Book Burning in the New Millenium
The juxtaposition of two recent New York Times articles quite terrifies me. The first which I read a week or so ago concerns the fact that the religious right is now attacking science again, but this time they are not restricted to merely Darwin's theory of evolution. It opens with:
Critics of the teaching of evolution in the nation’s classrooms are gaining ground in some states by linking the issue to global warming, arguing that dissenting views on both scientific subjects should be taught in public schools.
Other fine quotes include:
The linkage of evolution and global warming is partly a legal strategy: courts have found that singling out evolution for criticism in public schools is a violation of the separation of church and state. By insisting that global warming also be debated, deniers of evolution can argue that they are simply championing academic freedom in general.
In South Dakota, a resolution calling for the “balanced teaching of global warming in public schools” passed the Legislature this week.
“Carbon dioxide is not a pollutant,” the resolution said, “but rather a highly beneficial ingredient for all plant life.”
And the article closes with:
After that, said Joshua Rosenau, a project director for the National Center for Science Education, he began noticing that attacks on climate change science were being packaged with criticism of evolution in curriculum initiatives.
He fears that even a few state-level victories could have an effect on what gets taught across the nation.
James D. Marston, director of the Texas regional office of the Environmental Defense Fund, said he worried that, given Texas’ size and centralized approval process, its decision on textbooks could have an outsize influence on how publishers prepare science content for the national market.
“If a textbook does not give enough deference to critics of climate change — or does not say that there is real scientific debate, when in fact there is little to none — they will have a basis for turning it down,” Mr. Marston said of the Texas board. “And that is scary for what our children will learn everywhere.”
It's a disturbing article to read in general. It's terrifying because it presents the idea of small steps, none of which are catastrophic (e.g. South Dakota), leading to a destination where the world has changed in the most fundamental of ways (i.e. Texas setting the tone for the national market).
The second article (actually the first chronologically) was in the business section. It gets scarier still. It has to do with MacMillan, one of the five largest publishers of trade books and textbooks, introducing fully editable textbooks. The article begins:
In a kind of Wikipedia of textbooks, Macmillan ... is introducing software called DynamicBooks, which will allow college instructors to edit digital editions of textbooks and customize them for their individual classes.
Professors will be able to reorganize or delete chapters; upload course syllabuses, notes, videos, pictures and graphs; and perhaps most notably, rewrite or delete individual paragraphs, equations or illustrations. [srw &mdash Emphasis added.]
While many publishers have offered customized print textbooks for years — allowing instructors to reorder chapters or insert third-party content from other publications or their own writing — DynamicBooks gives instructors the power to alter individual sentences and paragraphs without consulting the original authors or publisher. [srw &mdash Emphasis added again.]
I have great confidence that the contracts the authors sign will give MacMillan the ability for appropriate copyright control to allow this sort of re-editing. But let's be really really clear. This is NOTHING like Wikipedia. The ability to change the author's original content to suit one's own needs is not the same as providing a rich editing environment where controversies are clearly apparent. The ability for a professor at a university with a strong religious bent in a State "simply championing academic freedom in general" to edit text books to suit their needs is a recipe for disaster. Credible sources (and the original author's brand and credibility) can be twisted to support the insanity of challenging established science. This is not good.
Writing the rules such that content can be changed without changing an author's intentions is still a recipe for disaster as it will place efforts to police, debate, and correct things on the authors and the system. The damage will have been done. Orwell suggested that language precedes thought. If there is no word for a concept, it cannot be expressed. A proper tyranny would do well to remove such words from use. In the modern web connected world, the concept may still exist on the web, but sowing confusion may replace the need to remove a word from use, or to destroy a book outright.
Textbooks still have weight in our society. It's not just the literal weight of paper, but the sense of organization and flow and prestige and credibility. They are also a legacy of a particular way of teaching subjects. As more professors explore the ability to develop course materials from an array of online sources into a coherent collection that matches their curriculum, the textbook will rightly shift in the minds of students and lecturers alike into something that is less important. In such a case, one might presume that individual course collections maintain copyright appropriately, with individual authors credited for their contributions, as well as the overall collected work copyright. This is a interesting marketplace design problem where individuals, journals and historical textbook companies make materials available for use to lecturers assembling course readings. More importantly, however, it means the integrity of the original materials will be maintained. No "books" need be destroyed in the process.