Skeptical Raptor's Blog hunting pseudoscience in the internet jungle

Antievolution legislation update–catching up on 2014

Bill Nye likes evidence. Ken Ham, like all creationists, ignores evidence.Nearly every year, at the start of the legislative season, Republicans in state legislatures think it’s their right to push their anti-science (and other right wing social engineering ideas). And 2014 is no different, with Republican legislatures trying to force anti-evolution (usually combined with anti-global warming) laws on the students of their state. In general, they haven’t been so successful, but when Republicans embrace a bad idea like anti-science laws, they try until they win.

The 2013 state legislative year was relatively successful for the pro-science forces, with all legislation offered in Republican dominated states failing to come to a vote or getting rejected in committee.This followed a relatively unsuccessful (for the anti-science Republicans) 2012 legislative year (with the notable exception of Tennessee’s Monkey Bill).

Conservative Republicans continue to attempt to bring unconstitutional anti-evolution (and pro-creationism) legislation to the top of their agenda in many states. The current forms of anti-science legislation attempt to allow teaching creationism (or more subtle forms, like intelligent design), usually combined with climate change denialism, and, strangely, anti-human cloning (which is not exactly a serious line of research today). But whatever the general anti-science bent of the legislation, it has always been clear that promoting creationism is the goal.

Just to be clear, creationism refers to the belief that the universe and everything in it were specially created by a god through magic, rather than a natural, scientifically explained, process. Creationism explicitly relies on the claim that there is a “purpose” to all creation known only to a creator. Without a doubt, creationism is a religious belief, and no matter what argument is made (and I could write 50,000 words on the topic), creationism is not science because it relies upon a supernatural being, which means it can never be falsified, one of the basic principles of the scientific method. The supporters of creationism attempt to claim that creationism is a scientific theory on the level of evolution, ignoring the fact that a scientific theory is “a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment.” Creationism is generally based on a fictional book

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution explicitly prohibits any government entity from establishing a religion (which courts have ruled to include teaching religion in schools). Decades worth of Supreme Court rulings have found that teaching creationism in schools is equivalent to teaching religion. As recently as 2005, in Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District, a Federal Court continued the tradition of considering creationism as religion, and ruled against a school district, costing the Dover Area School District nearly $1 million in legal fees. That money probably could have been used to teach their students better science.

Despite these legal rulings, ten states have introduced antievolution or anti-science bills since the beginning of the year:

  1. Oklahoma. House Bill 1674 (exactly the same one that failed in 2013) and Senate Bill 1765 have been introduced to their respective houses of the legislature. The laws would, if enacted, require state and local educational authorities to provide teachers with more effective ways to present scientific controversies, like evolution, abiogenesis (the chemical origin of life), global warming and human cloning. The law specifically states that it would permit teachers to “help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course being taught,” prohibiting administrators from interfering. Scientific weaknesses of the FACT of evolution? What’s that, because there simply are none.
  2. South Carolina. The South Carolina Education Oversight Committee refused to approve a section of the new state science standards that essentially mandated the teaching of evolution by natural selection (which isn’t necessarily the only mechanism of evolution, but it’s acceptable). However, one of the state Senators, Republican Mike Fair, has apparently withdrawn his refusal, probably as a result of criticism of Senator Fair’s close relationship with the Discovery Institute, a “think-tank” that pushes the religious belief of intelligent design
  3. Virginia. Virginia’s House Bill 207 was introduced in January and would have deprived administrators from sanctioning teachers from discussing the “scientific controversies” in the Fact of Evolution. The bill wasn’t accepted by the legislative committee, so it ended in some sort of legislative limbo with no committee in the House of Delegates willing to consider the bill. Of course, the Virginia Senate is controlled by Democrats (even though it’s tie between Democrats and Republicans, the Lt. Governor, who is President of the Senate, is a Democrat, and voted to make the Democrats the majority party of the Virginia Senate–yes, this is crazy). And the Governor is a Democrat. This bill had no chance in increasingly progressive Virginia.
  4. Missouri. Two bills have been introduced in the Missouri House of Representatives: House Bill 1472 and House Bill 1587, both of which have been referred to committee. The former bill allows parents to excuse their children from any classes that teach evolution, because, according to the bill’s sponsor, requiring students to study evolution is “an absolute infringement on people’s rights” and that evolution is “just as much faith and, you know, just as much pulled out of the air as, say, any religion.” Idiot. Moreover, the bill would make the school inform parents when evolution is going to be fought in the curriculum. Seriously, an idiot. The latter bill would prevent administrators from sanctioning teachers who discuss the “scientific controversies” around evolution, of which there are none. Bunch of idiots.
  5. South Dakota. The South Dakota Senate Education Committee killed SB 112 which stated that “[n]o school board or school administrator may prohibit a teacher in public or nonpublic school from providing instruction on intelligent design or other related topics.” Apparently, this bill was killed not because the Senate committee thought it was bad educational policy but because the bill was poorly written. Stay tuned.
  6. Texas. The issue here isn’t necessarily the result of a legislative proposal. An investigation of Texas Charter schools, by Zack Kopplin, found that “when public-school students enrolled in Texas’[s] largest charter program open their biology workbooks, they will read that the fossil record is ‘sketchy.’ That evolution is ‘dogma’ and an ‘unproved theory’ with no experimental basis. They will be told that leading scientists dispute the mechanisms of evolution and the age of the Earth.” Charter school programs are subject to fewer rules, regulations, and statutes than traditional state schools, but receive less public funding than public schools, typically a fixed amount per pupil. In some states, they were established to be prestigious schools that focus on various areas of learning–in Texas, not so much.

Actually, 2014 is shaping up to be a positive year with regards to pro-science legislation. Two states have already killed bills, one state may reverse an anti-evolution vote, leaving just Oklahoma and Missouri with outstanding legislation (Texas is simply the non-regulation of charter schools).

These bills use language like “allow teachers to speak about the scientific debates or controversies about the validity of evolution or global warming.” Within the scientific community, there are NO controversies with regards to evolution or climate change. Those theories are well established and are accepted by a broad consensus of scientists in the field. Scientists overwhelmingly (>97%) accept that organisms evolve over time. Over 97% of climate scientists accept anthropogenic global warming. If that’s a controversy, it’s a tiny, insignificant one, unless you think that 3% is a significant number of deniers. If someone wants to create a “scientific controversy” in these theories, they must bring scientific data and analysis from a world class laboratory staffed by world-class Ph.D-level scientists with that data published in world class journals, subject to repetition, analysis and criticism by other scientists in other world class laboratories. A clueless politician in a right-wing state does not get to invent a “scientific controversy” by saying one exists. One has to show it, you just can’t claim there’s a controversy if there isn’t one.

But this anti-science strategy of the right has consequences. It further reduces the USA’s technological competitiveness in the world. In fact, the World Economic Forum report on Global Competitiveness ranks the united states as 47th in quality of math and science education. The USA ranks 38th in primary education. And if the US produces high school and college students who think that the earth is 6000 years old or that some supernatural creates organisms, then how are they going to do research in biomedicines, geology, diseases, and hundreds of other natural sciences? Companies that need those highly educated individuals will go where those educated students are located, whether it’s in other states or move the companies to countries who don’t allow religion in teaching. Or higher foreign-educated engineers and scientists.

Anti-science legislation violates the constitution. It has economic consequences. And it destroys the science knowledge of children who will always be deficient compared to our world competitors. This doesn’t make sense.

Key citations:

  • Anderegg WR, Prall JW, Harold J, Schneider SH. Expert credibility in climate change. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2010 Jul 6;107(27):12107-9. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1003187107. Epub 2010 Jun 21. PubMed PMID: 20566872; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2901439.
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