POLITICS

Louisiana Republican Recalls Imaginary Time When Scientists Burned Heretics At The Stake

05/11/2015 06:39 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2015

A Louisiana state senator recently offered a puzzling rationale for why schools in the state should be allowed to teach creationism.

Last month, Louisiana lawmakers considered a measure to repeal the Louisiana Science Education Act, a 2008 law that critics have characterized as a way of giving teachers latitude to introduce creationism and other unscientific theories into state classrooms.

In an April 22 hearing, state Sen. Elbert Guillory (R) made it clear that he would vote against the measure, SB 74. In footage uploaded to YouTube last week, he can be seen using a bizarre tactic to support his argument -- namely, citing a nonexistent version of history where scientific truth reigned supreme and dissent invited brutal consequences.

“There was a time, sir, when scientists thought that the world was flat. And if you get to the end of it, you’d fall off," Guillory said. "There was another time when scientists thought that the sun revolved around the world. And they always thought to ensure that anyone who disagreed with their science was a heretic. People were burned for not believing that the world was flat. People were really badly treated."

Some of Guillory's assertions might sound familiar: Throughout history, people who have dared defy conventional beliefs about the shape of the Earth, and its relation to other celestial bodies, have indeed faced imprisonment, torture and even burning at the stake. But that cruelty was, of course, applied mainly by religious leaders to punish scientists for theories and observations that were seen as heresy.

When, for example, Galileo's empirical observations led him to argue in the 1600s that the planets actually revolved around the sun, the Catholic Church fought back by putting him on trial and eventually sentencing him to life in prison. In 1992, 359 years after that sentence was handed down, church authorities recanted, admitting that Galileo was right.

Guillory did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

In his April 22 remarks, as seen in the video, Guillory held up the garbled version of history as a reason why creationism ought to have a place in the classroom.

“Knowledge only grows when people can talk about and have this intellectual back-and-forth, this discourse, with all ideas on the table,” he said.

Activist Zack Kopplin, who uploaded the footage of Guillory's comments to YouTube, makes an appearance in his own video, arguing that while the free exchange of ideas is an important principle, it isn't an adequate defense of the LSEA.

"We don't give teachers the academic freedom to teach 1+1=3," he says in the clip.

Louisiana state Sen. Jean-Paul J. Morrell (D) also appears in the video, offering his own rebuttal to Guillory.

"When you look at history, oftentimes, when science pushes the envelope, the leading person to lock that person up is oftentimes religious leaders," says Morrell. "And at the end of the day, I think when you talk about a fair exchange of ideas, as long as those ideas are based in fact, I think you really don’t have a problem. At the end of the day, we want to have a logical discourse about things that are provable."

SB 74 did indeed eventually fail, likely preserving the LSEA for at least another year.

Guillory has attracted criticism in the past for strange defenses of what should and shouldn't be taught in science class. A few years back, he appeared to express concern that repealing the LSEA would mean that the teachings of a witch doctor he had met -- a man who “wore no shoes, was semi-clothed, [and] used a lot of bones that he threw around” -- would be off-limits.

Efforts to repeal the LSEA have failed five years in a row, with no legislation even making it out of the state Senate Committee on Education, despite support from 78 Nobel laureates. In light of that, Kopplin told The Huffington Post that he's no longer fazed by comments like Guillory's.

"In 2013, Senator Guillory insisted on keeping creationism in science class because of an experience he had with a witch doctor," Kopplin wrote in an email to HuffPost on Monday. "It's no surprise that he has a strong disrespect for historical fact either."

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