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When It Comes To Climate Science, Texas Textbooks Just Got A Lot More Accurate

The state's top education board voted to approve textbooks that say humans are responsible for climate change, bowing to several months of public pressure from scientists and education advocates.

by Eva Hershaw
Nov 21 2014, 9:20pm

Image via AP/ Eric Gay

As Texas goes, so goes the nation — at least that's what some scientists and liberal organizations are hoping for.

The Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) approved on Friday, by a vote of 10-5, textbooks for its five million students that accurately reflect the state of climate science, closing months of debate between publishers, politicians, and advocacy groups over what is taught in the state's classrooms.

Josh Rosenau, the programs and policy director for the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), told VICE News that "students will learn the truth about the greatest challenge they'll confront as citizens of the 21st century."

While Texas is no stranger to textbook controversy — see the slavery-"Atlantic triangular trade" debate of 2010 and the creationism-evolution debate of 2013 — the latest dispute began in September, when Pearson and McGraw-Hill, together with several small publishers, released their preliminary social science textbooks for public comment. The more than 100 books considered for adoption were riddled with factual errors and problems, but Pearson and McGraw-Hill's treatment of climate change quickly took the spotlight.

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In September, the National Center for Science Education published a report criticizing passages and exercises on climate change, calling them "misleading," "inaccurate," and "deeply concerning." Advocacy groups in Texas and across the nation organized several petitions, calling on the publishers to put science ahead of politics. According to the Texas Freedom Network, which monitors the activities of far-right organizations, the petitions drew more than 116,000 signatures. 

While NCSE objected to many factual errors, the controversy centered primarily around passages from two textbooks.

A fifth grade social sciences book proposed by Pearson stated: "Scientists disagree about what is causing climate change," a statement that science organizations say is misleading because several studies have found that nearly all qualified researchers believe that humans are overwhelmingly responsible for climate change.

'There are not two equal sides to this.'

In the second text, a sixth grade social sciences textbook published by McGraw-Hill, students were asked to consider two points of view. The first was from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which won a Nobel Prize in 2007 for its work documenting global warming. The statement read that climate change "is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations." 

The second point of view came from the Heartland Institute, a conservative advocacy group that The Economist has deemed the "world's most prominent think tank promoting skepticism about man-made climate change." It read: "Thousands of peer-reviewed articles point to natural sources of climate variability that could explain some or even all of the warming in the second half of the twentieth century."

"There are not two equal sides to this," Rosenau told VICE News. "We know climate change is happening, we know humans are causing it, and we have an idea — in broad strokes — about what the consequences will be. If those excerpts were debating what we should do about climate change, that would actually be a debate."

Texas State Climatologist John Nielson-Gammon told VICE News: "It is not a problem in and of itself that they would use the Heartland Institute in the textbooks. The problem is that they say that scientists didn't agree on what was causing the change, which isn't true. Scientists disagree about proportions, but not the causes."

While climate change — a newcomer to social science textbooks — took the spotlight during this round of textbook revisions, advocacy groups sparred over a long list of historical issues. Among the most controversial content — which will be kept — are assertions that Moses played an influential role in the drafting of the Constitution and that the origins of democracy can be found in the Old Testament.

Beginning in 2010, Texas became a national battleground over how history and science is taught due to the fact that it's the second largest textbook market behind California. What gets published for Texas students will more than likely end up in other states that have far less of a market share.

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The 15 elected members of the SBOE have the last word on the state's educational texts. In order for books to be passed, they must meet at least half of the state-determined curriculum standards and contain no factual errors, a subjective determination that is also made by SBOE members. In 2011, Texas state legislators allowing public school districts and charter schools to purchase books that have not been approved by the SBOE, thereby circumventing its messy and politically-charged process. 

"For school districts, there's no doubt that this is on their mind as a long term solution to this problem if the State Board of Education continues to politicize the issue," said Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network. His sentiments are echoed by many Texans — and non-Texans — who would like to see textbook discussions separated from state politics. 

"I think it would be useful to make scientific accuracy be an apolitical issue," said Nielson-Gammon. "This is not something Republicans and Democrats should disagree about. Facts are facts and knowledge is knowledge. There don't have to be overt political implications."

Follow Eva Hershaw on Twitter: @beets4eva