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Quit twisting my words

A TEXTBOOK CASE

April 27, 2008|James Q. Wilson | James Q. Wilson teaches public policy at Pepperdine University and previously taught at UCLA and Harvard. He is the author of many books. Most recently, he was the co-editor of "Understanding America: The Anatomy of an Exceptional Nation."

Of course some textbooks are politically biased. It is not hard to understand why. Opinion surveys and studies of campaign contributions show that the great majority of academic social scientists are liberals, so no one should be astonished to learn that some liberals write left-leaning textbooks and that some of them assign them to their classes.

No doubt there are right-wing textbooks as well, though I suspect that, given the shortage of conservative historians and political scientists, there are fewer of them.

But in my experience, most textbooks about politics are what we call "mainstream": That is, they try hard to cover the facts without seeking to persuade students to support or oppose any particular public policy. I suspect this is not only because of the desire of authors to be fair but a result of the publishers' editorial process.

Before each edition of my text, co-written with John J. DiIulio, is revised every three years, the publisher asks teachers who both do and do not use it to read it and write a lengthy critique. DiIulio and I do not know the names of these reviewers, whose suggestions come to us anonymously.

The comments generally encourage us to write somewhat more about things we have neglected or somewhat less about things we have emphasized. Sometimes, although rarely, they find elements of bias, and in those cases, they urge us to be fairer.

The publishers of other mainstream texts probably do the same thing. The result is that most widely used American government textbooks are relatively free of bias. We also read comments from student users of the book. In the 27 years since our book first appeared, I can recall only one complaint of bias. This came from a student who accused us of being too liberal. The evidence for this, she said, was that when we printed election data in a table, we mentioned the Democrats first. I responded that this was because we put the parties in alphabetical order. I hope that satisfied her.

But of late there has been a sudden flurry of charges that our book has a deep conservative bias. The Center for Inquiry, a nonprofit organization devoted to "secularism and planetary ethics," published a lengthy complaint saying that we had said the country was founded on a belief in "original sin" and that the text misinterprets the Supreme Court's rulings on school prayer. Two letters from space scientists say we give too little support to the idea of global warming.

And a New Jersey student, known for his activism in promoting 1st Amendment rights, says that a caption in the book, accompanying a photo of students praying outside a public school, falsely suggests that no student may ever pray inside a school building. And he complains that we unfairly called scientists who believe in global warming "activists."

These complaints, frankly, are ridiculous. The Committee 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."

As for school prayer, we made it perfectly clear in our book that what has been banned by the Supreme Court is state-sponsored prayer. It's true that a sloppily written photo caption was taken out of the 11th edition -- as our critics would have seen if they had looked at the most recent version of the book (which was in print long before they complained). But the entire section of the book discussing school prayer makes it clear that the public schools may not support, encourage or finance prayer in the schools. What we say, if one reads the chapter in which we discuss the 1st Amendment, is that the Supreme Court has decided that "the government cannot aid one religion, some religions, or all religions" and cannot spend tax money in support of religious activities. If students want to pray on their own, that is their business.

The space scientists think that we were too critical of the global warming argument. In the 10th edition of the book, which they read, we wrote that there was disagreement among scientists about this matter. In the 11th edition, which they did not read, we said that the disagreement was much less, though it still exists. What happened between the 10th and 11th editions? Among other things, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a new report in which the evidence for greenhouse gases affecting Earth's temperature was stronger. If they doubt the claim that this is controversial, they should consult professors Richard Linzen at MIT, William Gray at the University of Colorado and John Christy at the University of Alabama, among others.

DiIulio is a Democrat, and I am a Republican. If we had written a book about public policy, there might well have been issues on which we disagreed. But in writing a book that describes how politics work in this country, there was no disagreement at all.

If anyone who reads this article believes the text is biased, they should write to me. If they think it is not biased, they should write the Center for Inquiry.

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