21 Nov

The Unknown Five Scientists Who Saved Science Education in Alabama

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Scott Brande

On Thursday, December 14th 1989, five Alabama scientists joined together, forming a small line of defense in a battle most of us weren’t even aware was happening. This clash was one of the most important, yet unknown, battles in a war to keep science in public classrooms. Alabama, a critical state in this conflict, reviews only one or two subjects each year. Consequently, science standards and text, once adopted, remain so for a period of six years; gaining a near permanence in Alabama classrooms.

Compared to their adversaries, the five are horribly outnumbered, underfunded, and poorly organized Outside of a few phone conversations, most of the group has never met. The five march up the steps of the daunting, white facade of the Gordon Pearson Building in Montgomery, Alabama. Scott Brande, a geologist at University of Alabama at Birmingham; John Schweinsberg, a mathematician and software engineer and David Sims, a physicist, both from Huntsville; and a pair of paleontologists, James Lamb from Birmingham’s Red Mountain Museum and Ron Lewis at Auburn University, comprise as Brande notes a loose “confederacy”. Their opposition is a nationally funded conservative movement, one of the most politically well-connected and tenacious groups of conservative women in the entirety of the South, an impressively clever and well funded Texas creationist organization, one of the best trial lawyers in Alabama, and nearly 12,000 signatures.

The Book: Of Pandas and People

514Mj1zOqnL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The debate centered on the introduction of Of Pandas and People: The Central Question of Biological Origins as a required supplemental text into Alabama biology curriculum. The 1989 book, written by Percival Davis and Dean Kenyan (both young Earth creationists and intelligent design proponents) raises several unfounded objections to the theory of evolution. The book and the movement that spawned it, intelligent design, were thinly guised attempts to introduce creationism into science curricula. As noted by the Gary Bennett, a former NASA engineer and scientist who later became a defender of science,

Science is based on finding natural explanations for why the universe works as it does. Pandas invokes a supernatural belief called “intelligent design” (which looks like nothing more than the latest manifestation of the discredited belief system known as “creationism”) to explain the origins of life and the creation of the different species of life. Since science does not deal with the supernatural, because it is beyond measurement, Pandas does not qualify as a science textbook.

At the time the publishers Of Pandas and People, Haughton Publishing, did not have other books in print or science advisors. The Foundation of Thought and Ethics (FTE) financially supported publishing of the book through donations. FTE itself was lead by ordained minister Jon Buell with the purpose of “proclaiming, publishing, preaching [and] teaching…the Christian Gospel and understanding of the Bible and the light it sheds on the academic and social issues of the day”. Prior efforts to introduce creation “science” in the classroom relied on pro-creationists legislators passing laws, but FTE mobilized Christian conservative groups to pressure local teachers and school boards. The ingenuity of FTE throughout was impressive.

In Alabama, FTE and Haughton found allies in the state chapter of the Eagle Forum, part of a national organization founded by Phyllis Schlafly. The notoriety of Schlafly should not distract from the prominence of the Alabama chapter or their leader, Eunie Smith.   Smith, the wife of the late Albert L. Smith Jr., a one term U.S. Representative and four-time delegate to the Republican National Convention, is very well connected in Alabama politics. Behind Smith was a formidable group of strong conservative Southern women. One scientist who came face to face with the Alabama Eagle Forum described them as a Southern archetype, “dressed to the 9’s, hair perfectly coifed, so sweet [they’re] insipid.”

Over the years Haughton and the Alabama Eagle Forum have also found an ally in Norris Anderson. With a B.S. in science education and a M.S. in natural sciences, Anderson taught science at a variety of levels and served a minor role writing for the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, a nonprofit center that develops curriculum and conducts research in the teaching of science. Norris Anderson has served as the executive director of the small Cornerstone Ministries Inc, a film distribution company since 1958. Norris served multiple times on the Alabama State Textbook Committee and was perhaps the strongest Panda supporter among them. The Eagle Forum of Alabama continuously promoted Anderson. He often speaks at their hosted events. Later in his career, Norris authored the now infamous Alabama disclaimer in biology textbooks.

Events Prior to the December 1989 Meeting

Haughton Publishing worked actively to prevent copies of Of Pandas and People being reviewed prior to the textbook committee meeting that would partially decide the book’s fate in Alabama. The Alabama Department of Education requires all books up for review to be on public display in 21 designated state libraries. This was supposed to occur by early July of 1989. On September 12th, Scott Brande attends a textbook committee meeting. During the meeting an Eagle Forum member speaks highly of Of Pandas and People. Brande discovers the book will be voted on after the meeting and searches for a copy at his own institution, one of the depositional libraries, at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The book is noticeably absent there and at the other designated libraries.  

I could not believe I had missed such a critical text. Upon returning to Birmingham, I immediately checked with Gordon Dunkin, the UAB librarian who received the submitted texts. He confirmed that Sterne Library had never received “Pandas”. Was there a deadline for receipt and display of these texts by the designated libraries? Gordon extracted from his file a June 16 letter from Barry Buford of the State Department of Education instructing him to ensure that all submitted texts were on display by July 10. “Pandas” was now nearly 3 months late to the UAB library! Because I wanted to review this text, I called every one of the other 21 designated libraries across the state. Not one of them had a copy of “Pandas”. The absence of the book from the designated libraries raised a serious question: If a book were not on public display as required by the Alabama Department of Education, could it be voted on legitimately by either the State Textbook Committee or the State Board of Education?

Brande eventually secures a copy of the book and completes his review two weeks prior to the October 2nd meeting.   Haughton Publishing eventually sends bound copies to each library. Of Pandas and People arrives just one business day before the committee’s vote. Nonetheless, in October 1989, the Alabama State Textbook Committee votes 17-5 not to consider the book for inclusion.

Thursday, December 14th, 1989

None of the Science 5 live in Montgomery, the state capital. The furthest of them drives nearly three hours to make the 9 a.m. meeting. The closest still drives an hour. Each has taken time from their jobs to meet in the auditorium that morning. Brande must rush back quickly to teach a class that afternoon. The five arrive and scramble to their seats in an impressively packed board meeting.

Haughton Publishing, despite the decision of the textbook committee, appeals to the state board to ignore this recommendation and adopt the book. Haugton’s legal representative at the board meeting, Francis Hare, Jr. is a prominent Alabama attorney. Hare works at one of the largest law firms in Alabama, taught at several law schools, and held distinguished chairs at two law schools. His father helped found the Association of Trial Lawyers of America and was inducted into the Alabama Lawyers’ Hall of Fame. On that Thursday morning, Hare presents 11,800 signatures to the Board to adopt Of Pandas and People. A prominent Christian radio station out of Tuscaloosa urged people to sign the petition for several weeks prior. With an impressive attorney and pages of signatures, the Science 5 is miserably outgunned. Brande with a sense of wit notes, “I felt like Daniel in the lion’s den.”

Each of the five delivers their two-minute remarks.

After discussion, one board member moved to approve the book as supplementary text. In response to the inquiry by another board member, the Department of Education lawyer stated the board lacked such authority. The board voted instead to return the book back to the textbook committee for review.

In a bizarre turn of events at that textbook committee meeting, Hare announces that Haughton is withdrawing Of Pandas and People for consideration. Haughton recognizes the proceedings are not faring well and cannot afford the precedent that an Alabama ruling would set. Three days later the Alabama State Board of Education notes the withdrawal and the book never makes it into the Alabama classroom as an approved textbook.

As the battle continued to wage in Alabama, Brand continued to fight. In 1995 a review of state science standards begins again. The Alabama Eagle Forum is at the frontlines. Eunie Smith in a letter to Alabama school teachers states the proposed standards of “scientific literacy is part of the national agenda to use science for social change.” The governor, in his role as the ex officio chair of the Alabama State Board of Education, forces the board to give Eagle Forum a stage. Scott Brande sends a 19-page, his second of the year, point-by-point rebuttal of the Eagle Forum to the State Board. In the end, things do not fare well. On March 9th, 1995 the state board adopts, with the blessing of the Eagle Forum, a curriculum full of loopholes and the now infamous disclaimer in biology textbooks stating evolution should be considered just a “theory” without substantial evidence.

The curriculum is so bad that by 2000 the Fordham Foundation ranks the treatment of evolution in Alabama with its lowest score, F. In 1995, the State Board also decides to include a disclaimer in biology textbooks.

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Alabama Textbook Disclaimer

Brande drafts an alternative disclaimer that is scientifically defensible which he sends along to the state education board. Brande’s alternative is not adopted.

Monday, August 17th 2015

I’m sitting in a Birmingham breakfast joint sharing coffee with Scott Brande. He’s humble when talking about his role in these events. He mentions that scientists can commit their careers to research, teaching, and public service. “I might not have developed the research career I wanted but I dedicated myself to teaching and public service. Many freshman I teach have taken biology in the state of Alabama two years before. This affects me personally because these are my students.” For every page other scientists write towards a grant or scientific paper, Brande writes two pages reviewing Alabama science standards and textbooks.

Without his contribution things might be much different in Alabama, in this country. Alabama and Idaho were the first and only fights for a full statewide adoption of Of Pandas and People. A win in Alabama for the book would have made it easier to adopt in subsequent states. That never happened and later battles concentrated on local school districts, like Dover, Pennsylvania. In 2005, a U.S. District Court ruled that intelligent design was not science and essentially religious in nature, and inclusion of Of Pandas and People in the public classroom violated the First Amendment. No doubt the efforts of Brande and others in Alabama laid part of the groundwork for that case.

P5270188Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The influence of Alabama Eagle Forum on Alabama education continues today; a member of the Eagle Forum, Stephanie Belle, holds a seat on the State Board of Education. In January of this year, Brande once again sent multiple pages of comments on the new science standards. Brande noted the preface still contains, “the old language of anti-evolution rhetoric and factual errors inherited from previous editions should have gone extinct long ago.”

In the last few months the State Board adopted new science standards. Surprisingly, the teaching of evolution is mandated. Today I spoke with Brande online. He knows the new science standards are released but with his university responsibilities has not had time to review them. I read him the preface

Scientific theories are developed from observations and evidence to explain the nature of phenomena, to predict future outcomes, and to make inferences about the past. Scientific laws are supported by replicable experiments from within a controlled environment. Both theories and laws have equivalent utility and are open for revision in light of new evidence. The theory of evolution has a role in explaining unity and diversity of life on earth. This theory is substantiated with much direct and indirect evidence. Therefore, this course of study requires our students to understand the principles of the theory of evolution from the perspective of established scientific knowledge. The committee recognizes and appreciates the diverse views associated with the theory of evolution.

He is speechless at first as the preface text represents a massive leap forward. He eventually responses, “I’m elated. The vestiges of creationism are finally removed after a three-decade fight. We finally a board that puts greater value of science education than it did for the last 3 decades.” Again, Brande is humble, “It’s not just me but multiple forces pressing on the agency.” Brande is right multiple people throughout Alabama have fought for this moment including the other members of the Science Five, members of the Alabama Science Teacher’s Association, Alabama Citizens for Science Education, and the Alabama Academy of Science. But throughout it all Brande was common fixture.

 

 

29 Sep

Remembrances of George Washington Carver

In 1896, Booker T. Washington, the university’s president, invited George Washington Carver to head its Agricultural Department.  He spent 47 years at Tuskegee developing numerous inventions and agricultural practices.  He was likely one of the first scientists to initiate extension programs and actively train farmers.  The same farmers would often be recruited into Carver’s research in an early form of citizen science.

I have always found Carver a compelling figure.  Born into slavery, Carver rose to become one of the most important and influential scientists of his time. Carver was a true renaissance man; he taught piano at the University and loved to crochet. Carver also represents yet another dichotomy of science in the South. In the early 1900’s when Carver began his career, very few university educated African-Americans existed. To this date, the representation of African American in science is appalling low. However, Carver revolutionized agriculture from cotton to peanuts, soybeans, and sweet potatoes, crops now inseparable from Southern culture. No scientist has had such a profound influence on the South.

Equally intriguing is that Carver’s dedication to science was only matched by his dedication to Christianity.  Carver carried a bible every day and taught a bible class on campus.  He developed walnut dies and stained the pews from a local church.  Carver’s evangelism led to disapproval by many in the scientific establishment.  In contrast, the local Alabama and university loved him.

In August, I had the privilege of visiting Tuskegee University.  Dana Chandler, chief archivist for Tuskegee University, showed me items belonging to Carver.  I am indebted to Dana, himself a man of science and religion and scholar of Carver, for discussing Carver’s life and legacy with me. 

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A farmer once brought a 202 lb meteorite by wagon into Tuskegee University for Carver to examine. I am holding 22 lb section of that meteorite.

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Carver’s typewriter and a glass cover for his Zeiss microscope.

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A very old photograph of Carver’s laboratory. In the foreground you can see the glass cover for his microscope.

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One of Carver’s exhibits for farmers demonstrating uses for Wisteria, a common nuisance vine throughout the South.

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Carver’s field case.

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