Mar 27 2012

Tennessee’s Anti-Evolution Bill

Creationists continue their assault on the teaching of evolution, this time in the home state of the Scopes Monkey trial – Tennessee. The state senate passed bill 893, which will now go back to the house. The bill reflects the current strategy of creationists to sneak creationist arguments into the public school, or at least water down the teaching of evolution. The bill offers this justification for why it is needed:

(1) An important purpose of science education is to inform students about scientific evidence and to help students develop critical thinking skills necessary to becoming intelligent, productive, and scientifically informed citizens;
(2) The teaching of some scientific subjects, including, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy; and
(3) Some teachers may be unsure of the expectations concerning how they should present information on such subjects

The first sentence is certainly true, but begs the question of whether this bill will serve that purpose. Ironically this bill is directly opposed to the purpose of educating students who are scientifically literate and can think critically. This may have something to do with the fact that the creationists supporting this bill generally cannot think critically and are scientifically illiterate – at least when it comes to the topic of evolution.

The second sentence is the crux of the justification, the notion that biological evolution “can cause controversy.” This is what we call a “manufactroversy” – evolution is not a scientific controversy. The fact that all known life on earth shares a common ancestor and is the product of common descent is as well-established a fact as any in science. There is a mountain of evidence from genetics, developmental biology, anatomy, biochemistry, and paleontology that support this core fact of evolution. Further, there is no competing scientific theory that can account for the evidence from these disciplines. That is the consensus view of the scientific community and the vast majority of scientists.

The controversy is a social/religious one only, and is created by the community that is pushing this bill and others like it. So in essence they create the controversy where none exists, and then exploit the controversy they made in order to push what is demonstrably a religious agenda into the public school science classroom.

The third point, that teachers may need guidance on how to deal with such topics, may or may not be true, but is irrelevant. The real question is  – are teachers being provided with the proper guidance. In fact, they are, through state science standards, which makes this bill entirely unnecessary (at least for its stated purpose). The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, “said the measure was needed so teachers can answer students’ questions, including those that were rooted in their personal beliefs.” That, of course, raises the question as to the proper role of science teachers in addressing questions of personal belief. To the extent that any hypothetical question from a student deals with the science of evolution, this bill is not needed for a teacher to address such a question (regardless of what the “root” of the question is).

Opponents of the bill, which include the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Center for Science Education, the American Civil Liberties Union, American Institute for Biological Sciences,  the National Association of Geoscience Teachers, the National Earth Science Teachers Association, and the Tennessee Science Teachers Association, correctly argue that this bill is a thinly veiled attempt to provide cover for those teachers who want to teach creationist arguments in their science classroom. This is not an insignificant number. A recent survey found that about 16% of science teachers overall teach creationism as valid science, and spend about a third less time teaching about evolution. This percentage is higher is bible-belt states like Tennessee.

The real purpose of the bill is to protect such teachers from being fired for violating the constitution and teaching religious beliefs in the science classroom. Further, the hope is that such a bill would give courage to more teachers to teach their creationist beliefs. The bill states:

(d) Neither the state board of education, nor any public elementary or secondary school governing authority, director of schools, school system administrator, or any public elementary or secondary school principal or administrator shall prohibit any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.

That is the key provision – protecting teachers who are teaching creationism, under the guise of teaching the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution. The “weaknesses,” as stated above, are not genuine scientific weaknesses but manufactured anti-evolution propaganda. Such pseudoscientific arguments have been deconstructed over and over again, here, on many other science blogs, in books, and in the literature. Teaching such arguments as valid criticism of evolutionary theory is religiously motivated pseudoscience, or at best simple ignorance that is unacceptable in a science teacher.

There is still hope that the bill will be vetoed by the governor, Bill Haslam, who is quoted as saying:

“It is a fair question what the General Assembly’s role is,” he said. “That’s why we have a state board of education.”

So it sounds like he might veto the bill with the justification that it is an intrusion by the General Assembly onto the turf of the state board of education. Hopefully this means he is searching for a politically acceptable way to do the right thing. We’ll have to wait and see.

Some have raised the issue that such laws are not only bad for their state, they are wasteful. So far the net result of such anti-evolution laws (other than creating a hostile environment that harms science education for students) has been to create lawsuits that the states or school districts ultimately lose, costing millions of dollars. Such laws are therefore an unnecessary drain on taxpayers.

They also make the state that passes them a target for ridicule, and less competitive in the science and technology market. Science or technology based industry is less likely to view the state as a good home. Science organizations are less likely to hold annual meetings there, and universities just might have a bias against students coming from a state with anti-science laws on the books. Tennessee, being the state that hosted the Scopes Monkey trial, is especially vulnerable to negative press on this issue.

The unfortunate reality is that a culture of anti-evolution sentiment has created a generation that is largely scientifically illiterate on the topic of evolution and that is full of anti-evolution pseudoscientific propaganda. Individuals coming from that culture (like the state senators and representatives from Tennessee) then further promote an anti-evolution agenda, and actually think they are doing the right thing. It is self-perpetuating ignorance. Outside attention and criticism is necessary to break the cycle, but it will not be easy.

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