WASHINGTON – Talk about a civics lesson: A high-school senior has raised questions about political bias in a popular textbook on U.S. government, and legal scholars and top scientists say the teen's criticism is well-founded.
They say "American Government" by conservatives James Wilson and John Dilulio presents a skewed view of topics from global warming to separation of church and state. The publisher now says it will review the book, as will the College Board, which oversees college-level Advanced Placement courses used in high schools.
Matthew LaClair of Kearny, N.J., recently brought his concerns to the attention of the Center for Inquiry, am Amherst, N.Y., think tank that promotes science and which has issued a scathing report about the textbook.
"I just realized from my own knowledge that some of this stuff in the book is just plain wrong," said LaClair, who is using the book as part of an AP government class at Kearny High School.
The textbook is designed for a college audience, but also is widely used in AP American government courses, said Richard Blake, a spokesman for the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Co. Blake said the company "will be working with the authors to evaluate in detail the criticisms of the Center for Inquiry." Blake said some disputed passages already have been excised from the newest edition of the book.
Both authors are considered conservative. Dilulio, a University of Pennsylvania professor, formerly worked for the Bush administration as director of faith-based initiatives. Wilson is the Ronald Reagan Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University. Neither responded immediately to calls seeking comment.
LaClair said he was particularly upset about the book's treatment of global warming. James Hansen, the director of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, recently heard about LaClair's concerns and has lent him some support.
Hansen has sent Houghton Mifflin a letter stating that the book's discussion on global warming contained "a large number of clearly erroneous statements" that give students "the mistaken impression that the scientific evidence of global warming is doubtful and uncertain."
The edition of the textbook published in 2005, which is in high school classrooms now, states that "science doesn't know whether we are experiencing a dangerous level of global warming or how bad the greenhouse effect is, if it exists at all."
A newer edition published late last year was changed to say, "Science doesn't know how bad the greenhouse effect is."
The authors kept a phrase stating that global warming is "enmeshed in scientific uncertainty."
While there are still some scientists who downplay global warming and the role of burning fossil fuels, the overwhelming majority of climate scientists and peer-reviewed scientific research say human activity is causing climate change. Last year an international collection of hundreds of scientists and government officials unanimously approved wording that said the scientific community had "very high confidence," meaning more than 90 percent likelihood, that global warming is caused by humans.
LaClair also was concerned about the textbook's treatment of U.S. Supreme Court decisions regarding prayer in school. The book shows a picture of kids praying in front of a Virginia high school and states, "The Supreme Court will not let this happen inside a public school." Blake said the photo was cut out of the most recent edition.
The textbook goes on to state that the court has ruled as "unconstitutional every effort to have any form of prayer in public schools, even if it is nonsectarian, voluntary or limited to reading a passage of the Bible."
Those examples are not correct, says Charles Haynes, a religious liberties expert at the First Amendment Center in Washington.
"Students can pray inside a public school in many different ways," Haynes said, adding they can pray alone or in groups before lunch or in religious clubs, for example.
Haynes said students can't disrupt the school or interfere with the rights of others. The court has said the prayer can't be state-sponsored, so a teacher can't lead a prayer and a school can't require it, Haynes said.
Another part of the book that the report criticizes deals with a Supreme Court decision overturning a Texas law banning sexual contact between people of the same sex.
The authors wrote that the Supreme Court decision had a "benefit" and a "cost." The benefit, it said, was to strike down a rarely enforced law that could probably not be passed today, while the cost was to "create the possibility that the court, and not Congress or state legislatures, might decide whether same-sex marriages were legal."
Derek Araujo, the report's author, said that's a matter of opinion and that gay-rights activists, for example, see it differently. "The major problem with this is they describe the costs and benefits of the system in a very political way," he said.
LaClair added that he perceived a bias in the book too.
"All the statements for the most part were trying to lead the reader in one direction and not giving a fair account of everything," he said.
It's not the first time LaClair has raised alarm bells over teaching at his school. A few years ago, he tape recorded a teacher making religious remarks to his students. Many people at the school were upset with LaClair for raising the issue.
"I'm not looking to cause a huge controversy, but I want the students to be taught correct information," LaClair said.
His mother, Debra, says she thinks her son is giving his peers another kind of civics lesson.
"When he sees something that is incorrect, he wants to fix it," she said. "That's him. That's what he does."