In April 2012 Don McLeroy, a dentist from Bryan, Texas, appeared as a guest onThe Colbert Report to talk about textbooks, evolution, and the nature of reality. McLeroy is famous for pushing creationism as the chairman of the Texas State Board of Education, and the highlight of the interview comes when Colbert quizzes McLeroy about paleontology. “Human beings and dinosaurs walked side by side?” Colbert asks. McLeroy looks uncomfortable. “That’s my personal view,” he replies, and then Colbert pounces: “That’s your personal scientificview.” McLeroy agrees. “Science,” Colbert concludes, “can be a personal choice.” At the end of the interview, the host expands on that point. “I’ve always been a fan of reality by majority vote,” he says before shaking McLeroy’s hand.
In the past few months, the Texas State Board of Education has been in the process of approving high school textbooks for the use in the state’s classrooms. Because the Board has, in the past, voted to insert creationist language into curricula, and because Texas has an unusual amount of influence on textbook publishers on account of its size, these kinds of proceedings offer a very public platform for creationists. Taking advantage of the opportunity, they’ve challenged basic principles of natural selection, combed through scientific minutiae during lengthy debates, and, most recently, held up approval of Pearson’s Biology, a popular textbook co-authored by a science journalist and a Brown University biology professor.
The Board’s internal review of Biology, made public by the Texas Freedom Network, makes for especially surreal reading as review panel members evaluate detail after detail, accusing the textbook of a “propaganda effort” at one point, and, elsewhere, of deliberate attempt to avoid letting students know about the challenges”—i.e., alternatives to Darwinism—“that are making the advance”—i.e. undermining—“of evolutionary theory so exciting today.”
Mostly, this is spectacle; the other biology textbooks have been approved with their evolutionary content intact. But that Colbert Report interview has been an all-too-useful guide. As a non-creationist member of the board told the AP before one late-night session, “To ask me—a business degree major from Texas Tech University—to distinguish whether the earth cooled 4 billion years ago or 4.2 billion years ago for the purposes of approving a textbook at 10:15 on a Thursday night is laughable.” Reality by majority vote? Somewhere, Stephen Colbert was smiling.
The Board’s creationist wing shrunk during the last election cycle, and by the end of November it was clear that they would not be able to demand substantial changes. Staffers at the Discovery Institute, an intelligent design think-tank in Seattle that supplied one of the Board’s expert reviewers, complained that Texas was failing to teach its kids critical thinking, and alleged that the state was suppressing scientific debate, failing to teach students “to think independently,” and making a “capitulation to dogma.” The McLeroy-esque implications were clear. Scientific facts, like political opinions, should be open to discussion, debate, and personal choice.