Apr 11 2012

Tennessee “Monkey Bill” Update

I wrote two weeks ago about the latest state bill attacking the teaching of evolution, this one in Tennessee. This particular bill has perhaps attracted more media attention than other similar bills because Tennessee was the location of the famous Scopes Monkey trial. At the time the bill had passed the state house and senate, and we were awaiting the decision of Governor Bill Haslam on whether or not he would sign the bill.

Now our waiting is over. Haslam did not sign the bill, but neither did he veto it. He allowed the bill to pass without his signature.

I had speculated that perhaps Haslam was looking for a politically acceptable (for Tennessee) justification for vetoing the bill, as he stated publicly that the bill might represent legislative intrusion into an area reserved for the board of education. It now seems that speculation was overly optmistic, but not entirely without merit. Haslam indeed did not want to appear to be supporting the bill, but also did not want to veto a bill that is apparently popular in his state. About his decision he has officially stated:

“I have reviewed the final language of HB 368/SB 893 and assessed the legislation’s impact. I have also evaluated the concerns that have been raised by the bill. I do not believe that this legislation changes the scientific standards that are taught in our schools or the curriculum that is used by our teachers. However, I also don’t believe that it accomplishes anything that isn’t already acceptable in our schools. The bill received strong bipartisan support, passing the House and Senate by a three-to-one margin, but good legislation should bring clarity and not confusion. My concern is that this bill has not met this objective. For that reason, I will not sign the bill but will allow it to become law without my signature.”

It seems that it is implied in the statement that the House and Senate could have passed the bill over his veto, not something executives like to have happen. The decision is disappointing, and seems politically calculating rather than brave. Haslam is correct in that the bill causes confusion and it is entirely unnecessary for its stated goals. The only reason he offers for not vetoing it is that it was strongly supported in both houses.

Eugenie Scott from the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), a group that vigilantly opposes anti-science regulation such as this, had this to say:

“Telling students that evolution and climate change are scientifically controversial is miseducating them. Good science teachers know that. But the Tennessee legislature has now made it significantly harder to ensure that science is taught responsibly in the state’s public schools.”

And that, of course, is the point of this law – to make quality control of science education harder. Missing from Haslam’s statement is any recognition of this fact. The law is crafted to provide cover for science teachers who want to introduce creationist pseudoscience into their public school science classrooms. Now they can claim that they are just following the law, by teaching the “weaknesses” of a “controversial” topic, evolution, specifically named in the law.

Tennessee is now the second state  to have such a law – Louisiana passed a similar law in 2008. A Nature article on the topic reports:

According to Barbara Forrest, a philosopher at the Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond and co-founder of the Louisiana Coalition for Science, the 2008 Louisiana law “has produced unintended changes in the state board of education’s implementation policy, which now doesn’t prohibit discussion of creationism or intelligent design and allows local school boards to select textbooks outside of those approved by the state”.

So the Louisiana law has had the intended effect – making it easier to teach creationism in public schools. The Tennessee law is a little different, because it specifically requires teachers to stay within the science curriculum. Many Tennessee school districts and teachers already violate the state science curriculum, however, so again we are left with the possibility that this law will simply provide them legal cover for doing so.

Tennessee should be embarrassed by this law – but of course if they knew enough to be embarrassed, they wouldn’t have passed the law in the first place. I think Haslam’s decision will be perceived as cowardly giving in to anti-scientific populism in his state and a failure of leadership. Now we wait to see if other states will put forward similar bills. It will also be interesting to see if any legal challenges are filed. So far there has been no legal challenge to the Louisiana law. Hopefully it’s just a matter of time.

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