Biology textbooks approved in Louisiana

At its December 9, 2010, meeting, the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted 8-2 to approve high school biology textbooks, despite the ongoing complaints of creationists objecting to their treatment of evolution. As NCSE previously reported, a decision on the textbooks, expected initially in October 2010, was deferred by the board, which sought a recommendation from its Textbook/Media/Library Advisory Council. On November 12, 2010, the council voted 8-4 to recommend the textbooks. Then, on December 7, 2010, a committee of the board voted 6-1 to move forward with the purchase, "over the objection of a crowd of people who wanted books that at least mention creationism or intelligent design or say that evolution is not a fact," according to the Lafayette Daily Advertiser (December 7, 2010).

Since there are eleven members of the board, the six members of the committee who voted to move forward with the purchase constituted a majority, and so the committee's vote was widely regarded as all but decisive. In a December 7, 2010, statement, the Louisiana Coalition for Science hailed the committee's decision: "We are pleased and proud that the board has done the right thing. As a result, students in Louisiana public schools will have the most current, up-to-date information about biology, including the theory of evolution, which is the strongest explanation of the history and development of life on Earth ever constructed." The statement continued, "Students in our public schools deserve the best science education we can give them. Thanks to today's decision, they won't have to wait any longer for decent textbooks."

Taking nothing for granted, however, Zach Kopplin — a high school student in Baton Rouge — contributed a guest column to the Shreveport Times (December 8, 2010), urging the full board to approve the textbooks. "I feel strongly that BESE should immediately adopt proper science textbooks that teach evolution without any disclaimers, revisions or supplementary materials," he wrote. "Louisiana public school students desperately need new books that teach proper science and will prepare us for success in the global economy." He emphasized, "There is no controversy among scientists about evolution! This point repeatedly has been made by prominent science organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Scientists, which contains 10 million members and has made strong statements in support of teaching evolution. Any attempts to act like there is a controversy are disingenuous."

The Shreveport Times (December 9, 2010) was also pleased with the committee's decision, editorially remarking, "Only in these strange times is it news that Louisiana's education board has approved a science textbook based on, well, science," and explaining, "the majority of the panel accepted the arguments of people such as retired biology teacher Patsye Peebles, who said: 'The opponents to these biology books have an unfortunate misunderstanding of what is and isn't in the realm of science. By opening the door for their "both sides" of any issue, you allow non-science and pseudo-science into the science classroom.'" The editorial concluded by quoting a Presbyterian pastor who told the committee, "Let the science teachers of Louisiana teach science and let churches and families teach religion," and seconding the sentiment with "Amen."

NCSE's Joshua Rosenau told Wired's Wired Science blog (December 8, 2010), “Accurate textbooks are going to be in the classrooms. A six to one vote is a repudiation of the attempt by the Louis[i]ana Family Forum to politicize science in Louisiana." The blogger, Brandon Keim, commented, "Texas, which last year passed legislation instructing teachers to convey 'all sides' of theories like evolution, is the nation's largest purchaser of textbooks, and traditionally pulls the textbook industry in its market wake. But state budget deficits have delayed new purchases, making textbook choices by other states more important." Rosenau explained, "If Louisiana's board had said, 'You have to teach the controversy, to put in both sides,' then publishers would have said, 'Maybe this is a trend.'" He added, "With strong support given to textbooks as written by experts, it's another reason for publishers to stand strong."

At the committee meeting, the New Orleans Times-Picayune (December 8, 2010) reported, "Opponents of the texts, led by the Louisiana Family Forum, said the theory of evolution is full of holes and that biology texts should encourage students to think critically about the origins of man," and quoted the president of the LFF as saying that the textbooks "are biased and inaccurate when covering controversial scientific topics." But Barbara Forrest, a founder of the Louisiana Coalition for Science and a member of NCSE's board of directors, replied, "Every claim you hear today from the Louisiana Family Forum and its allies — without a single exception — has been refuted over and over again, in state after state, and in federal court, over almost 50 years," adding, "Not a single creationist claim has ever held up under either scientific scrutiny or legal analysis."

The sole vote not to recommend the textbooks at the committee meeting was from the president of the board, Dale Bayard, who also voted against them at the board meeting. In a cover story, the Independent Weekly (December 8, 2010) quoted Bayard as saying, "I am an open-minded person, and I challenge anybody to come and tell me — and I’ve asked a couple of educators that are friends of mine — can you do me a favor and tell me, can you swear on a stack of Bibles there's no other refutable data that provides an objective other approach to Darwin's theory?" Taking the answer to be no, he continued, "Well then why do we print a textbook that says that? Why can't we provide the children with textbooks that provide objective educational methods to look at what's out there? ... We're going to spend $72 million with a textbook company, and they're not going to swear this is accurate?"

Forrest responded, "[Evolution] has exactly the same status as electromagnetic theory, germ theory of disease, cell theory and gravitational theory, and it is about as strong an explanation as science can come up with." And Joe Neigel, a professor of biology at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, whose teaching and research focuses on evolution, told the Independent Weekly, "To suggest we need to teach both sides is like saying we should be teaching the opinion that the earth is flat because there are some people who believe the earth is flat and they claim they have evidence the earth is flat, so we should give equal time to these people. Or we should give equal time to people who say there was no Holocaust. ... It's an attempt to make it seem like there are two sides that have similar weight when in fact that isn't the case at all."

"The board's decision is a ray of sunlight," commented NCSE's executive director Eugenie C. Scott, "especially because the creationist opponents of these textbooks were claiming — wrongly — that the 2008 Louisiana Science Education Act requires that biology textbooks misrepresent evolution as scientifically controversial. It's refreshing to see that the board withstood the pressure to compromise the quality of biology textbooks in the state. But when will the state legislature revisit this confusing, unnecessary, and pernicious law, which is already opening the door to the teaching of creationism in the public school classroom?" She added, "Thanks to all in Louisiana, including especially Barbara Forrest and her comrades at the Louisiana Coalition for Science, who helped to convince the board to do the right thing for Louisiana's students."