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Teaching the Controversy

April 11th, 2011

First, creationists wanted creationism to be taught in science classes. When that failed, they re-styled their product as “Intelligent Design.” When that didn’t work, they evolved the strategy into “academic freedom.”

Their current tactic? “Teach the Controversy.” A new Tennessee proposal (PDF) that passed the state House:

(a) The general assembly finds that:

(1) An important purpose of science education is to inform students about scientific evidence and to help students develop critical thinking skills necessary to becoming intelligent, productive, and scientifically informed citizens;

(2) The teaching of some scientific subjects, including, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy; and

(3) Some teachers may be unsure of the expectations concerning how they should present information on such subjects.

(b) The state board of education, public elementary and secondary school governing authorities, directors of schools, school system administrators, and public elementary and secondary school principals and administrators shall endeavor to create an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues.

(c) The state board of education, public elementary and secondary school governing authorities, directors of schools, school system administrators, and public elementary and secondary school principals and administrators shall endeavor to assist teachers to find effective ways to present the science curriculum as it addresses scientific controversies. Toward this end, teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.

(d) Neither the state board of education, nor any public elementary or secondary school governing authority, director of schools, school system administrator, or any public elementary or secondary school principal or administrator shall prohibit any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.

(e) This section only protects the teaching of scientific information, and shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or non-beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or non-religion.

The language is actually quite clever; it goes to great lengths to emphasize “objectivity,” “critical thinking,” “explore,” “evidence,” “scientific theories”–making it sound like this is all about science and that there will be no funny business.

When you read the text carefully, however, it opens the door for creationism to be taught. Parts (b) and (c) effectively say that teachers can teach the controversies and administrators must assist them–that’s the door opening. Part (d) forbids administrators to prohibit teachers “helping” students to see the issues. This element is critical–it means that if a teacher, for example, were to introduce the subject in a way that greatly favored the creationist view, administrators would not be allowed to interfere. Note the language concerning “scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered”; that’s code for allowing in creationist arguments that evolution is flawed.

Interestingly, it’s that last paragraph which is the real giveaway; while appearing, at first cursory glance, to be an assurance that this will not be used to promote religion, it is in fact the key to legitimizing religious doctrine as science. While it may be intended to smooth the law’s way when challenged in the courts, this part is really the slickest pro-creationist part of the bill. Some of it’s language is actually pretty bold; first, it classes religion right together with non-religion, placing them on an equal basis–meaning that religion gets equal play with secularism. Which, of course, is contradictory.

This comes from the view from a religious standpoint that secularism and atheism, seen from the distance of faith, are one and the same–that allowing no religion in a science class means that atheism is being favored. This is not true, of course–saying there is no god is just as non-scientific as saying there is one. But since fundamentalist religion in America today holds that what we observe and measure contradicts religious “truth,” reporting objective observations is, for them, tantamount to denying god, and so is atheist in nature.

Given the actual, true nature of secular science, placing secularism and religion on equal footing in a science class is just as bad as placing secularism and atheism on equal footing. Neither is secular; secular means that religious views, for or against, are simply not germane. This bill tears down that point, making science classes a referendum on religion versus atheism.

Note that the language also forbids promoting “discrimination for or against” either “a particular set of religious beliefs or non-beliefs” or “religion or non-religion.” When you recall that “discrimination” against religious beliefs is equal to not teaching creationism in the classroom, you can see the true purpose is to include religious doctrine where none was allowed before. Keep in mind that these people believe it is discriminating against religion when children are taught that the universe is billion of years old without the Young Earth Creationist view being given equal or greater billing. The “for or against” is also key–it again places religion on an equal basis with “non-religion.” “Non-religion” is, remember, what we usually refer to as “science.”

In case you think this may be the wrong way of looking at the bill, remember that this state legislature is not precisely averse to trying to get religion in the public schools any way they can. Amusingly, one of those legislators said this in reflection on the recent bill:

Rep. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, quoted Albert Einstein as saying: “A little knowledge would turn your head to atheism, while a broader knowledge would turn your head to Christianity.”

Of course, Einstein, a non-observant Jew who said that he believed in Spinoza’s God, never said that. Nevertheless, it kind of tips this lawmaker’s hand as to his intent in passing the bill.

Anti-science rhetoric typical of creationists was also abundant from Republicans, and was just as ludicrous. Rep. Sheila Butt, R-Columbia, for example, makes this error-studded statement on why science cannot be trusted:

I remember so many of us, when we were seniors in high school, we gave up Aquanet hairspray. Do you remember why we did that? Because it was causing global warming. That that aerosol in those cans was causing global warming.
Since then scientists have said that maybe we shouldn’t have given up that aerosol can, because that aerosol was actually absorbing the earth’s rays, and was keeping us from global warming.

Umm, no. This woman appears to be going on a factoid she must have heard that aerosols help reflect solar radiation (not “the earth’s rays”). However, it was not the aerosols that were bad, it was the CFC’s in the aerosols, and they were not said to be contributing to global warming, but that they were depleting the ozone layer. Not to mention that we never gave up aerosols (you can still buy all manner of things in aerosol spray cans, as this woman seems to have overlooked), we only gave up the CFC’s in aerosols. And clearly, aerosols did not stop global warming trends. Scientists were not wrong on this; this woman, on the other hand, sounds like an idiot. And again, it reveals a clear anti-science agenda.

These are the people who wish to lecture us on and legislate “critical thinking” in science classes.

When looked at objectively, this bill is just as bad as all the other ones passed in recent years to get creationism back into the public schools. What is happening is that we’re getting the same old creationist proposals dressed up more and more deceptively, the authors hoping each time that the courts will have been sufficiently stacked with religious conservatives to allow for one of these to be approved.

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  1. Troy
    April 11th, 2011 at 15:52 | #1

    “Atheism is a religion like off is a cable channel”

    Well over half this country has a room-temperature effective IQ.

    I say let the bible belt do their thing. The South is lost to Democrats now and we might as well just write them off. Let the smart people move.

    April 12th, 2011 at 16:42 | #2

    Your point is belabored in Richard Dawkins’ THE GOD DELUSION.

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