21 Nov

The Unknown Five Scientists Who Saved Science Education in Alabama


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.


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.



12 Nov

There Is More Than One Way to Start a Tornado

Of the 2011 Southern tornado outbreak,  April 27th particularly stands out. A total of 199 tornadoes occurred in a 24-hour period leading to 316 fatalities.  That not a misprint.  199 tornadoes.  What makes the event meteorologically interesting is that tornadoes came from  three rounds of weather, each with unique characteristics. Any good, Southern, armchair meteorologist knows the basics of a supercell leading to a tornado. But tornadoes can originate also from quasi-linear convective systems, a only partially understood and complex process. The early morning and midday tornadoes of April 27th arose from just such systems.

From Knup et al. 2014

From Knup et al. 2014.  QLCS vs. supercells in Alabama on April 27th, 2011

When thunderstorms become organized and active at larger scale, the overall complex is referred to as a mesocscale convective system (MCS). When these MCSs approximate something near linear, typically at the leading edge of a cold front, they are referred to as a quasi-linear convective system (QLCS). You may know this better as a squall line. As many a Southerner knows, the squall line contains heavy rains, hail, frequent lighting, and strong winds. Basically your typical Southern spring day.


QLCS over Arkansas

A QLCS can also produce a tornado.  The whole process is very complex and only partially understood.  The cold front lifts the warm air ahead of it forcibly forming the rain line. The rain cools the air causing the air to sink, called a cold pool, which produces strong winds. These winds rushing out causing the squall line to bow.

Ahead of the storm the cold and dense winds force the warmer air to loft. As these winds “empty” the space behind the bow, a low-pressure area is created.  This low-pressure area is filled in by drier air above the storm. This movement continues to accelerates the whole process.  A rear-inflow jet (RIJ) forms caused by the  elevated area of low pressure caused by a tilted updraft over top of the cold  pool.



The bookend circulation at the tips of the bow echo is caused by differences air density due to temperature and pressure, i.e. cold dense air sinks and warm light air rises.  This vertical air movement causes horizontal rotation. Imagine taking a pool noodle, turn it on its axis, and bend it into an arch.



The circulation occurring at the northern part of the bow is amplified due to Coriolis effects.  Interestingly despite the significant rotation,  not all QLCS tornadoes are produced in bookend vortices.  In fact, most  form in smaller-scale vortices at the leading edge of a QLCS.  

bowfujitIn the South a significant number of tornadoes can develop from QLCSs. In one study nearly 55% of the tornadoes in Mississippi and Tennessee over a 5-year period developed from QLCSs.  QLCS tornadoes are unlike supercell tornadoes.  They both form and dissipate quickly and initiate below the radar detection heights. This combinations of factors make it difficult to warn people of a QLCS tornado. Typically by the time the warning is issued… the tornado is already gone. The fact that more QLCS tornadoes occur during the late night/early morning hours make this lack of warning even more concerning.

Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 6.03.30 PMLuckily, QLCSs do not often form larger tornadoes. Rarely, however, QLCS spun tornadoes can reach EF2-3. This is exactly what happened on the April 27, 2011 (see figure above from Knupp et al 2014). The first 76 tornadoes of the day developed from a strong MCS that developed in Arkansas, grew stronger in Mississippi, and evolved into a QLCS in Alabama in the early morning. In the mid-day a second QLCS developed, producing 7 weak tornadoes. The earlier QLCS tornadoes caused multiple local power outages across Alabama. This reduced the possibility of warnings, as electricity is needed for sirens, radio, and television. The afternoon saw the development of supercells that spawned the largest tornadoes of the April 27th outbreak. Many people never received the warning.



11 Nov

A visit to SWIRLL

Sign outside the tornado shelter or break room depending on the day.

I’m am very late writing this post.  The struggles of being an academic who is working on a book are real.  I was very lucky to be hosted by tornado scientists Anthony Lyza (@tlyzawx), Kevin Knupp, and Ryan Wade (@ryanwadewx) at the University of Alabama, Huntsville back in August.   The new Severe Weather Institute and Radar & Lightning Laboratory, brilliantly named SWIRLL, is fantastic and beautiful facility.  Tony, whose work I’ve discussed previously, took time to show me around SWIRLL.  The three scientists then were amazingly patient explaining meteorological concepts to this neophyte. Overall an amazing day discussing QLCS produced tornadoes (post coming soon), why Southern tornadoes are different, and how topography and vegetation affect tornadoes.  

02 Apr

Are some areas more tornado prone?

Screen Shot 2015-03-18 at 11.00.04 AMConway rests almost square in the middle of Arkansas. In the early 90’s when I attended college in this Southern town there were fewer than 30,000 people.   Outside of the Old South Pancake House, a Wal-Mart, and the annual Toad Suck Daze, nothing much occurred, not even tornadoes, a rarity in a town also squarely in Tornado Alley. Just a few minutes away sets Vilonia, a town of a few thousand that makes Conway look like a sprawling metropolis. What Vilonia lacks in cultural exhilaration is more than made up for in meteorological excitement. In 2011 an EF2 tornado wiped out a small part of the town. In 2014 and EF4 wiped out the rest. But Vilonia has nothing on Moore, Oklahoma. In 1998, 1999, 2003, 2010, twice in 2013, and again 2015, tornados have struck this town just south of Oklahoma City. Since the town’s founding in the late 1800’s over 20 tornados have removed parts of this small town.

All this begs the question, are some areas more tornado prone? 

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 9.54.24 PMOver very broad scales this is most certainly true. The area known as Tornado Alley sees the clash between warm moist air from the Gulf of Mexico near the ground, colder air in the upper atmosphere from the west, and a third layer of very warm dry air between the two levels from the southwest that tries to keep the other two at bay (see background at this post). 

Although it covers just 15% of the U.S., Tornado Alley lays claim to nearly 30% of all the confirmed tornadoes in the Storm Prediction Center’s database between 1950 and 2012. Of the 58,046 tornadoes on record in that period, 16,674 of those occurred in Tornado Alley, which is a long-term average of 268 tornadoes per year.-ustornadoes.com

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 9.54.17 PMBut at more local scales are some areas “protected” or “off limits”? Over a decade ago, meteorological researchers Chris Broyles and Casey Crosbie at the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma proposed that are “smaller tornado alleys.”

Many smaller tornado alleys were identified across the Mississippi Valley, Tennessee Valley, Great Plains, Ohio Valley and Carolinas. Though there may undoubtedly be specific meteorological reasons why these apparent alleys exist, one hypothesis is the smaller alleys are related to topographic features that may modulate environmental conditions in ways that favor development of these types of tornadoes.

One adage is that “tornadoes don’t happen in the mountains”. As someone who grew up in the Ozark Mountains and saw my high school demolished it’s not a belief I personally hold but anecdote does not make science. It does appear that tornados are less frequent in the mountainous areas due increasingly colder temperatures with increased elevation. This cold denser air at higher elevations is more stable—not exactly the best trigger for a tornado. Yet, while tornados are less frequent they do still occur in the mountains. Just as one example, an EF3 tornado hit at 2,080 feet over Glade Spring, Virginia in April 2011.

Researchers at the University of Alabama at Huntsville have also found the roughness of that topography can also influence the power of tornado. Kevin Knupp lead of the research team states, “Forested areas have a rougher surface than open agricultural regions. Forested regions over mountains are even rougher because the mountain topography has a certain roughness associated with it.” In simulations, the rougher the area the stronger and wider a tornado can get in simulations. Another researcher in this group, Anthony Lyza, has started providing evidence that tornadoes in Alabama are affected by topography. Tornadoes weaken as they proceed up and strengthen as they proceed down mountains and hills. Sometimes whether uphill or downhill a hill or mountain will just cause a tornado to dissipate. Circulation will intensify as a tornado moves onto and weaken as it moves off a plateau. Tornado tracks will deviate to follow plateau edges and valleys.

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 10.23.10 PMIn the map above (from Broyles and Crosbie) you note a mini-tornado alley in the Northeast Arkansas. Changes in topography from the forested mountains of the Ozarks to the flat farmland of the deltas of the Mississippi and Arkansas Rivers lend some credence to Knupp’s hypothesis. In combination with this topographic change, Gulf of Mexico moisture running up the Mississippi river may also bank against the mountains leading to minor atmospheric instabilities that trigger tornadoes.

Yet variance in the number tornadoes from location to location may be just biases in reporting and spotting tornadoes in unpopulated regions. James Elsner and team at Florida State University found that “historically, the number of reported tornadoes across the premiere storm chase region of the central plains is lowest in the countryside,” a pattern greatly mitigated in recent years due to storm chasers.


Top a uniform distribution. Middle a random distribution. Bottom a clumped distribution

There may be another reason for mini-tornado alleys. Randomness. Humans are almost completely useless in detecting spatial patterns. To clarify, we specifically have difficulty separating random from clumped patterns, especially when the clumpiness of events is weak to moderate. Keep in mind that small amount of clumping happens in truly random processes. Take the figure below. I generated 1,000 random numbers between 0 and 1. I generated another set of 1,000 random numbers between 0 and 1. I used these to represent the x,y coordinates of simulated tornado touchdowns on my hypothetical tornado alley. You can clearly see that simulated tornadoes are clumped in some regions. Compare this to a figure James Elsner posted on Twitter (far bottom) of actual tornado frequencies in Kansas.The next step for tornado research is to separate random pattern from actual areas that see more than their fair share of tornadoes.




Tornado paths 1954-2013 over the central Plains. Counts per grid cell.


20 Nov

Emotionally Surviving A Tornado


Having grown up smack dab in the middle of Tornado Alley, my wife and I consistently have “Tornado Dreams.” Simply put, they involve being chased by or being inside a structure struck by a tornado.   Tornado Dreams are a simple manifestation of growing up in an area plagued by violent weather. But the psychological effects of tornadoes can go much further.

The spring of 2011 brought one of the worst outbreaks of tornadoes, 1,170 confirmed, on record for the Midwestern, Southern, and Eastern United States. These tornadoes led to 552 deaths and $14 billion in total damages. April 27 had the most tornado-related fatalities in the United States in a single day since the “Tri-State” outbreak on March 18, 1925, when over 700 people were killed.

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