Terri Leo Enlists Steven Weinberg

PZ Myers at Pharynluga launches a philippic against Terri Leo, who sits on the Board of Education in Texas. Leo has come to international attention over her efforts to have the theory of evolution “balanced” by creationist criticisms of the theory in school textbooks. However, that’s only part of her agenda:

She’s been working like a maniac to gut textbooks; she’s even tried to get publishers to add little “facts”, like “Opinions vary on why homosexuals, lesbians and bisexuals as a group are more prone to self-destructive behaviors like depression, illegal drug use, and suicide.” She’s a perfect example of anti-science, anti-intellectual, intolerant bigotry, and yet there she is, on the state board of education. That’s like hearing that Richard Dawkins has been elected by the College of Cardinals to the papacy, or that the new head of the NIH is Bluto Blutarski. She just doesn’t belong there.

Unsurprisingly, Leo is a senior figure in the very disturbing Republican Party of Texas. Her position on evolution teaching was laid out in a statement included in the minutes of a State Board of Education meeting held last November:

The State Board of Education has been evaluating whether current biology textbooks meet state standards for accuracy in their presentation of Darwin’s theory of evolution.  Numerous Texas scientists, educators, and students have asked that the SBOE insist the biology textbooks comply with the state law by correcting well-known factual errors and by presenting both the scientific strengths and the scientific weaknesses to Darwinian theory; which is spelled out in TEKS (3)(A).  This reasonable request, which is merely asking that the law be met, has elicited a torrent of personal abuse and misinformation by those lobbying to teach Darwin’s theory uncritically.  All I’m asking is that the students learn all the scientific evidence they need to assess Darwinian theory, not just the evidence that happens to support it.  Much peer reviewed scientific literature has been documented to the existence of many problems with current evolutionary theory and with the textbooks’ presentation of that theory.

The law of the land also supports this approach, as does our national education policy.  In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled in Edwards vs. Aguillar, the controlling legal authority on how to teach origin questions, that state legislatures could require and state boards could require teaching scientific critiques of prevailing scientific theories.  Last year in the conference report of the No Child Left Behind, Congress expressed its support for greater openness in science instruction, citing biological evolution as the key example.  Teaching both the strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian theory not only interests students, it teaches them to weigh evidence, a skill needed in scientific reasoning.  As Charles Darwin said himself in Origin of the Species, a fair result can only be obtained by balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question.

The most eminent scientist to testify on behalf of the textbooks was Professor Steven Weinberg, Nobel Prize Laureate in physics from The University of Texas.  In response to questioning from the board, he made it clear that in supporting evolution, he didn’t have anything to say about the origin of life.  He further elaborated “that it may be on any given planet the chance that the conditions would be right for life to start up and that life will actually get started as extremely low.”  However, textbooks under consideration do not adequately reflect his clear, specific, and highly qualified testimony.  Tell students the truth; give them all the scientific evidence.

There are three major publishers in the high school biology market.  Two of them, Holt and Glencoe, I believe do conform to Texas law and our high standards. These standards were clearly spelled out to publishers in the Proclamation 2001, in the Question and Answer, in the SBOE Operating Rules, and in the board’s documented intent in developing TEKS (3)(A).  Prentice Hall has made no attempt to fulfill this requirement.  Therefore, I cannot support Prentice Hall’s biology book, as well as any other book that has disregarded TEKS (3)(A), our own state standard.  I believe these books cannot be placed on the conforming list of adoptions.  Thank you Madam Chair.

Leo’s appropriation of Weinberg is rather odd. Here’s what Weinberg actually said in context:

As I understand it, many who want to put alternative theories into our textbooks argue that, although that may be true, we don’t know that that’s all that happens, that there is not some intelligent design that also assists the process of evolution. But that’s the wrong question. We can never know that there isn’t something beyond our theories. And that’s not just true with regard to evolution. That’s true with regard to everything…What we have to do is keep comparing what we observe with our theories and keep verifying that the theories work, trying to explain more and more. That’s what’s happened with evolution and it continues to be successful. There is not one thing that is known to be inexplicable through evolution by natural selection, which is not the same as saying that everything has been explained, because it never will be. The same applies to the weather or the solar system or what have you…

You’re not doing your job if you let a question like the validity of evolution through natural selection go to the students, anymore than a judge is doing his job or her job if he or she allows the question of witchcraft to go to the jury. And why this particular issue of evolution? Why not the round Earth or Newton’s theory or Copernicus’ [theory], the Earth goes around the sun? Well, I think it’s rather disingenuous to say that this is simply because there’s a real scientific conflict here, because there is no more of a scientific conflict than with those issues.

As for Leo’s “aha!” moment, in which she enlists Weinberg for her cause:

Then you raise an entirely different point, which is the point about the origin of life. I didn’t have anything to say about the origin of life. I don’t believe that anyone knows what is the probability, given certain environment, that life will arise. It is not something that we know really how to calculate.

Leo rightly quotes Weinberg for saying that the probability of life arising may be low. But just as she ignores his distinction between the issue of initial origins and the process of evolution, so she fails to tell her audience that Weinberg qualified his statement rather radically:

If you have that many planets, then there’s a good chance that life will form on one of them. And the people on that planet will look around and say, “Gee, aren’t we lucky?”

Board member Mavis B. Knight tried to counter Leo’s assertions by asking for an article by Alan D Gishlick attacking the creationist book Icons of Evolution to be included on the record.

More background on Leo is provided by the San Antonio Current, in an article from last year:

During her 2002 campaign, Leo was endorsed by the far-right Concerned Women of America, which describes itself as being built on “prayer and action,” and working to “bring Biblical principles into all levels of public policy.” She also earned the seal of approval from Rick Scarborough, co-founder of Vision America, whose mission is “to promote Biblical values back into every aspect of our public arena.”

According to Leo’s campaign contribution filings (she was one of only five members to file on-line), she accepted contributions from fellow board members Geraldine Miller and David Bradley — $4,000 and $3,000, respectively.

Leo also received $500 from Robert Schoolfield, a far-right Austinite who ran for the board, but lost in the primary to Cynthia Thornton. The Texas Observer called him “the Christian Right’s anointed candidate” and during his campaign, Schoolfield spoke out against homosexuality and supported school vouchers.

But Schoolfield’s campaign unraveled after he became entangled in a controversy over his campaign contributions to a Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice, who upheld that state’s voucher laws. The Wisconsin elections board ruled that Schoolfield and others’ out-of-state contributions were illegal. Dogged by controversy, Schoolfield lost his bid for the board, but found his voice in Terri Leo.

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  1. […] the same time, I noted her dishonest quote-mining of Texas physicist Steven Weinberg in her attempt to have […]

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