Nov 27 2017

Renewed Antiscience Legislation

The fight over science in public education continues, and if anything picked up considerably in 2017. Earlier in the year Nature reported on various state laws designed to water down science education or allow for equal time to be given to unscientific views. They report:

Florida’s legislature approved a bill on 5 May that would enable residents to challenge what educators teach students. And two other states have already approved non-binding legislation this year urging teachers to embrace ‘academic freedom’ and present the full spectrum of views on evolution and climate change. This would give educators license to treat evolution and intelligent design as equally valid theories, or to present climate change as scientifically contentious.

New Mexico took a more direct approach – simply scrubbing “controversial” ideas from the state’s science standards. The standards no longer mention “evolution”, human contributions to climate change, or even mentioning the age of the Earth. This is not a back door approach – this is straight-up censorship of accepted scientific facts.

A new Florida bill also includes this problematic language:

Controversial theories and concepts must be taught in a factual, objective, and balanced manner.

This is part of the latest strategy. First, don’t mention any one theory (like evolution) by name. That is likely to trigger a constitutional challenge. Second, make the bill sound like it is promoting something positive, like academic freedom, democracy, or just being fair and balanced.

Being fair and balanced, of course, is not the point of these laws. The point is to provide a pretext or legal cover to challenge the teaching of evolution in science class, or to open the door to teaching creationism. The language may superficially sound benign, but this is the end result of decades of trial and error with the specific goal of weakening the teaching of evolution or inserting the teaching of specific religious views in the public science classroom. Context and history are necessary to understand the true purpose of these bills.

For example – who gets to determine what is “controversial?” And who gets to determine what is “balanced?”

How should science standards for public education be developed? Ideally there would be an apolitical process to develop a curriculum that reflects the current consensus of scientific opinion, is appropriate to each educational level, and is geared toward developing an understanding of how science works (not just the findings of science). This process should also be transparent, and will need to be constantly updated as science evolves.

This is already the process that is being used to develop science standards. Why, then, are any laws needed at all? The short answer is that they aren’t. All of these laws are being sponsored by people who are simply unhappy with the current consensus of scientific opinion. They confuse their personal political, religious, or ideological views with science and academia, or they simply don’t care. They want to teach their views, not the scientific consensus.

This is why such laws are often referred to as a “back door” approach. Essentially creationists have lost the argument in the scientific arena. They have failed to either cast doubt on the current scientific consensus regarding evolution, or to propose a viable alternative scientific theory. They lost, but they refuse to acknowledge it.

Since they cannot convince the scientific community of their views, they are trying to make an end-run around them and instead change science education through the legislative process. This is not an isolated case. It often happens that those who lose the intellectual struggle of logic and evidence try to have a second go in the legislature. They may, for example, pass laws that protect quack treatments that have failed in clinical trials.

Even if you happen to support a belief that is not currently accepted by science, you should not celebrate laws that are meant to subvert the normal scientific process. We should not be fighting over scientific ideas in the legislature. That is not the proper venue. You may win a short term battle there, and this will make you feel good for a while, but that would be a Pyrrhic victory. In general we should be wary of eroding the basic fabric of our society for such single-issue victories.

Scientific questions should be fought in the scientific literature, in academia, and in the marketplace of ideas. It should not be fought in the legislature.

We need to simply agree as a society that public school science education should reflect the current consensus of opinion of experts in science. Sure, we may start to introduce fringe ideas later in education as students mature, as a way of teaching them how the scientific process sorts out what is valid and what isn’t. But you cannot simultaneous teach how science works, and also fringe ideas that are not valid as if they were an equal alternative.

If you want your beliefs to be taught as science, first convince the scientific community that your beliefs are scientifically valid. If you can’t do that, well then maybe you should reconsider your beliefs.

The obvious counter to this position is that the scientific community is broken. This position quickly degenerates into a conspiracy theory – the last refuge of the intellectual scoundrel.

11 responses so far

11 thoughts on “Renewed Antiscience Legislation”

  1. MWSletten says:

    This is the problem with “public” institutions. How they are used (abused?) and administered is a “public” question that almost always ends in a “public” fight.

  2. Nidwin says:

    They’ll try till the bitter end and they don’t see any defeat anywhere, just a little setback on their side of the fence. It’s also clear that in the fight against everyone opposing Big Brother and the book of multiple choices every tactic can be considered valid against the heretics. Lying is a sin, at least in the big book of nonsense, but completely valid to fight heretics.

    It ain’t no better here in Western Europe. ID is out of the question outside catholic schools but it’s only one of the 1001 problematic subjects we’re still facing around here.

  3. bend says:

    It’s not all bad news. Utah made a move in the right direction. Let’s hope they follow through.

  4. Ivan Grozny says:

    “For example – who gets to determine what is “controversial?” And who gets to determine what is “balanced?””

    Who indeed?

    Just wondering: how would you apply your “convince the scientific community first” logic to, say – history, philosophy or economics? Is what actual practitioners today believe about those things what children should be taught in school?

  5. BaS says:

    To anyone who supports this as harmless, point out that it would allow teaching Flat Earth views in science class too.

  6. Willy says:

    Thanks for this Dr. Novella. It takes me back a few days ago to Thanksgiving when we invited a buddy of several years over for dinner and then to spend the night so that wine consumption wouldn’t be an issue. He’s a big Trump supporter and he thinks AGW is a hoax. For years he has made comments about politics and AGW and I have just ignored them, choosing not to engage. Well, sitting outside after dinner, I decided he was making these comments precisely so we could address them and so I did—blame it on the wine…

    First, we touched briefly on Trump. I showed him the Trump statements where Trump claimed to know “all there is to know about healthcare”, then later wasn’t able to distinguish between pre-existing conditions, actual healthcare, and some odd-ball form of life insurance. All he could say was that, sure, we all know that Trump isn’t too bright, but, hey, at least he isn’t Hillary. This lasted less than five minutes. I closed it out by offering that he was NeverHillary and I was NeverTrump. I will say that based on previous comments from my friend, he really does think that Trump is bright, but just couldn’t muster a rational defense for Trump’s healthcare “thoughts”. He may even be in league with Dr. Egnor in believing that Trump is playing 3-D chess while everyone else is playing checkers. He also challenged my sources for the quotes. I explained that they came from transcripts of Trump interviews, which still left him skeptical as to their validity. I suspect that if Rush Limbaugh (his ONLY source of news–no TV, no paper, very little Internet) doesn’t report it he feels entitled to not believe it.

    Next up came AGW. He threw up a few of the usual talking points—Al Gore is a hypocrite (yep), there has been no temp rise in 20 years (wrong), it’s silly to think man can influence climate (explain going from CO2 concentrations of 280 ppm to 400 ppm), and the like. I didn’t want to get into details, partly because I am not familiar enough with them and partly because we had nothing at hand to settle disputes, so I switched quickly to trying to make the point that those of us who aren’t experts in a field and who have no real knowledge or background in the science really aren’t entitled to have an opinion, other than to defer to expert consensus. He insisted that he was entitled to whatever opinions he chose to have, including (explicitly) believing in a flat earth or believing that 2 + 2 = 5 (neither of which he does believe). His basic point is that he is a free man and can believe whatever he chooses to believe and needn’t defend or support his beliefs. It left me quite stunned that an adult human being could think that way.

    I just finished a book entitled “Fantasyland” by Kurt Anderson. It’s premise, as best I can explain, is that Americans have self-selected themselves since the very beginnings in Virginia and New England to be a gullible and overly self-confident culture and that we are “peculiar” compared to most citizens of this world in this regard. I found it an interesting read and I recommend it to readers of this blog.

    Finally, I want to thank you, Dr. Novella AND numerous commenters herein, for the education I have received in critical thinking these past few years. Heck, I even need to recognize that Dr. Egnor has been a big help in this regard, though probably not in a way that he would approve. I have been a skeptic pretty much my whole life, but I was an uneducated one with regard to recognizing fallacious argumentation methods and with regard to not always seeing my own biases. I am now able to look at the past and see where I actually used fallacious methods in argumentation. I am thankful for the SGU and other sites and books devoted to this topic.

  7. Rogue Medic says:

    But what about the evil vaccines?

    They are so evil that we no longer need to vaccinate children against smallpox and the only reason we need to vaccinate against polio is that the anti-vaxers have prevented the eradication of polio with their anti-vaccine propaganda.

    But what about the evil atheists criticizing the Gods of the Bible?

    Those Gods were so essential to the government of our Founding Fathers that the Constitution did not mention any Gods?

    But what about the the evil geocentrism?

    After all, any critic of science will tell you that Galileo was a jerk, which clearly tells you all you need to know on the topic. The Inquisition was justified in threatening torture and execution in order to settle a scientific question, the Church considered to be challenging the dogma of their religion. If we could handle all scientific disputes this way, we could get rid of those jerk scientists..

    But what about evil evolution?

    This is the ultimate worldwide conspiracy of scientists choosing to pay attention to reality, rather than the thousands of creation myths, such as the favorite one of Preacher X – God went Bang, and it was Big, and it was Good, and the details only create gaps in logic, which only increase as we learn more. We should listen to Michael Egnor and worship his Magician with a Wand. Because Catholics love to mock Pope Francis. Mocking Pope Francis is the best way a true Catholic can demonstrate absolute disdain for the Vatican.

    “Those who wish to introduce the creationistic debate are profoundly skeptical of science,” Miller said. “It’s a revolt against the very culture of scientific discovery. As a scientist, this is the thing that bothers me the most.”

    The Jesuit priest said intelligent design as an alternative theory to evolution is “far from scientific discussion,” but its role or impact on philosophy and theology should be examined.

    Father Giuseppe Tanzella-Nitti, a professor of theology at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, said, “No evolutionary mechanism is opposed to the affirmation that God wanted and, therefore, created humankind.”

    “Basically, evolution is the way in which God created” the cosmos, he added.


  8. Kabbor says:

    “Just wondering: how would you apply your “convince the scientific community first” logic to, say – history, philosophy or economics? Is what actual practitioners today believe about those things what children should be taught in school?”

    I am really confused by this question. By making the question you make it seem like what is taught is not in line with the academia. I took economics courses in high school and university. The basics of what I learned were built upon from the one to the other. There was no point of ‘revelation’ that the basics I had learned were wrong, just that there was more to learn. I haven’t taken as many courses in history and philosophy so I can’t speak to those fields, but I suspect that they have a similar progression.

    I want my children to be taught based on the best evidence and consensus of opinion. Anyone without an axe to grind on specific issues should feel likewise. If and when better evidence comes to light on a given topic then by all means update the curriculum to support the best available information.

  9. chikoppi says:

    [Ivan Grozny] Just wondering: how would you apply your “convince the scientific community first” logic to, say – history, philosophy or economics? Is what actual practitioners today believe about those things what children should be taught in school?

    I can only speak for myself, but I’d be against the local parish council (or the local dairy council, for that matter) dictating economics curriculum, opining about essentialism, or introducing ‘alternate’ historical facts to the classroom. School is the place for scholarship, which requires direction by…well, scholars.

  10. Charon says:

    “it would allow teaching Flat Earth views in science class too”

    I do this! Kind of. It’s a good example of Steve’s idea about teaching about the scientific process. At the beginning of a college class on astronomy (for non-scientists), I ask them why they think the Earth is round. A few of them typically come up with pictures of Earth from space, but for many this was just a fact they memorized early in life, and they have no supporting evidence. Few if any can come up with any proofs that don’t require advanced space-travel technology. We can then move to time zones, southern constellations, Aristotle, Eratosthenes, etc.

    Good intro to why people resisted the less obvious stuff for so long (that the Earth spins on its axis, and orbits the Sun). And a reminder to me that many people have a very fragmented view of the world (they know the Earth is round, they know there are time zones, but there’s no connection between these ideas…).

  11. steve12 says:


    “Just wondering: how would you apply your “convince the scientific community first” logic to, say – history, philosophy or economics? Is what actual practitioners today believe about those things what children should be taught in school?”

    What constitutes a “practitioner”? Are you asking if a historian, philosopher, or economist should do this? Or how their credentials should be determined?

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