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Rick Perry’s Anti-Science Streak is Nothing New

Perry's wrong that Texas schools can teach creationism alongside evolution.
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Is Rick Perry smarter than a fourth-grader?

In the science department, the answer appears to be ‘no’. Today, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, nine-year-old Sam Beane asked Perry a basic question.

“How old do I think the earth is?” Mr. Perry said. “You know what? I don’t have any idea. I know it’s pretty old, so it goes back a long, long way. I’m not sure anybody actually knows completely and absolutely how long, how old the earth is.”

Sorry, the correct answer is 4.5 billion years.

Then, he shifted to the topic of evolution.

“And here your mom was asking about evolution, and you know, it’s a theory that’s out there and it’s got some gaps in it,” Mr. Perry continued. “In Texas, we teach both creationism and evolution in our public schools.”

He added: “I figure you’re smart enough to figure out which one is right. Thank you.”

Just the day before, Perry tackled climate change (again):

I do believe that the issue of global warming has been politicized. I think there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects.

For anyone who’s paid attention to Perry’s career in Texas, these counterfactual remarks aren’t surprising in the least. For years, Perry has been saying things that would earn him a ‘D’ in any college (or high school) science class. He wears his anti-intellectualism on his sleeve like a boutonnière.

And it’s more than just words. Perry has packed key agencies, such as the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, with yes men who hold views far outside the scientific mainstream on climate change, toxicology, and environmental regulation. Perry’s battle with the EPA, in my view, is as much about anti-federalism as it is pleasing the Tea Party base’s anti-intellectual streak.

But, perhaps more interesting, is that Perry doesn’t appear to know Texas’ official policy on the teaching of evolution in public schools. First, it is plainly unconstitutional to teach creationism in public schools. The courts have been consistent on this question. Most recently, in 2005’s Kitzmiller v. Dover, a federal judge ruled that intelligent design can’t be taught in public schools because it’s tantamount to religion, not science, and thus violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Second, Texas’ official curriculum standards, called the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), requires that each high school student “knows evolutionary theory is a scientific explanation for the unity and diversity of life.”

Nowhere does it say that creationism or intelligent design be taught. However, it is important to note that there are some gray areas. For example, in high school biology, students are supposed to “analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning any data of sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record.”

That may not sound like much but for the culture warriors on the State Board of Education it’s a carefully-worded opening for creation-minded teachers to “teach the controversy.” Gaps in the fossil record? That disproves evolution!

Regardless of what the official curriculum is, there are teachers in Texas who do teach creationism. I know, because I had a teacher that did so in my Central Texas high school. She proudly displayed a bumper sticker on her podium that read something like, “Big Bang Theory: God Said ‘Bang’ and There it Was.” Her students picked up on her creationist catch-phrases – “Can’t make a chain out of missing links” – and took pity on us in the AP biology class, where evolution was taught as the cornerstone of biology.

Maybe this is what Rick Perry meant when he said “we teach both creationism and evolution in our public schools.” Creationism *is* taught occasionally; it’s just that it’s not supposed to be.

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A final note:

I happened to be interviewing Malcolm Cleaveland, a climate expert at the University of Arkansas who uses tree-ring data to study the North American climate of past centuries, shortly after Perry made his attack on scientists yesterday. 

Cleaveland was making the point that Texas, even under a normal climate scenario, could be due for another “megadrought” of the scale that’s happened numerous times in the past. Indeed, the current drought could be the first chapter in a decades-long drought that brings the state to its knees. Even if not, Cleaveland echoed the opinion of many climatologists that the American Southwest will likely undergo a dramatic and permanent drying-out due to the influence of human-caused climate change. 

In that context, Cleaveland had some harsh words for Rick Perry.

“He may believe that climate change is a hoax but the world doesn’t care what he believes,” he said. “Climate is going to continue to change and Texas, I’m afraid, is going to bear some rather severe consequences.”

But for Perry and his Tea Party enthusiasts there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.