Last Monday, the Tennessee Senate passed Senate Bill 893, which essentially gives legal coverage to teachers perpetuating the political myth that global warming and evolution are scientific theories on the verge of collapse. SB 893 protects teachers attempting to teach unscientific theories of human origins from being reprimanded by their school authorities or the state board of education.
In the state of Tennessee since the Scopes Trial in 1925, it has been standard practice for state legislators to use the law to redress the relationship between science and society. It has been legislators, not educators, who have attempted to enact legislation prohibiting the teaching of evolution, legislators that often lack a fundamental understanding of the scientific theory of evolution, and who apparently view educators as servants to the taxpayer, not academics.
Legislation that attempts to restrict teaching evolution tends to have some common denominators. The proposed legislation often advocates equal time for supernatural explanations and evolution in the science classroom. These bills attempt to make it a legal requirement to “teach the controversy”, which involves painting evolution as a theory in crisis by conflating the scientific meaning of the word theory with “guess.” These bills also encourage students with rudimentary science backgrounds to assess the validity of evolutionary theory.
The bill aims "to help students develop critical-thinking skills necessary to becoming intelligent, productive and scientifically informed citizens'' and "to create an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence … and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues.'' In practice, the bill will permit teachers to invite students with no understanding of the scientific process to critique the validity of the evolutionary theory.
The House version of the bill is strategically called the “Academic Freedom Act”, which puts science evolution education advocacy groups like the National Center for Science Education in the position of opposing “academic freedom” when they take a stance against the bill.
Editorials critiquing the bill emphasize that it’s problematic because teachers won’t face consequences for teaching creationism in the classroom if it gets passed. In a state with a history of antievolution sentiment, attacking SB 893 as creationist was highly ineffective. What resistors needed to do was address what the bill actually does, which is to perpetuate the falsehood that evolution is a scientific debate. Evolution is a political debate.
The state of Tennessee has renovated its science curricular framework in the last two years with its Race to the Top initiative. In state science standards surveys, the state has received improved scores on evolution coverage, but accurate evolution standards are problematic in a state where human evolution is not being taught, and evolutionary biology has a dubious stance in the classroom. Increased emphasis on science education through nationwide programs like STEM has led to new requirements that put middle school teachers, who have most likely only taken general education classes, in the position of introducing and most likely defending the complexities of evolution.
What is least discussed in news coverage of the passage of this bill is what the “evolutionary debate” does to the students in these classrooms. Students coming from an anti-evolution home are struggling with an emotionally charged conflict: do they choose the faith of their family or the scientific evidence their teacher is asking them to accept? Scientists and science educators must acknowledge the emotional component of this struggle, and pay attention to the power of language in this debate. An educator’s job is to help students understand what material belongs in which classroom. Supernatural explanations are for religious studies, history, and social studies. Science does not address belief; it deals in evidence. By seeing the difference between natural and supernatural explanations students can start to reconcile what their parents are telling them and what they see for themselves.
The Creationist Tree of Rhetoric
Left to right, top to bottom, like a cross:
Georges Cuvier, founder of the discipline of paleontology, who rose to scientific prominence in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Cuvier vehemently overlooked a good deal of evidence that supported some form of “transmutation of species” for fear that the theory might lead to more social upheaval. Louis Agassiz, who we find here in the cloud to the right, has become an oft-quoted hero of modern creationism. Some of his statements about truth in science have been used to mischaracterize the scientific pursuit. He wrote the first American review of The Origin of Species, and was a denier.
William Jennings Bryan, center: a reform politician and Protestant fundamentalist, took these antiquated theories that disagreed with evolutionary theory and ran with their outdated ideas, quoting Agassiz on scientific “fact” and effectively imprinting an inaccurate understanding of the scientific process on the American psyche. He associated the teaching of evolution with a social apathy toward reform, and as reform was his main agenda, he became very involved in anti-evolution events like the Scopes Trial. A common creationist rhetorical demand is for evidence of the “missing link” between humans and monkeys, despite the abundance of evidence in the form of transitional fossils.