We have seen a lot of anti-science activities at the Federal government level that are scary. Massive reductions in Federal budgets for the EPA and National Institutes of Health are bad enough for those of us who support science research and education. But the emboldened right wing, at the state level, are pushing all types of anti-science legislation that will have a profound effect on how we teach science to our children. We need to pay attention to this.
I thought it would be beneficial for us to take a look at the states that are pushing anti-science legislation since the November 2016 election, when a lot of state legislatures’ composition changed (or remained the same). In general, this legislation focuses on anti-evolution and anti-climate change beliefs pushed by the right wing.
Florida anti-science legislation
Two bills passed through legislative committees that give taxpayers the right to object to educational material used in public schools. That, on the surface, may not appear to be directly anti-science, but Brandon Haught of Florida Citizens for Science believes that the legislation could flood school boards with anti-science attacks on texts or other teaching materials that support the facts of evolution and climate change.
Haught found several complaints about evolution and climate change that have been filed with school boards in the recent past. Here are a couple of those:
From 17-02-02 Cash_Mary_Ellen_Collier.pdf:
b. I have witnessed students being taught evolution as a fact of creation rather than a theory. Parental objections are ignored.
c. I have witnessed children being taught that Global Warming is a reality. Now that it is colder and the country is experiencing repeated Cold Waves, the new term is Climate Change. When parents question these theories, they are ignored.
Presentation of evolution as fact and romanticizing and fantasizing Paleolithic human life: P. 3-4 Again, a one-sided, slanted, secular world view OPINION presented as fact. The vast majority of Americans believe that the world and the beings living on it were created by God as revealed in the Bible.
Evolution is a fact and a scientific theory. In science, a “theory” isn’t just a random guess, it’s a powerful scientific principle based on overwhelming evidence. It is not an opinion. The same can be said of climate change – it is a scientific theory based on overwhelming evidence. As far as I can tell, those who believe in things like creationism conflate their faith with evidence based science, which requires no faith at all.
These witnesses want to use religious dogma to refute evolution in public education, which has been expressly prohibited by Federal courts several times as a violation of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution. From my standpoint, let religious beliefs on evolution be taught in churches. Let the evidence-based fact of evolution be taught in schools. Hopefully, intelligent children will see which one is a fact, and which one is a story. But Florida, through its anti-science legislation, may be trying to allow parents to stand in the way of scientific education.
One more thing – these bills passed through committee with no objection, meaning Democrats joined Republicans to support these bills. If you live in Florida, I hope you spend time contacting your legislators to voice your opinion about science education.
The Idaho House of Representatives adopted Senate Concurrent Resolution 121 (SCR 121) that deletes five science education standards for Idaho students – the most troubling were those that focused on climate change and human impact on the environment.
The reasoning for this anti-science legislation was that the current standards fail to present “both sides of the debate.” Climate change is only a political debate, the science has been established by mountains of evidence.
Although the vote for this legislation was almost unanimous, 56-9, some Democrats spoke eloquently on what this law might do. Representative Ilana Rubel (D-District 18) was quoted as saying of the deletion of the material, “This takes us into the dark ages of science denial, and is absolutely something we should not be doing.”
Oklahoma’s Senate Bill 393 (PDF), which would empower anti-science beliefs in classrooms by allowing science teachers to teach anything they wanted and by preventing responsible educational authorities from intervening. In other words, a science teacher could teach whatever they wanted – that the earth was created 6000 years ago, or that astrology controls our lives, or that the earth really is warming.
To be honest, I’d be worried that some anti-vaccine crank would teach a class by saying that better sanitation got rid of polio, not vaccines.
The reason why the bill was written this way was to avoid lawsuits based on the Establishment Clause mentioned above. It’s probably there to allow creationist teachers to lecture on that nonsense without specifically allowing them to do so. But the legislators may get more than they wanted by writing this anti-science legislation in this manner.
This state has been at the forefront of anti-evolution and anti-science legislation for many years. Louisiana almost explicitly allows teachers to teach creationism, and, in fact, the state has funded creationist teaching materials in the past.
Although not a legislative effort, the state’s board of elementary and secondary education voted to adopt a new set of science standards that were first established in the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA), passed in 2008. The LSEA asks state and local school administrators to promote “critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.” It also allows teachers to use “supplemental textbooks and other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner.” Local school boards can, and have, ignored these standards and have continued to mandate real science education.
What Louisiana fails to understand is that there will be a group of students who learn real science, and will end up becoming researchers, physicians, and scientists, whereas another group of students will end up being ignorant of science. That’s not good for the economy of the state. And it certainly isn’t good for real learning.
Arkansas’ proposed anti-science legislation is known as House Bill 2050 (pdf) would “allow public schools to teach creationism and intelligent design as theories alongside the theory of evolution.” Once again, this legislation probably would violate the Establishment Clause, and would be tossed out.
Ironically, Arkansas has been subject to Federal court review previously in McLean v Arkansas – Arkansas passed legislation which required science teachers to teach creationism and evolution as equals, which was found to violate the Establishment Clause. Clearly, Arkansas legislators would do well to learn some history before getting involved with science.
Two bills in the Iowa legislature, which would have undermined science education, failed to pass committees in time to be debated on the floor.
One bill, House File 480, would have required Iowa public school teachers to include “opposing points of view or beliefs” to accompany any instruction related to evolution, the origins of life, global warming, or human cloning. Of course, the law would have, if passed, not required any scientific evidence to support those alternative points of view. Amusingly, Iowa adopted the Next Generation Science Standards in 2015, so evolution and global warming are presented as scientific facts in Iowa classrooms.
Another bill, House File 140, would have prohibited the state board of education from “adopting, approving, or requiring implementation of the [N]ext [G]eneration [S]cience [S]tandards by school districts and accredited nonpublic schools.” So, the right wing legislators in Iowa are trying hard to push anti-science legislation to undo what was implemented 2 years ago.
Indiana’s Senate Resolution 17 (SR 17), a non-binding resolution, targets the teaching of evolution in Indiana’s public schools. SR 17 “urges” (since it’s non-binding, that’s the best that can happen) the state department of education “to reinforce support of teachers who choose to teach a diverse curriculum.” Although that might sound innocuous, it is really anti-evolution.
The language of the resolution repeats the so-called Santorum language, that states that “where topics are taught that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution), that the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist, why such topics can generate controversy, and how scientific discoveries can profoundly affect society.” In other words, it’s a repeat of the old “Teach the Controversy” religious movement, which ignores the scientific consensus that there is no scientific controversy about evolution. It’s a fact.
Similar to Indiana (above), Alabama’s foray into non-binding anti-science legislation is House Joint Resolution 78 (pdf), that would “urge” state and local education authorities to promote the “academic freedom” (this a code word for teaching creationism) of science teachers in the state’s public schools. The bill claims that “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning” are specifically controversial.
Like Indiana’s SR 17, this bill has no power to really do anything. Well, except that it might encourage teachers to push creationist nonsense to students thinking they have the power to do so.
There’s some good news in this legislative season. South Dakota’s version of anti-science legislation, Senate Bill 55, which states that “no teacher may be prohibited from helping students understand, analyze, critique, or review in an objective scientific manner the strengths and weaknesses of scientific information presented in courses,” was defeated in committee.
The bill was opposed by teachers, parents, science organizations, of course.
This state’s anti-science legislation is in the form of House Bill 1485, which would provide Texas science teachers with the “academic freedom” (not really) to teach “the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories.” The topics specifically identified were “controversial subjects” such as “climate change, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, and human cloning.”
Despite what might appear to be a strong effort to push anti-science legislation that would damage our school’s ability to teach factual science, it’s mostly not been enacted. Outside of Louisiana (in 2008) and Tennessee (in 2012), these bills have failed to get out of committee or pass the full legislature.
Moreover, these efforts are focused in deep red states, which tend to be dominated by highly religious anti-science Republicans. In more liberal states, such as Washington, the governor, Jay Inslee, declared that Darwin’s birthday is “an appropriate period on which to celebrate, reflect, and act on the principles of intellectual bravery, perpetual curiosity, and hunger for truth.”
But if you think that the only thing that matters with science is in Washington DC, remember, lots of anti-science activities are occurring at the state level. Make sure you contact your legislators. Make sure science stays at the top of the priorities of this country, despite what Donald Trump is doing.