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Creationism on the rise in Texas?

Harry Cabluck / AP

Member Ken Mercer, from San Antonio, reads amendments during a meeting of the State Board of Education Thursday, March 26, 2009, in Austin, Texas.

Everything is bigger in Texas, the saying goes, which is why advocates for science education are concerned about proposed supplemental, web-based instructional materials for biology courses that appear to promote creationist arguments.

"This gets a foot in the door," Joshua Rosenau, the programs and policy director of the National Center for Science Education, told me today. "In general, Texas is a concern with textbook issues because they buy so many textbooks. A publisher who was planning on being able to sell in Texas and then can't is in real trouble." 

That means textbook publishers target the Texas market. Cash-strapped school boards across the country looking to replace their materials, in turn, are likely to be stuck buying whatever was created for the Texans. 

Texas science standards
Two years ago, the Texas State Board of Education voted 13-2 to put in place a plan that would require teachers to encourage students to scrutinize "all sides" of scientific theories, including the theory of evolution.

Critics of the plan argued that it would allow non-scientific ideas such as creationism and intelligent design to slip into Texas classrooms even though the board president at the time, Don McLeroy, had previously said, "Anything taught in science has to have consensus in the science community and intelligent design does not." 

Now, proposed science education materials — all web based — are available for review on the board's website. The National Center for Science Education and the Texas Freedom Network, organizations that criticized the new plan, reviewed the materials and found their fears confirmed.

Intelligent design teachings
The review shows that materials from an obscure New Mexico-based company called International Databases LLC promote anti-evolution arguments made by proponents of intelligent design and creationism. These are the same arguments that many scientists have shown lack scientific merit.  

Among the highlights from the review made available by NCSE and TFN include:

  • A slide on the origin of life states that "since such materialistic, self organization scenarios now have a history of scientific insufficiency for explaining the Origin of Life on Earth, the Null hypothesis (default) stands. This allows for the testing of the legitimate scientific hypothesis … Life on Earth is the result of intelligent causes."
  • A teacher resources slide that says that "at the end of the instructional unit on the Origin of Life, students should go home with the understanding that a new paradigm of explaining life's origins is emerging from the failed attempts of naturalistic scenarios. The new way of thinking is predicated upon the hypothesis that intelligent input is necessary for life's origins."
  • A module on the scientific method that lays out two "unproven hypothesis" that scientists have used to build their theories on the origin of life. One is called "scientific materialism, naturalism, and so forth." The other is that "an intelligence is necessary to explain both the origin, and diversification of life on Earth."

The NCSE and TFN point out that a federal judge in Pennsylvania ruled in 2005 that teaching intelligent design in public schools is unconstitutional, regarding it as creationism in disguise. Should the Texas school board approve the materials reviewed here, the critics hint at "expensive legal challenges."

What's next?
Teams of reviewers appointed by the Texas Education Agency will examine all of the proposed instructional materials in June and report to the TEA and State Board of Education. A public hearing and final vote on the materials is scheduled for July. Public schools could then purchase the materials for use in classrooms beginning in the 2011-2012 school year. 

Rosenau, the NCSE programs and policy director, is optimistic the board won't approve International Databases Inc. materials on technical grounds. "Not even getting to the issue that it is creationist, it doesn't cover all the new standards as it is supposed to, it has typos, it has basic errors of fact," he told me. "It is hard to imagine it going anywhere."

Should it be approved, however, the company would go from an unknown entity to suddenly having access to the coveted Texas market, validating them as a player in the emerging e-textbook market. It would also open the door to allowing the material in a hardcopy textbook, Rosenau added.

"I'm sure the board could say, 'Look, we've already got an approved supplement that takes this perspective, so how can you say it would be irresponsible now to put that in your textbooks?' "

More stories on science education and intelligent design: 

John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by hitting the "like" button on the Cosmic Log Facebook page or following msnbc.com's science editor, Alan Boyle, on Twitter (@b0yle).