true that such hypotheses only work for a difference in the speed of light along one direction. As soon as you suggest that the speed of light is faster along radials going towards from Earth and slower along radials going away from Earth, then the math is different. That would entail a bunch of observable differences, which – guess what – we don’t see.

        But again, this is my favorite tactic for the real literal YECs. You just have to be a little more prepared for their completely asspull apologetic, like this. I think the case is compelling without knowing the counters to these two common apologetics, but I think it’s iron-clad with the rebuttals, and anyone who disagrees is willfully ignorant and willfully delusional. As Aronra said, it’s make-believe for them.

        1. Oh, forgot to mention. SN-1987A is also fun because it, and other supernovas, also make handy references which show that the rate of radioactive decay for some elements is also unchanging. The light curve – aka the light given off over time after a supernova – is because of the decay of known elements along known paths according to our models. Check out the wiki article for more.

          Man I love science.

          1. I can’t find a good link offhand that does the math in a way accessible to a high school student.

            This is what happened: In the year 1987, we observed a supernova that was amazingly close by modern astronomy standards. It happened during the time of modern telescopes. The star had a gas ring surrounding it before going supernova, and star and gas ring are close enough to us but sufficiently far apart from each other that modern telescopes can accurately measure the apparent angle on Earth that we see between the star/supernova and surrounding gas ring. Finally, 8 months after seeing the supernova from Earth, we saw light from the surrounding gas ring which was the result of light from the supernova bouncing off the gas ring and heading to us (more or less).

            All of this is very rare. It’s a very lucky set of coincidences that allows us to make the following argument.

            Let’s do some bad ASCII art. Consider this triangle (2 sides shown, third implied):

            S – g





            E is the Earth.

            S is the supernova.

            g is some point on the gas ring.

            Angle ESg is a right angle.

            Angle SEg has been measured by the hubble telescope to be about 0.000224 degrees.

            Let c be the speed of light as measured today.

            Let c’ be the speed of light at the supernova explosion at the time of the supernova explosion.

            We saw a time difference of 8 months between seeing the supernova and seeing the light of the supernova bounce off the gas ring (more or less). This means that the light of the supernova had a travel time of 8 months to reach the gas ring before “bouncing off”.

            Thus, length Sg = time * speed = (8 months) (c’)

            In the real world where c = c’, you can calculate the following:

            length SE = length Sg / tan(angle SEg)

            = (8 months c’) * (1 year / 12 months) / tan(0.000224 degrees)

            = (8 months c) * (1 year / 12 months) / tan(0.000224 degrees)

            approx= 170523 year c

            Given imprecise rounding errors and imprecise starting numbers, that’s basically the 168,000 light year distance which is commonly accepted.

            See what happens when you assume the speed of light was twice as fast during the time of the supernova compared to today:

            c’ = 2c

            length SE = length Sg / tan(angle SEg)

            = (8 months c’) / tan(0.000224 degrees)

            = (8 months (2c)) * (1 year / 12 months) / tan(0.000224 degrees)

            approx= 341046 year c

            Or about double the distance. So, how long would light from that star take to reach Earth? If you assume the speed of light has been strictly decreasing over time, then we can take the bound for the quickest possible travel time by assuming it traveled at c’ for the entire distance:

            time = distance / speed = 341046 year c / c’ = 341046 year c / (2c) = 170523 year

            Which is the same answer as before. Wait – didn’t we try to make that smaller by assuming the speed of light was faster in the past?

            The answer lies in basic high school trig. If you try to make the speed of light faster in the past to make the travel time of light from the supernova to Earth be smaller, you also inadvertently make the distance of the supernova to the gas ring be bigger (because we know it took the light 8 months to travel that distance, because of the 8 month difference in observations on Earth), and because we know the apparent angle from Earth, it follows that the known length from the supernova to Earth becomes larger. So, by increasing the speed of light to make light travel faster from the supernova to the Earth, you also constrain yourself by high school trig to make the distance it travels to be even bigger, more than enough to completely offset any “benefits”.

            There simply is no coherent way to make sense of these observations (under the assumption that the speed of light is unchanging or strictly decreasing over time) except that the speed of light is basically unchanging.

            Again, this is only possible because of the fortunate opportunity of having a supernova that close, with a gas ring already surrounding it.

          2. Ignore everything above relating to my geometry argument. It is wrong. (The bits about radioactive decay are still good.) I also request that you edit the posts and post a big disclaimer, or just scrub them entirely.

        2. have you checked out Russel Humphrey’s ridiculous “new” cosmology argument?

          instead of light changing properties or speed…. it’s time itself that changes!

          no shit:

          scroll down to “A new Creationist cosmology”

          …and laugh your ass off at the supposedly new “superior” YEC theory.

    2. Likewise. I met lots of creationist, fundie, far right wing, conspiracy theory believing engineers in my career. Pretty much universally they were very good at their actual jobs, but utterly irrational about other stuff. I’ve never been able to understand it.

    1. Has Ken Mercer made any Specific Claims about what he means, or is his shtick to spring unrelated questions at the wrong experts when they come to offer comments at meetings of the board?

  3. Ken Mercer is offering a free Happy Meal ™ to anyone that can find the word “Jesus” in any Texas-adopted biology book. Game, set, match.

  4. Deliberately accepting the obviously false is one of the attractions of religion. That’s how Christians publicly prove the strength of their faith to each other:

    – I faithfully believe the earth is 10,000 years old.

    – My faith is even stronger. I believe the earth is only 6,000 years old.

    It’s a Christian pissing contest – and it’s been going on for as long as the religion has existed. For example, not long after Jesus had died, Tertullian wrote in his De Came Cristi, “The Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd. And He was buried and rose again; the fact is certain because it is impossible.”

    1. that’s actually incorrect.

      There are some great unis in Texas, and it once was a science and technology capital of the US. There are STILL a majority of people there that would not identify with the idiots currently on the textbook review board.

      what happened to that state was orchestrated over a ten year period by Karl Rove et al, and solidified by severe gerrymandering afterwards.

      pity Texas, but don’t necessarily pity Texans.

      people need to scrape together dough and lawyers to mount legal challenges to the redistricting done by the rethuglicans there over the last 20 years, then maybe things would change back to where it was in the 70s and 80s as a primarily “blue” state. A blue state that was one of the first to elect an effective woman as democratic governor. Ann Richards was the best governor Texas ever had.

      probably won’t happen, but one can hope.

      1. …and Anne wasn’t even the first woman to govern Texas, either.

        it used to be such a progressive state, almost on a par with CA at the time.

        both states have gone severely downhill as the right wing has fucked with them.

  5. There is a notion that being a scientist allows you to comment on all science.

    My undergrad is genetics. I like Jen before she got all Academic am at heart a biologist. But my undergrad work is now layered with medicine. A lot of the reflexes we have are “monkey reflexes”. Stuff to stop us falling from trees and if we do landing safely.

    There is only one such reflex we do not lose with time and only by trainiing. And that’s the parachute reflex. When we fall we automatically take a position that slows our fall and makes us land safer. Unfortunately we are between 50 to 120 Kg of body weight these days rather than a few Kg like our primate ancestors.

    And scarily? It’s one of the reflexes you HAVE to test babies for (we hold them and drop them a few inches in our hands to see if they assume the reflex. If they don’t it’s indicative of some really serious neurological issues)

    So if me and PZ were to discuss this topic we would come from different angles. Mine is the physical and stuff that just doesn’t make sense. You “fall” to sleep because you literally feel like falling. If we dropped your head while sleeping you would ellicit the same fall reflex (AKA moro’s reflex) as a baby does.

    Babies even have a reflex to stop them from plummetting from trees. It’s called the atonic reflex. Ever wonder why babies are hard to roll over? Try it, move the head of the new born baby (preferably your own!) and watch as the hand and foot on that side are extended. The baby thinks it’s rolling (Since in effect you are inside your head, the body is your giant robot car, the brain is you) so it does this to stop.

    You wouldn’t need any of these if you didn’t evolve from something that lived in trees.

    It’s not bad being the king of the swingers.

    1. I accidentally hit send….

      Me commenting on Physicist discoveries is as valid as engineers discussing evolution. They aren’t experts in the field. They may be excellent engineers but their knowledge of evolution is not that good.

      They don’t hire me to build bridges and they don’t hire bridge builders to intubate a patient. Which is why you often see this cognitive bias of people who just assume biology is faffing about with animals.

      Again Science Education should never have been so cut to end up in this state. I don’t think science should be optional. By all means have a basic and advanced science teaching program where everyone has to do a basic at least but America cannot keep doing this suicidal course of action where kids don’t learn anything about the world they live in or the technology.

      And if science was taught well, then I have no qualms about teaching ID in the classroom. I was taught what ID was in biology. It was a very very short class and it basically consisted of the demonstration of why science “won”. Evidence was just used to bury the Bible’s claim.

      What we fear is not ID in the science classroom but ID being taught as a valid theory of science.

    2. Thank you for spelling that out. That is something that always annoys the hell out of me.

      I can only comment on my own field which is computer science. Nowadays science has accumulated such a massive amount of knowledge that it is absolutely impossible to be a specialist in every discipline. Hell, I would even be reluctant to comment on something that is not in the same sub-discipline as mine. I enjoy discussing physics and biology but ultimately I have to accept the fact that I only possess an educated layman’s understanding of the field.

      It is already hard enough to make meaningful contributions to the field you are a specialist in. More often than not you think that you have a great idea just to find out that long ago someone already explored this idea in great detail. To assume that a layman is able to overturn one of the founding principles of a complete discipline is at best naive and usually shows that the person is massively overestimating his/her competence.

      Dunning-Kruger is everywhere…

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