Dec 10 2012

Truth in Education

We have yet another propaganda slogan and strategy by creationists to sneak their religious beliefs into public science classrooms – “truth in education.”  This one comes from state senator Dennis Kruse from Indiana. He had previously introduced a bill (in 2011) that would have required the teaching of “creation science” alongside evolution. The bill died a quick death, largely because the Supreme Court has already declared such laws unconstitutional (in the 1987 Edwards vs Aguillard case).

Kruse’s approach has since “evolved.” It seems that after his failed and naive attempt to introduce a creation science bill, he has been connected with the Discovery Institute and is now up to speed on the latest approach to anti-evolution strategies.

Creationist attempts to hamper science education when it comes to evolution go back to the beginning of evolutionary theory itself. By the turn of the 19th century evolution was an accepted scientific fact, and opposition to its teaching was forming among certain fundamentalist sects. The first big confrontation between the teaching of evolution and creationist ideology came in the form of the The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, or the Scopes Monkey Trial. This resulted from the first creationist strategy to limit the teaching of evolution in public schools – they simply banned it. This strategy was killed when such laws were found unconstitutional in 1968 (Epperson v. Arkansas).

The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) has a nice list of the ten major legal precedents that have smacked down creationist attempts to limit the teaching of evolution. Each time the creationists simply have morphed their strategy, but the intent has never wavered.

After outright banning of evolution, creationists moved onto to “Equal Time” for the teaching of so-called “creation science” alongside evolution. The problem with that approach is that creation science is not a science but a thinly veiled religious belief. When that was struck down they moved to “Teach the Controversy,” arguing that students should learn about both sides (a false dichotomy) of scientific controversies. The  problem with that approach is that there is no scientific controversy when it comes to the basic fact of evolution – that life is the product of organic evolution. Further, singling out evolution was part of a clearly religiously motivated strategy, and once again the creationist strategy fell prey to the separation of church and state.

Along with Teach the Controversy came “Intelligent Design.” This is an attempt to dress up creation science as a more legitimate-sounding science with overt reference to God or religion removed. Despite this attempt at cleansing creationism of overt religion, no one was fooled. The first major legal challenge to teaching Intelligent Design came in 2005 in the Kitzmiller v Dover case, and ID was struck down as warmed-over creationism. One key bit of evidence was a book, Of Pandas and People, which was a creation science book where literally there was a find a replace operation done on “creationism” to replace the term with “Intelligent Design.” In one copy-paste error in the book the term “cdesign proponentsists” appeared – a combination of “design proponents” and “creationists.”

After the ID strategy essentially collapsed, the creationists developed their “academic freedom” approach, which has a number of specific manifestations. This approach is essentially to argue that teachers should have the academic freedom to teach what they want, and not have the state censor them. This of course completely misses the need for standards and quality control within public education. Science teachers should be teaching accepted science, not whatever their personal fantasy about science happens to be.

Under the “freedom” umbrella creationists have spawned the “strengths and weaknesses” approach. This is a sly strategy in which they do not specifically advocate for teaching any specific alternative to evolution, or banning the teaching of evolution itself, but write laws that require that teachers teach their student both the strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories. This sounds benign on its surface, but these approaches are all about giving teachers the legal space in which to introduce the same tired creationists arguments they have been pushing for decades.

Some of the “strengths and weaknesses” laws have failed because they target evolution specifically, which colors them as ideological. So some laws have added the Big Bang (which creationists also don’t like) and other theories just to make it seem as if they are not picking on evolution. But the purpose is the same and crystal clear.

Yet another flavor of the academic freedom approach is to pass laws that allow teachers to use outside supplemental material in teaching about evolution or science in general. This is meant to allow teachers to use creationist propaganda texts as supplemental science texts in the classroom.

So far the most successful bill under this approach has been the Louisiana Science Education Act of 2008. This law cites academic freedom to give teachers the right to use supplement material to “critique and review” certain “controversial” topics, such as evolution, global warming, and cloning.

Now we have Kruse’s next iteration of the creationist strategy, and once again the Discovery Institute has its finger prints all over the bill. Kruse wants to mandate that teachers defend the truth of any science they teach which is challenged by a student. Again, very superficially this may seem benign. Teachers should explain to student how we know what we know. There is no reason to pass a law saying they should do so, however, unless there is an ulterior motive. The point of Kruse’s latest bill seems to be, yet again, to create language that gives teacher’s cover if they want to use creationist propaganda in the science class. This time the pretext is answering student’s questioning of the truth of scientific theories.

The long history of creationist attacks on the teaching of evolution is marked by Supreme Court cases which knocked them down as blatant attempts to introduce religious dogma into public schools. It seems that we are overdue for another such case, this time specifically addressing the “academic freedom” justification for the most recent crop of anti-science, anti-evolution bills and laws.

Meanwhile it’s up to local and national watchdog groups (like the NCSE) to play whack-a-mole with the endless state bills trying to deprive yet another generation of American student from learning one of the most fundamental theories of modern science.

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