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Tennessee’s Monkey Bill–harmful to education

As you recall, Tennessee’s governor, Republican Bill Haslam, did not veto HB 368, but allowed it to become law.  The legislation allows public schools to teach the scientific controversies about evolution and global warming.  Once again, there are no scientific controversies regarding evolution and global warming (though admittedly there are ongoing discussions about mechanics and other issues, as there are with all scientific theories).  The only controversies are political and rhetorical, and evolution-denialism is based in religious beliefs, not in real science.  Tennessee now will allow the teaching of creationism, a religious dogma, in publicly funded schools in direct opposition to the Establishment Clause of the US Constitution.  In every single case, when these religious laws were brought before State and Federal courts, the laws were overturned.  This law will also be thrown out.

Several newspapers inside and outside of Tennessee have posted editorials about the Monkey Bill.  The Washington Post, in an editorial entitled, Tennessee evolution law set to do more harm than good, made some excellent points about the bill, if it were to stand (I’m counting on courts):

TENNESSEE LAST WEEK enacted a law that prohibits the punishment of teachers for discussing the “scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses” of global warming, evolution and the chemical origins of life.

Before the law, Tennessee science teachers hardly needed to fear admitting that there are some questions for which science does not offer clear answers. There was nothing to keep them from discussing scientific uncertainties inherent to particular fields: just how sensitive the climate is to carbon emissions, for example.

Nor did instructors teaching world religions or philosophy in Tennessee have any reason to avoid neutrally discussing alternative narratives about the origins of the universe, the development of species or the future of the planet. Exposure to foundational critiques of modernity — particularly those concerning when and how people really know something to be true and the role of belief in society — is essential to developing critical thinking skills. None of that should be controversial, even among the most ardent of empiricists.

Yes, we all agree that critical thinking skills are necessary.  Evolution is accepted by nearly all biological research scientists in the world.  However, there are ongoing discussions about mechanisms.  Not too long ago, punctuated equilibrium, essentially that evolution moves slowly or not at all until it suddenly moves quickly, was all the rage.  There was some weaknesses to the mechanism, and it’s not as popular now (though still has many proponents).  But evolution, that organisms change over time, is not under any discussion at all.  That life started 3.5 billion years ago is not under discussion.  That all of life today evolved from those early life forms is not controversial.  That humans are a branch of primates, closely related to chimpanzees, is essentially a fact.

Rather than removing some kind of official hostility to critical thought in Tennessee’s curriculum, it seems designed to encourage teachers who would introduce pseudo-scientific criticisms inspired by religion or ideology into descriptions of the current state of evolution or climate science. Even if that wasn’t the intent of the law, that’s the most likely consequence, if any, of its passage. Merely emphasizing the existence of notable “scientific weaknesses” exaggerates the uncertainty among scientists about these theories. That the state legislature has gone out of its way to warn administrators not to touch teachers can only discourage them from pushing back against wayward instructors.

Governor Haslam rightly expressed concern that the law would fog state education policy, introducing a lack of clarity that is easy to interpret as pretext for doing more than its words superficially suggest. Unfortunately, the governor also didn’t muster the courage to veto the bill. Such a stand would have been significant, if only symbolically: The legislature had the votes to override. Other governors who find themselves in Mr. Haslam’s position should fight back harder.

Well, let’s hope that Tennessee set aside enough funds to defend themselves against the large number of lawsuits that they’re going to see.  Except they’ll probably take money away from education to defend these suits.  

Michael Simpson

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