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Controversy Erupts Over Errors, Bias in Textbook

Henry Huber

May 8, 2008

In 2006, New Jersey public high-school junior Matthew LaClair made headlines after secretly tape recording the unconstitutional religious messages his history teacher aimed at the students. Now a senior, LaClair finds himself in the news again, this time for exposing misinformation in a nationally distributed textbook used in his advanced-placement government class. In the book, American Government: Institutions and Policies, tenth edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006), LaClair found what he believed to be several inaccurate and misleading statements, including editorializing, inaccuracies about constitutional law, and attempts to sway students to side with the minority of scientists who dismiss global warming.

He took his concerns to the Center for Inquiry, where legal experts analyzed the college-level textbook and prepared a critical twenty-five-page report detailing what the experts call “egregious errors” sufficient enough to warrant “immediate correction.” Among the mistakes in the textbook by professors James Wilson and John DiIulio Jr. are inferences that the scientific evidence for global warming is unreliable, that the possibility of same-sex couples gaining legal acceptance is “a cost” of the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down draconian bans on public expressions of affection in Texas, and the fallacy that all forms of prayer are illegal in public schools. The book also suggests that the religious concept of original sin was the basis for the Constitution, and seems to lament that the document’s original, religion-friendly, rejected First Amendment language was preferable to what was actually ratified.

Wilson, a Republican, is the Ronald Reagan Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University. DiIulio, identified by Wilson as a Democrat, is the former director of faith-based initiatives for the Bush administration and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

LaClair said he first became suspicious when he read a passage that he knew was factually inaccurate, stating that prayer in any form was banned on school grounds. In addition to the book falsely stating that assertion twice, a photograph of praying students was captioned, “The Supreme Court will not let this happen inside a public school.” In fact, students may pray alone or in groups, at any time they like, as long as they don’t disrupt the learning environment. What’s unconstitutional is compulsory or teacher-led prayer-the active promotion of a specific faith by tax-supported figures of authority. The book disingenuously portrayed the faith community as public-school martyrs, a known tactic used by the Religious Right to perpetuate unwarranted feelings of victimhood and influence policy makers. Ronald A. Lindsay, CFI’s general legal counsel and co-author of the report, characterized the errors as “significant and inexcusable,” and noted that falsely claiming the Supreme Court banned prayer in schools “betrays either a serious misunderstanding of the law or a willingness to have the textbook serve as a propaganda vehicle for the Religious Right.”

Report co-author and lawyer Derek Araujo, executive director for CFI’s New York office , spearheaded the textbook review project. Araujo, “surprised and dismayed” at the book, recruited leading scientists, including report co-author Stuart D. Jordan from NASA, to provide assessment of the book’s treatment of global warming. The book labels the scientific majority who see evidence of warming as entrepreneurial “activists,” while placing the mantle of healthy skepticism on those who dismiss it.

CFI, in advocacy mode, sent out a warning and expressed publicly the importance for civics students to be provided with accurate information and instructional material that is objective and free of ideological bias. An April 8 Associated Press article about the textbook controversy penetrated at least 250 media outlets, including The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Science Magazine, Fox News, MSNBC, CNN Headline News, National Public Radio, The International Herald-Tribune (France), the U.K. Guardian, and CFI’s Amherst-area CBS affiliate. Numerous localized stories, high-volume blogging, and media hits in U.S. markets wherever the book was used also fueled the controversy’s momentum. Even The Weather Channel did a segment on it, citing its skewed view of global-warming evidence.

The news coverage also prompted a response from the publisher to the New York Times article on its Dot Earth science section, a thorough critique of that response on a progressive blog, and a call by Friends of the Earth to sign a petition to the publisher to acknowledge the science behind global warming.

With the story still making news three weeks later, LaClair was asked to write an op-ed piece for The Los Angeles Times to contrast Wilson’s op-ed defense. LaClair’s April 27 bylined article recalled the situation as he, CFI, and the AP collectively saw it-that biased and erroneous information had unfortunately evaded editorial safeguards, and the real tragedy may be that authors are rarely called on it when it happens. “Pointing out dissent within the scientific community is appropriate,” he wrote on the book’s climate remarks. “Suggesting that the majority, but not the minority, is politically motivated is not appropriate. If a controversy truly exists, then the authors should not instruct students which side to ‘support'.”

Wilson’s rebuttal is on the defensive from the first sentence, “Of course some textbooks are politically biased,” and goes on to betray his bias with some arguably loaded words, deflections and more layers of apparent untruths. Most of the criticisms were unaddressed, and his chief example of resolution was the removal of the prayer photo in the eleventh edition. All would have been well, he posits, if CFI only “had looked at the most recent version of the book (which was in print long before they complained).”

It turns out “in print” means electronic-download-purchase only from select sources, and “long before” means published November 30, 2007, copyright 2008. LaClair’s original complaint to CFI was exactly one day later, on December 1. Queries to textbook distributors for Wilson’s “in print” eleventh edition proved fruitless through spring, and the Houghton Mifflin Web page still announced as late asApril 2008 that the eleventh edition was forthcoming sometime that year.

In fact, on April 3, a Climate Institute scientist consulting with CFI e-mailed Araujo, expressing that he couldn’t get a copy: “I did a bit of looking on the Web, and in looking on the Houghton Mifflin page I found out they are putting out the eleventh edition this year (2008)” he wrote. “I have no idea or way to find out if they revised it adequately, but would hope so.” So the e-book was available, for $67.96, if you knew where to look, but it was certainly not available for perusal in the average classroom, library or store.

But was it corrected? An electronic copy was purchased and downloaded April 8, and a side-by-side analysis of sixteen examples from both editions shows the offending text wholly unaltered in eleven instances (which includes repeating a falsely depicted 6-3 court ruling as a contentious 5-4 decision), and altered to correct only a spelling error in a twelfth (it read, “global warning”).

Of the four areas updated, three were rewordings of global-warming entries that held the same basic position as the originals, although the word “activist” was removed and a lengthy paragraph demonizing scientists and championing climate-change skeptics was shortened to simply read, “On the one hand, a warmer globe will cause sea levels to rise, threatening coastal communities; on the other hand, greater warmth will make it easier and cheaper to grow crops and avoid high heating bills.”

In the fourth instance, the prayer photo was changed and captioned to read, “Two opposing high school basketball teams pray together after a game,” but the two erroneous mentions of banned prayer in the chapter text were untouched. It appears that all the most recent edition corrects is a typo that was arguably more accurate than the lesson.

Wilson’s devotion to fact checking is revealed in his deflection defense of a religious passage, in which he ironically identifies CFI by the wrong name. “These complaints, frankly, are ridiculous,” Wilson wrote. “The Committee (sic) for Inquiry ignored the book and cherry-picked sentences. We do not think the nation was founded on an idea of original sin; we used that phrase to highlight the fact that the founders took human nature pretty much as they found it and created a constitutional arrangement designed, in James Madison’s words, to make “ambition counteract ambition.”

The phrase in question, which was unchanged in the eleventh edition, read, “To the colonists all of mankind suffered from original sin, symbolized by Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Since no one was born innocent, no one could be trusted with power. Thus the Constitution had to be designed in such a way as to curb the darker side of human nature.”

If the authors don’t think that’s an accurate description of history, then one questions their motivation for putting it under the noses of students.

Wilson concludes with a curious call for correspondence: “If anyone who reads this article believes the text is biased, they should write to me,” he offers. “If they think it is not biased, they should write the Center for Inquiry.”

His address is:

James Q. Wilson School of Public Policy Pepperdine University 24255 Pacific Coast Highway Malibu, CA 90263-7490

At the time of this writing, Araujo and Wilson had been contacted by NPR for a pending joint appearance on Talk of the Nation. So far, only Araujo has agreed to interview.

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Henry Huber is CFI's former Assistant Director of Communications. Henry graduated cum laude from the State University of New York College at Buffalo with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, and joined the Center for Inquiry after working as editor for two Western New York newspapers. While working at the Center for Inquiry, Henry was a regular contributor to the Skeptical Briefs newsletter, editor of the new Committee for Skeptical Inquirer e-newsletter, and an occasional contributor to the Free Thinking blog and Skeptical Inquirer magazine. He formerly handled the national distribution for the Humanist Perspective.