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Coming to PBS, The Revisionaries Revises History of 2009 Texas State Board of Education Evolution Debate

Our Darwin-lobbying friends at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) are excited that PBS has announced it will air a film titled The Revisionaries that extensively features NCSE executive director Eugenie Scott. You can catch it on TV starting January 28. The NCSE calls the film an “acclaimed documentary about the controversy over the Texas state board of education’s efforts to undermine the scientific and historical integrity of the textbooks used in the state’s public schools.”

Yes it is acclaimed, for what that may be worth, and even garnered a “Critics’ Pick” review in the New York Times, which praised the film for being “admirably evenhanded” and “a well-made dispatch from a long war.”

Evenhanded? Well, let’s see here. Back in May 2012, I attended a screening at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF). Directed by Scott Thurman, the film is aptly named. It is quite “revisionary,” in the sense that it tries to radically revise history by suggesting “intelligent design” and “creationism” were required in the 2009 Texas Science Standards (TEKS), and that these standards were pushed for by ignorant fundamentalist board members who ignored the advice of all qualified experts. In truth, this “documentary” is basically a movie version of the tired old talking points of the Texas Darwin lobby, emphasizing the private religious views of board members and giving the impression that the issue of Texas textbook standards is all about whether school kids will be taught there were dinosaurs on Noah’s ark.

Indeed publicity art for the movie shows a tidal wave bearing the ark and a couple of T. rexes as the towering water is about to engulf the Texas State Capitol building.

Here are the facts.

The 2009 TEKS of course did not (and do not) include either creationism or intelligent design (which, needless to say, is different from creationism). If you don’t believe me, read the TEKS for yourself, which require of students:

  • “in all fields of science, analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing, including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations, so as to encourage critical thinking by the student”;
  • “analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning any data of sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record”;
  • “analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning the complexity of the cell”;
  • “analyze and evaluate the evidence regarding formation of simple organic molecules and their organization into long complex molecules having information such as the DNA molecule for self-replicating life”;
  • “analyze and evaluate a variety of fossil types such as transitional fossils, proposed transitional fossils, fossil lineages, and significant fossil deposits with regard to their appearance, completeness, and alignment with scientific explanations in light of this fossil data . . . .”

Where’s the “creationism” or “intelligent design” in these standards? Did you catch the reference to Noah’s ark? I didn’t either. The standards simply ask students to look at the evidence for and against Darwinian evolution. There’s nothing about including or teaching any alternatives to evolution, or any religion.

If the standards do push for “creationism,” why did they pass 13 to 2, with many pro-evolution, vocally anti-creationist board members voting in favor?

Another way The Revisionaries revises history is by telling its audience that the experts who testified in favor of teaching the “strengths and weaknesses” of Darwinian evolution were unqualified to do so.

Thus the film offers unrebutted commentary from Thomas Ratliff, a pro-Darwin-only board member who beat the previous chairman, Don McLeroy, in an election in 2010. Ratliff claims that Darwin-skeptics offered “no apparent experts in the field.” He says that of those experts in favor of teaching the strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian evolutionary theory, none had “bachelors or masters” degrees in fields relevant to their testimony, and none had “field” experience. This is of course not true. Each of the three invited experts who argued for teaching the “strengths and weaknesses” had strong relevant qualifications:

  • Ralph Seelke is a professor of biology at the University of Wisconsin (Superior). Like most biologists, he has a PhD in biology. He testified before the TSBOE about problems with biological evolution, describing his own research with bacteria, which suggests there are limits to the power of Darwinian evolution.
  • Charles Garner is a chemistry professor at Baylor University (PhD in organic chemistry) who does research relevant to origin-of life-questions. He testified about problems with theories of the chemical origins of life.
  • Stephen Meyer holds a PhD in the history and philosophy of science from Cambridge University where he studied the history of this scientific debate. Dr. Meyer testified about scientific weaknesses in biological and chemical evolutionary theory that have been expressed in the mainstream scientific literature. Given that he himself has published some of this literature, he’s clearly qualified.

Those were just the invited experts. Additionally, as I explained previously here, there was a parade of other PhD biologists who testified in favor of teaching the “strengths and weaknesses”:

PhD biologists who testified in favor of teaching the “strengths and weaknesses” included Ray Bohlin, Don Ewert, Wade Warren, and Sara Kolb Hicks. Warren and Hicks gave striking testimony about the lack of academic freedom for university researchers. Warren testified about how a non-mandatory discussion on the pros and cons of evolution that he wanted to hold while a graduate student in biology was shut down. Specifically, Hicks, who holds a PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Rice University, lamented the fact that “science censorship permeates education at the undergraduate and graduate levels.” These biologists testified about weaknesses in evolution including the limits to the amount of biological change that can be effected by natural selection, the lack of evidence for evolution in the fossil record, the inability of Darwinian evolution to produce the complexity of cellular processes, and the fact that evolution is not even required to do most biology research.

Additionally, LeTourneau biology professor Karen Rispin testified about scientific weaknesses in evolution pertaining to the presentation of evolution in biology textbooks, and discrepancies between fossil and molecular dates for alleged common ancestors of species. By the end of the day, no one could say with a straight face that there are no scientific weaknesses in evolution, or that no credible scientists doubt neo-Darwinism.

None of this information comes out in the film. Instead, the audience is left with a distinct, unmistakable and completely false impression — that the pro-“strengths and weaknesses” experts lacked relevant scientific qualifications.

That this was the film’s message was clearly revealed in a question during the Q & A session after the screening I attended. Someone asked if more stringent standards would be applied in the future to ensure that experts had relevant qualifications!

The film is largely dedicated to making ad hominem attacks against the motives (and the personal creationist beliefs) of Darwin-skeptics on the Texas State Board of Education. Meanwhile, it does nothing to scrutinize the motives of leading evolutionists featured in the film — for example, the NCSE’s Eugenie Scott. The documentary shows no interest in mentioning or exploring the fact that she is a signer of the Third Humanist Manifesto. She is entitled to sign any document she likes, but surely that speaks to her own motivations no less than does, for example, Don McLeroy’s personal views about young earth creationism.

In the same way, the film attacks the qualifications of Darwin-doubting experts, but never complains about the fact that pro-evolution expert Ronald Wetherington (an evolutionary anthropologist by training) gave extensive testimony about issues related to U.S. history and medieval philosophy — subjects far outside his area of expertise. Filmmaker Scott Thurman simply chose not to criticize any of the Darwinian evolutionists who testified.

As for other Darwin-skeptics, The Revisionaries calls us “evolution deniers,” who “thumbed their noses at science,” exhibiting a combination of “ignorance and arrogance.” According to the film, we “creationists” seek to impose “creationist-inspired nonsense” on Texas students. Gratuitous scenes, carefully selected from Scott Thurman’s numerous hours of TSBOE meeting footage, show Darwin-doubting board members stumbling over their words, all to portray them as ignorant and uninformed. For good measure, Ronald Wetherington offers his opinion that Discovery Institute staff are “masters of deceit.” There is no allusion to any of the many inaccurate claims Dr. Wetherington made in his own testimony.

Double-standards like this are legion in the film, and there are many other biased or inaccurate elements. Suffice to say, The Revisionaries is an exercise in promoting the “Inherit the Wind Stereotype,” and as most stereotypers do, it ignores contrary evidence.

Yet during the Q & A that I observed, director Scott Thurman claimed that he wanted the film to be “fair”! Really?

After the SIFF screening of The Revisionaries, I overheard Thurman talking with a couple of audience members. He said that he was careful not to give the impression that ID and evolution are “equal.” Likewise, during the Q & A, Thurman was asked “How in the world do we fight this?” His answer was “Let’s get the average citizen sufficiently scared to go out and vote.” More specifically, Thurman told the audience his film’s goal is to target “moderate Republicans.” The idea is to get them to vote with the Darwin lobby.

Mr. Thurman is welcome to his opinions, but he shouldn’t pretend that his film was trying to be fair or that it is without its own agenda. Perhaps, as I’ve written elsewhere, for journalists and documentary filmmakers in the Darwin lobby, agendas and bias are the new “fair”.

The Revisionaries is a “dispatch” all right — from the alternative universe promoted by the Darwin lobby. Though the individuals featured in the documentary are real enough, the impression that Mr. Thurman seeks to leave with viewers overlaps only vaguely with reality.

If anything, the film is a good reminder of why we at Discovery Institute often choose not to participate in documentaries that have an obvious agenda to twist the facts and play on the emotions of viewers (in this case, the target audience was apparently “moderate Republicans”) — all to “scare” them into capitulating to Darwin. Yet Thurman had the chutzpah to complain that we didn’t want to be interviewed for his agenda-driven, intensely biased, and historically inaccurate documentary. Is that “fair”?

Casey Luskin

Associate Director and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



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