A Textbook Case of Anti-Science

School children look at early-man skeleton fossils on display at the national museum in the capital, Nairobi, on October 18, 2013. In Kenya, dubbed the Cradle of Humankind for its collection of early human fossils, teachers have to juggle between established religions, local beliefs and the theory of evolution. "There have been challenges in teaching evolution ... largely because of the religious teachings on creation, which are deeply entrenched," said Fredrick Kyalo Manthi, head of the paleontology section at National Museums of Kenya. Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty

Here's an un-fun experiment: the next time your kid's in the other room, sneak a peek at her science textbook. Chances are, it says evolution is just a theory and global warming is debatable. If you're living in Louisiana or Tennessee, you may also want to check out what your kids' teachers are discussing in class: Teachers in those states are now allowed to teach creationism along with evolution and to argue both sides of global warming - even over the objections of their school principals and superintendents.

In 2013, nine anti-science bills were introduced in seven states, and legislators nationwide have filed about 50 bills in the past 10 years declaring evolution a "controversial" idea whose opposing side, creationism, must be taught in the interest of academic freedom. Though most of these efforts died in committee - as South Dakota's did last week - some become law. It's all being done under the guise of fairness: Missouri's House Bill 1587, creeping toward a vote, would force principals and administrators to let teachers "help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of the theory of biological and hypotheses of chemical evolution." The bill's authors say it'll help students "develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues, including biological and chemical evolution."

Much of this legislation may be unnecessary - about 25 percent of public school high school biology teachers nationwide have lessons on creationism, and almost half of those teachers present it as scientifically credible, according to a 2008 national study. These numbers mirror popular belief: A 2013 Pew Research Center survey found that 33 percent of American adults believe that humans have always existed in their present form, and of the 60 percent who believe that humans have evolved over time, 24 percent of those thought that evolution was "supreme being guided."

The teaching of climate science appears to be "comparably dire," Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, told Newsweek. About 36 percent of kindergarten through 12th grade teachers who teach climate change reported teaching "both sides" of the issue, with 5 percent required to do so by law, according to a 2011 National Earth Science Teachers Association survey. This, despite a 97 percent level of consensus among scientists on climate change. The other 3 percent - some of whom have even gone so far as to state the Earth's climate is getting cooler - tend to get significant research funding from coal and oil companies like ExxonMobil.

It seems strange that educators are so likely to go against the grain of the scientific community on climate change - until you see their textbooks. These textbooks, so often used to determine class curriculum, also time and again incorporate input from industries opposed to the idea of climate change. The reason leads deep into the heart of Texas. That state is the nation's largest textbook market, so the rest of the country's schoolchildren usually have no choice but to read the books approved by Texas's centralized school board - it's too costly for publishers to create different versions for different states.

That means a few Texans are steering the curriculum of the entire U.S. public school system. When the Texas Board of Education holds hearings on the adoption of textbooks, anyone can weigh in on the approval process. At a recent hearing, Becky Berger, a petroleum and mining geologist, and current candidate for Texas railroad commissioner, objected to a draft of the high school textbook Environmental Science, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Berger said that the book unjustly blamed the oil and gas industry for pollution and hence, global warming, and that there was no mention of the downside of renewable energy sources. The publisher was forced to tweak its textbook to gain board approval: It now mentions that wind energy, typically generated in the countryside, can't easily be transferred to urban areas.

Berger's victory here has whetted her appetite for this fight. "Now that I have seen what is being presented as educational material to our schoolchildren," she tells Newsweek, "not only will I stay involved, but will be recruiting other industry professionals to contribute time to review the textbooks."

There are a host of scientific facts that offend reviewers. "You have to be very careful about saying the Ice Age occurred millions of years ago," says Dan Quinn, spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network, a watchdog group. "In many textbooks, it's been changed to 'the distant past.' " This is because some creationists believe the Earth is only 6,000 years old. "And, as far as discussion of pollution of any kind," Quinn tells Newsweek, "well, anti-climate change advocates consider those kinds of discussions to be anti-development and anti-capitalist."

When you're flipping through your child's science textbooks, look at the chapters and passages on evolution and climate change. You may find what Quinn calls "weasel words," such as, "many scientists think" or "the majority of scientists," or "some scientists believe." This bothers Quinn, who insists that science needs to remain off-limits to opinion. "It's like saying, 'Many scientists accept gravity.' But anti-evolution activists declare victory when they can get those kinds of weasel words into textbooks. That's because they hope those words will make students question whether the science is really as definitive as scientists say it is."

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt refused to comment on the influence individuals have on the content of their textbooks.

While the oil and gas industry is chiseling away at the science in students' textbooks regarding climate change, religious interests are chiseling away at the power of school administrators to put a lid on creationist teachers. Virginia, which boasts a strong science curriculum, recently became an unexpected battleground in the evolution fray when the vice president of the Virginia Christian Alliance, Rita Dunaway, brought Delegate Dickie Bell (R-Staunton) a proposed bill about teaching creationism in the schools that just last week got punted to the House education committee.

"The bill was not about trying to get religious discussions in the classroom," Dunaway says. "What the bill was about was making it clear that any science theory is open to discussion about its strengths or weakness... It's surprising really to see how hostile the scientific community is to that idea and quick they are to assume you want the freedom to question a scientific theory [just] to get religion into the classroom. I call that paranoid."

Since the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District federal court decision, which ruled that intelligent design couldn't be taught in school because of separation of church and state - sometimes called, "Scopes II" - creationists have been trying to water down discussions of evolution in textbooks and the classroom instead of trying to get religion into the curriculum. "They know they can't teach religion or creationism in the classroom," Branch says. "That's why their goal is to raise all these doubts. Of course in college you want discussion and open debate, but we're not talking about colleges: What you want in public school is to teach what mainstream science is right now."

While the teaching of evolution may withstand these challenges, global warming is far more vulnerable, because it has no constitutional protections. "We've had so many court victories over the teaching of evolution because the alternative is religion, and that lets us bring in the clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution which prevents government from promoting religious belief," Branch explains. "But if a teacher wants to say that global warming is a hoax, then, all we can really say is, 'That's really bad science,' because there's nothing unconstitutional about teaching bad science."