Facts, Not Agendas in Textbooks

Slanted environmental news shouldn't be in schools

The State Board of Education recently made a brave decision, rejecting two proposed environmental textbooks that were not only factually erroneous but also blatantly biased. The publisher of one of the rejected books has since agreed to remove the bias and correct the errors.

I testified at that hearing and, in the process, pointed out several factual errors to the board in response to direct questioning.

In one case, the error was so obvious that its presence at that late stage of the book’s editing was surprising. On one page of an environmental textbook, students were told that water vapor was the most important greenhouse gas. On the facing page, students were told that carbon dioxide was the most important greenhouse gas. This error was all the more stunning because it was about global warming, which many environmental activists, including many who testified at the hearing, view as the largest environmental problem of our time.

But factual errors were really the least of the problems these proposed school books had. By far, the biggest problem was bias, both subtle and blatant. With little exception, the texts reflected a politicized view of environmental science and policy that presents every environmental problem by worst-case scenarios; that assigns blame exclusively to industry, capitalism and Western values; and that proposes command-and-control regulations as the best solution, preferably at federal or international levels.

Consider this little gem, from one of the rejected texts: “Some scholars believe that the spread of democracy, which put land ownership and wealth in the hands of many, and the industrial revolution, which made mass production of goods possible and spread wealth throughout society, are at the root of the environmental crisis.”

Shame on us for spreading democracy!

Or this one, also from a rejected text: “Human attitudes and beliefs are also responsible for many unsustainable practices. Denial, apathy, inability to respond to subtle threats, greed, acquisitiveness and other factors influence our economic systems, laws and way of life in profound ways. In short, they worsen our biological imperialist tendencies.”

I’ll bet you didn’t even know you had biological imperialist tendencies.

Those favoring such biased views on the nature of environmental problems wanted to hide behind the language of the Texas education code, which seems to limit grounds for textbook rejection to “factual error” for all science-related texts. But one of the first people to testify read a letter from state Rep. Charlie Howard, who explained that the Legislature did not intend the Texas education code to be construed as narrowly as some school board members were insisting.

Supporters of the biased texts tried to discredit the school board decision and portray it as a partisan, fundamentalist religious coup d’etat. Indeed, after the vote was taken, the first comment heard was from a school board member who loudly observed that the vote was “party-line.” That is a keen insight from a person who somehow saw neither bias in the proposed books nor any factual errors.

There is no question that we face environmental challenges and that our children are going to face even more. It’s important that our kids receive a thorough and extensive education about these problems and the many problem-solving approaches available to them. But giving our children a heavily slanted view of environmental issues – slanted in any direction – will only poison the virtuous pursuit of safety, health and environmental quality.

If we choose to use environmental education as a vehicle to promote political agendas of whatever stripe, we will ill-prepare our children for overcoming the challenges they face.

Dr. Kenneth Green is senior fellow at Reason Foundation and Chief Scientist at Frasier Institute.