Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Science Books

By Peter Bowditch

Texas is the most important market for textbooks in the USA, making it a pivotal place for creationists to influence what the rest of the nation is taught in science classes.

Last month was a big month for both reason and superstition, because September is when the textbook buyers in Texas make their decisions about which science books will be used in the state’s schools in the following year. As Texas is the largest buyer of school textbooks in the USA, what is supplied to students in that state determines what is published for the rest of the country. Publishers do not want to produce different editions for different markets within the US, and obviously do not want to lose the biggest single customer that they have. If Texas says that something must be in or out of textbooks, that thing is in or out for everybody.

Having one state significantly influence what goes into textbooks is not necessarily a bad thing, as commonality of education and teaching materials across the country is a noble ideal. The problem arises when special interest groups want the content of the texts corrupted to suit their beliefs and opinions. As it is science we are talking about here, it is not too hard to guess that the special interest group wanting to damage science teaching is the most anti-science collection around – the creationists. They are there with their disguised religion called “intelligent design” and their attacks on evolution, as if proving evolution wrong would prove their nonsense right.

Because the law in Texas since 1996 has stipulated that books cannot be rejected on ideological grounds but only for factual errors, the strategy of the creationists’ attack on reason has been to pretend that they are not pushing religion but are pointing out errors in the theory of evolution. The campaign is led by the Discovery Institute, which pretends to have nothing to do with religion, showing that they might know all about Genesis 1–11 but they don’t seem to have read as far as Exodus 20:16 (“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour”).

One method of attack is to rely on a book called Icons of Evolution by Jonathon Wells. One particular “icon” that has been heavily featured in the attack on science for some time is the case of the peppered moth, and the way this has been used is a perfect example of the duplicity of the creationists.

In the 1950s, Bernard Kettlewell tested the hypothesis that the change in colouration of the peppered moth over time had been an example of natural selection in action. These moths had once been predominantly of a light colour, but the majority had become darker over several years. The hypothesised reason was that the light-coloured variety had become more visible as soot from the industrial revolution had darkened the surfaces they rested on, and this increased visibility had made the light moths more vulnerable to predators. Kettlewell conducted a variety of experiments, in one of which he placed moths of different colours on different backgrounds. Sure enough, the ones that contrasted with their backgrounds were eaten more frequently than those that were less conspicuous.

When he published his results, Kettlewell included some photographs of pairs of different-coloured moths on both light and dark backgrounds. Note that he used real moths and real tree bark to set up the photographs.

Incredibly, the creationists are claiming that the fact that the pictures were staged is a flaw in the argument. Apparently, Kettlewell should have been patient enough to wait for different-coloured moths to land side-by-side before taking his photographs.

If this is the best that the creationists can do to discredit evolution, they must realise how vacuous their position is. The problem is that school boards and textbook buyers might not see through the fog of deceit.

It seems bizarre that three brass plaques suggesting that the Grand Canyon demonstrates the magnificence of God’s handiwork could be removed after 33 years because displaying them in a government-managed park was a violation of the separation of church and state, yet in the vastly more important arena of children’s education religious bigots can continue to influence what is taught in science classes.

I’ve flown through the Grand Canyon and it really is awesome. I don’t need to believe that a god made it, but I have no problem with anyone who wants to thank their particular deity for making it available for us to marvel at. I just don’t want anyone teaching school children that the thing was made in 10 months during a world-wide flood that happened only 4000 years ago.

Peter Bowditch is Immediate Past President of Australian Skeptics Inc. (www.skeptics.com.au).