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.

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