Feb 11 2016

The Purpose of “Academic Freedom” Laws is to Promote Creationism

formbyEver since the theory of evolution won over the scientific community and became the established consensus scientific opinion, creationists have fought a cultural and legal war against it. They failed to win the scientific war, and they continue to do so.

This is not an uncommon tactic – if you lose in the arena of science, evidence, or facts, then fight in the arena of public opinion or regulation. Pseudoscientists are unfortunately savvy to this tactic.

In the case of evolution, creationists tried banning its teaching outright, which was eventually struck down as unconstitutional. So they demanded equal time, which was eventually struck down as unconstitutional (teaching religion as science in public schools). So they tried to disguise creationism as intelligent design, which didn’t fool anyone.

Now, in an attempt to further secularise their position in order to get around the first Amendment, they argue that schools should “teach the controversy” and that teachers should have the “academic freedom” to introduces the “strengths and weaknesses” of a scientific theory.

Several states have successfully passed such laws, most notably Louisiana. These laws aren’t fooling anyone either – everyone knows their purpose is to open a back door to allow creationism to be taught as science in public schools. The real purpose of these laws is to create deniability in order to survive legal challenge.

Out of context, the notion that teachers should be allowed to teach controversies and weaknesses of scientific theories sounds reasonable. However, these laws often target evolution specifically, in addition to the Big Bang, and now even climate change. The problem is that there is no scientific controversy over the basic fact of evolution. The “controversies” and “weaknesses” of evolution they want to be introduced in the science classroom are just the same tired old creationist arguments they have been pushing into the classroom for decades.

It is also completely unnecessary to have a law that says that science teachers can teach about genuine scientific controversies or discuss genuine weakness of scientific theories. They already can. What they cannot do is introduce religiously motivated science denial and pretend it is legitimate science. These laws are meant, however, to shield teachers who do just that.

Lawmakers who introduce and support these latest crop of anti-evolution bills are often coy about their true motivation. Again – the whole point is deniability as a shield against legal challenge.

Apparently Mississippi Representative Mark Formby did not get the memo. Regarding an anti-evolution bill in Mississippi he introduced, he told a local paper:

“I just don’t want my teachers punished in any form or fashion for bringing creationism into the debate. Lots of us believe in creationism.”

Here is the most relevant section of the bill:

(d)  Neither the State Board of Education, nor any local school board, public school superintendent, public school administrator or principal shall prohibit any teacher of a public school system from helping students understand, analyze, critique and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of all existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught within the curriculum framework developed by the State Board of Education.

(e)  This section only protects the teaching of scientific information, and shall not be construed to promote any religious or nonreligious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or promote discrimination for or against religion.

It uses the “strength and weaknesses” format, and then further tries to shield itself by specifically stating this is not about any religious belief. It seems that Formby has now stated this section is a lie – a calculated deception as part of a deliberate legal strategy.

Earlier in the bill it states:

The teaching of some scientific subjects required to be taught under the curriculum framework developed by the State Board of Education may cause debate and disputation, including, but not limited to:

(i)  Biological evolution;

(ii)  The chemical origins of life;

(iii)  Global warming; and

(iv)  Human cloning.

So again, evolution is specifically mentioned, along with other topics of particular interest to creationists.

The notion that “strengths and weaknesses” laws are being crafted specifically to subvert the First Amendment and decisions made by the Supreme Court, and teach religion in public schools has never been in any serious doubt. It is interesting still to have such a brazen admission in the public record.

I honestly don’t know what is taking so long for legal challenges to these laws to emerge and filter up to the Supreme Court. They need to be struck down.

The predictable response to this position is that if you oppose such laws then you are treating evolution as a dogma that cannot be questioned. This is nonsense, however. That is just another rhetorical point that is one of the purposes of such laws.

Evolution has already been questioned in the scientific community. It is now overwhelmingly accepted as true (the basic fact that life on Earth is the result of organic evolution and demonstrates common descent) by the scientific community. It has already survived vigorous scientific challenge.

I also think it is perfectly acceptable to teach students how we know what we know – to teach them historical challenges to evolution and how they were resolved.

That is not what is happening in states with these anti-evolution laws, however. What is happening is that teachers are using creationist texts to teach creationist arguments that are simply wrong. They are teaching misinformation and science denial. They are teaching the fake controversy.

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