Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Science Text Adoptions in Alabama: Part II

Science Text Adoptions in Alabama: Part II
Reviewed by
Scott Brande

In part I of this article (NCSE Reports 9(6):5), I told how Haughton Publishing submitted its text, Of Pandas and People, for adoption in Alabama as a supplemental high school biology textbook. I consider this book a serious challenge to the integrity of public science education in Alabama because it falsely promotes "Intelligent Design" as a scientific concept. The Alabama Textbook Committee, which advises the Board of Education, reviewed Pandas and refused to consider it by a vote of 17-5. My last report ended before the 14 December meeting at which the board considered the committee's recommendations.

The 14 December meeting of the Alabama Board of Education convened with Governor Hunt presiding, a clue that something was going on. A second clue was the intense political squabbling over how much agenda time should be devoted to the textbook adoption business, a matter usually decided beforehand. The board could have dispatched this agenda item by simply voting to accept the committee's list of recommended texts. But this list did not include Pandas, and Haughton Publishing was appealing to the board to adopt the book anyway.

Governor Hunt asked those speaking about Pandas to decide among themselves how to allocate the 25 minutes allotted to each side. I had organized a small resistance force of five scientists, including John Schweinsberg, CC liaison for Alabama; David Sims, a physicist from Huntsville; James Lamb, the paleontologist at the Red Mountain Museum in Birmingham; and Ron Lewis, a paleontologist at Auburn University. We focused on the unscientific nature of "Intelligent Design" and the poor science in Pandas.

Haughton's Presentation

Haughton Publishing made an elaborate presentation. A Birmingham businessman presented petitions with over 11,800 signatures urging the board to adopt supplementary materials presenting "Intelligent Design" as an alternative to evolution. (For several weeks, a Christian radio station in Tuscaloosa had urged people to sign the Pandas petition.) He recited the names of eminent supporters of Pandas – physicians from the University of Alabama – Birmingham medical faculty, business leaders, and a mayor. He also urged adoption based on the book's scientific validity and argued that its exclusion would be unfair.

The main speaker for Pandas was the Haughton's legal representative, Francis "Brother" Hare, Jr., a prominent Birmingham attorney. Hare charged that opponents had falsely painted Pandas as a creationist text, and that "Intelligent Design" does not compel belief in the supernatural. He then introduced two expert witnesses.

The first witness was Dr. Robert Kaita, a fusion physicist at Princeton University. Hare asked Kaita to identify the three major tenets of "scientific" creationism (a young earth, catastrophic events in earth history, and a belief in the supernatural) and asked whether these elements are not present in Pandas. Kaita said they are not.

The second witness was Dr. Fred Sigworth, a molecular biochemist from Yale University. Sigworth called evolution a fact but said he distinguishes between microevolution and macroevolution. He doubts that macroevolutionary theory can adequately account for the development of the major groups of organisms. He said that, like evolution, "Intelligent Design" does a good job of explaining the data of biology and paleontology.

After several more witnesses and some discussion, board member Victor Poole moved to approve Pandas as a supplementary text. Before the motion was voted on, however, another board member asked for legal counsel. She was not sure the board could legally add books not recommended by the committee to the approved list. A Department of Education lawyer said that in his opinion the board lacked such authority, and Poole's motion failed. Instead, the board voted to return Pandas to the committee for further review. The committee was directed to hold another public hearing on 8 January for the sole purpose of discussing Pandas.

In preparation for the January meeting, I again recruited Lamb and Schweinsberg; I found additional help from Bob Gastaldo, a paleobotanist from Auburn University, and Jim Dobie, of Auburns's Zoology Department. We were well prepared to expose the invalid science in Pandas, but we were unprepared for the bizarre events that transpired.

The January hearing had barely begun when committee chairman Larry Newton was interrupted by Francis Hare, who asked for an opportunity to announce that Haughton was withdrawing Pandas. Newton replied that the committee was holding a public hearing at the direction of the Board of Education. Hare threatened to file a series of complaints, but Newton told him to wait his turn to speak.

John Schweinsberg spoke first, and he cleverly showed how Pandas retains vestiges of "scientific" creationism. After John's presentation, Newton called for Henry Skrabanek, president of Haughton publishing, but there was no reply. He then called Francis Hare.

Silence shrouded the auditorium as Haughton's attorney strode to the podium. Hare said that Haughton Publishers had instructed him to withdraw Pandas for lack of due process; the public hearing did conform to the protocol for such proceedings. He objected to the arbitrary order of the speakers, the lack of opening and closing arguments, and his inability to cross-examine witnesses. Hare also claimed overwhelming public support for Pandas as well as scientific support, and he characterized its opponents as intolerant.

Norris Anderson, director of Cornerstone Ministries and perhaps the strongest Pandas partisan on the committee, immediately moved to accept the withdrawal and end the public hearing. His motion failed 15-4. When a motion to continue carried 15-3, Hare and his contingent stormed out of the auditorium, with media representatives in their wake.

The hearing continued. Speakers for Pandas included Jon Buell, Director of the Foundation for Thought and Ethics, Dr. Fred Sigworth of Yale University, and Dr. Charles Thaxton, "academic editor" (coauthor?) of Pandas. Opponents included my science contingent and former Congressman John Buchanan, Director of the People for the American Way.

Winning through intimidation

After the public hearing, the committee reconvened in a smaller meeting room, where the public could listen but not participate. Before any action could be taken, Norris Anderson interrupted with an ominous statement. During lunch, he said, several attorneys advised him that the committee's legal jurisdiction was nullified by Haughton's withdrawal of Pandas. If they now voted against the book, Haughton would be injured, and each member would be corporately and personally liable for damages. Anderson said categorically that Haughton Publishing would sue them under the 1983 Civil Rights Act.

Haughton's threats to the committee members are unprecedented (I believe) in the history of Alabama textbook adoptions. The ensuing discussion found committee members torn between their mandate from the board to evaluate Pandas on its merits and their fear of legal action. Many expressed disgust at their manipulation by Haughton, and some wondered aloud whether Haughton had planned this tactic in advance. (As Norris Anderson defended Haughton's position by citing specific sections of the legal code, this appeared to be the case.) Intimidated, the committee decided not to vote on the merits of Pandas and instead passed a resolution recognizing its withdrawal. This was a minor victory for Haughton, as their forced withdrawal in Alabama will damage their future efforts less than an outright rejection.

When the Board of Education met on 11 January, it noted the withdrawal of Pandas. As a last gasp, one member again tried to enter a motion to adopt the book, but this tactic failed. The Pandas adoption fight in Alabama was finally over.

Three Decisive Factors

In contrast to the determined and well-organized campaign run by Haughton Publishing, the resistance forces quickly formulated responses as each new challenge arose. The success of our loose confederacy in nullifying overwhelming odds depended upon three factors.

First, Haughton promoted Pandas as a science book, but the perceptive people chosen to evaluate it applied the Duck Rule (if it looks, walks, and quacks like a duck, you ought to call it a duck). They recognized Pandas as a creationist book.

Second, Haughton made a big issue of public support. Unfortunately for them, this was not a criterion considered by the committee. Instead, committee members are instructed to consider a book's conformance to the state Course of Study and its academic merit. Pandas fails on both counts.

Finally, Haughton's undercover promotional campaign may have aroused ill-will in some committee members. Dogged persistence, excellent press coverage, and a bit of luck were crucial to our success in exposing and publicizing Haughton's shenanigans.

Our victory in Alabama may be of greater significance nationwide than we can judge at present, because Haughton Publishing has begun a long march across the nation into other states with state-wide adoption procedures. Our experiences should help the foot soldiers elsewhere who will have to fight the same battle. We now know enough about Pandas and its publisher's strategy to enable a faster and more effective response.

I commend the National Center for Science Education, and especially its executive director, Dr. Eugenie Scott, for providing critical information and support to us during these trying times.

At the conclusion of the textbook committee's discussion, one member asked when Pandas can be resubmitted. The answer was, the next time Alabama evaluates science texts — 1995.

See you then for another round!

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.