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'Monkey Bill' Becomes Law, Imperils Science In Tennessee

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First there was the Butler Act of 1925, a law that prohibited the teaching of evolution in classrooms in Tennessee. The Scopes "Monkey" Trial, in which the ACLU challenged the bill, put Tennessee educational policy in the national spotlight. But Tennessee legislators refused to bend to pressure, and the law remained on the books until 1967.

We've come a long way in the past 100 years, but it seems like Tennessee is up to its old anti-science tricks again. In a new twist on an old classic, a modern "monkey bill," which encourages teachers to explore "alternative" explanations for established scientific theories, recently passed in both the Tennessee House and Senate. In a previous video report on Talk Nerdy To Me, I describe this "academic freedom" bill in detail. It is predicated on the false notion that "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning" are topics that arouse "debate and disputation" in the scientific community.

In spite of protests by scientific, educational, and civil liberties groups, on April 10, 2012, this "monkey bill" became law. In Tennessee, the governor can choose to either sign or veto any bill that is passed by the state legislature. But apparently, he has a third option. He can do nothing.

And nothing is exactly what Governor Bill Haslam did. He explained:

"I have reviewed the final language of HB 368/SB 893 and assessed the legislation's impact. I have also evaluated the concerns that have been raised by the bill. I do not believe that this legislation changes the scientific standards that are taught in our schools or the curriculum that is used by our teachers. However, I also don't believe that it accomplishes anything that isn't already acceptable in our schools...The bill received strong bipartisan support, passing the House and Senate by a three-to-one margin, but good legislation should bring clarity and not confusion. My concern is that this bill has not met this objective. For that reason, I will not sign the bill but will allow it to become law without my signature."

Seriously? And what are those scientific standards? This law essentially gives teachers carte blanche to discuss whatever crackpot ideas they want (and to be clear, ideas and theories are two very different things in scientific parlance).

Steven Newton, the programs and policy director for the National Center for Science Education, says that for students who are fortunate enough to have good science teachers, the classroom experience will likely be unaffected. The law doesn't require that teachers present "alternative theories" to their students. But, as he points out:

"This new law allows--indeed, encourages--teachers who are already inclined to attack evolution and climate science to do so. Unlucky students may be subjected to creationist or climate-change-denying rants from their teachers. And if students or parents object, the law forbids school boards and administrators from doing anything about it."

Apparently, science teachers across Tennessee are already filling their blackboards with religious propaganda and anti-science rhetoric. I wonder what repercussions a teacher would face if he/she introduced "Pastafarianism" to the classroom. In this "alternative theory," the unseen and undetectable Flying Spaghetti Monster touched Adam with his "noodly appendage" and is thus responsible for the creation (or "intelligent design") of the universe. This "theory" also posits that over many years, the steady decline in pirates (known to be divine beings) has resulted in global warming.

Obviously, the Flying Spaghetti Monster parody was developed to ridicule the idea that intelligent design be taken seriously in the science classroom. But this new law makes it clear that Tennessee is not in on the joke. In an opinion piece in the Chatanoogan, David D. Fihn, Sr. writes:

"Bill Haslam will single-handedly give credence to the rest of the country's opinion of this southern state. We will be thought of as backward, mouth-breathing, wrongly-educated national parasites...one has only to point to this myopic piece of legislation to vindicate that opinion."

That's no laughing matter. We live in the 21st century, the century of biotechnology. Without an appropriate understanding of evolution, students will be at a disadvantage in the workforce. And without an understanding of anthropogenic climate change, how can we expect Tennessee children to grow up to become members of an informed electorate? And it's not just Tennessee. Florida, Texas, Kentucky, Missouri, Indiana, Alabama, New Mexico, and Louisiana have all seen anti-evolution and climate change denial bills in various stages of the legislative process within the past two years. This is cause for alarm.

Without proper scientific training, a cornerstone of the educational system in every major developed nation, the future for this country does not look very bright.

See all Talk Nerdy to Me posts.
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