Jan 30 2017

Anti-Evolution Bills Continue to Evolve

teacherclassroomstudents01272017gettyAs we enter a new legislative session in many states we are also faced by a new wave of anti-evolution bills. Creationists have been trying to undermine the teaching of evolution in public schools since Scopes in the 1920s. They have essentially been unsuccessful legally but successful culturally. For the first half of the 20th century they made the “e” word too controversial for textbooks. Since then they have provided cover for teachers in the Bible Belt to teach creationism or falsely criticize evolution.

In a 2011 survey, only 28% of high school biology teachers reporting following National Research Council and National Academy of Sciences recommendations in teaching evolution, and 13% reported that they openly advocated creationism.

This, of course, refers only to public schools. Private schools can openly teach creationism, which is exactly why Trump’s pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, has spent so much effort and money promoting school vouchers and private schools.

Legally anti-evolution efforts have consistently run up against that pesky First Amendment, which guarantees religious freedom. The Supreme Court has interpreted this to mean that the government (Federal or State) cannot promote any specific religion or religious belief. Creationism is a religious belief, not science, no matter how creationists try to dress it up, therefore it doesn’t fly.

Creationist legislators have been experimenting with different tactics to provide legal cover for teachers to teach creationist propaganda in public schools. They cannot overtly teach creationism, so (they figure) maybe they can simply attack evolution. That works for them since they operate under the false dichotomy of – if not evolution, then creationism (whatever flavor of creationism they prefer). So undermining evolution is good enough.

After the failure of Intelligent Design, which a judge correctly concluded was simply warmed-over creationism, they have been taking a “strengths and weaknessnes” approach. Essentially these laws state that teachers are allowed to teach the strengths and weaknesses of evolution, climate change, the Big Bang, and other theories they deem “controversial.” These efforts have been successful in Louisiana in 2008 and Tennessee in 2012.

They have so far failed in a number of other states. So, legislators are getting more sly. The latest round of bills simply do not mention evolution or any other theory specifically. This dodges the claim that the bill is religously biased. John West of the Discovery Institute (who author model bills for states to follow) lays out the strategy:

“Good science is based on critical inquiry, not unthinking dogmatism. If we want to equip today’s students to be tomorrow’s innovators, we need to teach them how to be out of the box thinkers who know how to sift and analyze competing explanations in light of the evidence.”

The idea is to provide legal cover for teachers who want to introduce anti-evolution propaganda into their classroom, under the guise that they are teaching their students critical thinking. The hope is such bills will be more difficult to challenge under the First Amendment, and they may be right.

Hopefully judges will not be fooled by this strategy. As with the Dover case that rejected Intelligent Design, the history and context of such bills is important. In many cases the same legislator is proposing evolving versions of the same bill, clearly showing continuity with creationist efforts. There is no question that such bills are not concerned with critical thinking, but rather with undermining the teaching of evolution.

The problem here is that the deception by creationists is getting progressively more subtle. They started a century ago simply banning the teaching of evolution. When that ultimately failed they shifted to giving equal time to evolution and creationism, which they rebranded as “creation science.” When this fooled no one they again rebranded creationism as Intelligent Design, but they just restated the same old arguments in sciencey jargon. Again, no one was fooled.

Now they are promoting the teaching of “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution, and most recently of just allowing teachers to question consensus science, without naming evolution specifically.

It is simple to argue that creationism is a religious belief and teaching it in public schools therefore violates the First Amendment. It is more difficult to explain exactly why a law allowing teachers to challenge consensus science also violates the First Amendment.

First, let’s establish why such a law is both wrong and unnecessary, in any context. The process of science already includes critical analysis, the weighing of evidence, and determining how we know what we know. Therefore properly teaching science should also include these things.

I am, of course, a strong advocate of teaching critical thinking, of questioning everything, and of asking the deeper questions about how scientists know things. This is what science class should be teaching – but teaching properly.

This is not, however, the same thing as simply questioning or denying the strong consensus of scientific opinion. Teachers should be teaching how science works, what hypotheses and theories scientists have put forward, how they have changed over time in response to evidence, and what the current consensus of opinion is and why. This certainly can include legitimate controversies in science.

In fact, one of the skills that science teachers should be teaching is how to determine to what extent a theory is controversial vs rock solid.

Teachers should not be substituting their own opinions for the scientific consensus. Giving students their own quirky view on things is not providing them a proper scientific education. They should be teaching what the scientific community thinks.

The sifting and analyzing of different explanations already happens within the scientific community, and the result of that process should be properly conveyed to students.

If you want to teach students how to think independently, then present to them legitimate controversies in science. Were the dinosaurs wiped out entirely be a meteor, or were they already in decline before the impact? What are the different lines of evidence, what do different scientists believe? Let them debate that with evidence, while understanding what the scientific community thinks.

This gets us to the real problem with these laws – they are essentially motivated reasoning written into law. They are clearly meant not to improve the teaching of science but to make it legally difficult for school boards to enforce quality control in the face of science teachers who are abusing their position to promote their personal religious beliefs.

Let’s say a biology teacher teaches students that “some scientists” believe that evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics. They are just introducing a “weakness” of evolutionary theory, and the students can decide for themselves how valid the argument is. The problem is, this is a completely bogus argument that has already been thoroughly debunked. It does not represent critical thinking or scientific thinking. It represents pseudoscience and motivated reasoning.

If the school board feels that teaching this nonsense is below the standards of the school they may be blocked from taking corrective action because the teacher can sue them under such a state law. That is the very point of such legislation.

Essentially such laws are meant to block quality control measures. Their purpose is to decrease the quality of science education by making it impossible for school boards to enforce academic quality.

I should also mention that young students are very impressionable. Teachers need to make a specific effort not to impress their personal beliefs onto students. They are authority figures. In fact, they should be teaching students to question them.

If a teacher spends a lot of time teaching bogus “weaknesses” of evolution, it is naive to think that young students will not be strongly influenced by this. (Again, that’s the point.)

Hopefully, state legislators who are not dedicated creationists and judges (if it comes to that) will see the continuity of such laws with prior creationist efforts. They should also see that such laws do not promote but undermine the quality of science education. They serve no purpose other than to undermine science education, and that calls into question the motivation of those promoting them.


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