The attack on women occurring in so many state houses around the country this legislative session has received much well deserved attention. What has received far less notice, however, is the fact that science education has also been under relentless attack by many of these same legislators.
Bills attempting to ensure that public school science students learn far less about evolutionary theory, the context that ties all of biology and much of science together, while being exposed to the pseudoscience of creationism, have sprouted like mushrooms. (The mushroom analogy is an apt one since these bills thrive in the dark, away from the light of scientific knowledge, and feed on the detritus of long dead ideas.) In recent months, anti-intellectual, anti-science legislation has been introduced in Alabama, Indiana, Missouri, New Hampshire and Oklahoma.
But, unlike the attack on women, there is a glimmer of good news on the science front. In Louisiana, Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, has introduced a bill to repeal a terribly misguided Louisiana law. The law Senator Peterson is working to repeal, ironically named The Louisiana Science Education Act of 2008, permits teachers to bring creationist resources into public school science classrooms and laboratories.
Senator Peterson is both clear and articulate about her motives: "This year, the governor has asked the Louisiana legislature to focus on education. If this legislative session is truly about improving Louisiana's education system, then the first place to start is to repeal the Louisiana Science Education Act."
Senator Peterson is certainly not a lone voice calling for repeal. Indeed, thanks to the amazing efforts of Zack Kopplin, a first-year-student at Rice University (who began his work as a high school student in Baton Rouge), 75 Nobel laureate scientists have endorsed the effort to repeal this ill-advised law. Additionally, numerous scientific and educational organizations have written in support of the repeal. Organizations as impressive and as diverse as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Institute for Biological Sciences, the National Association of Biology Teachers, the Louisiana Science Teachers Association, as well as the organization I head, The Clergy Letter Project, along with numerous others, are all on board.
The Louisiana law has also been the butt of numerous jokes, perhaps the foremost of which was Gary Trudeau's Doonesbury strip on July 10, 2011. Trudeau depicts a high school biology teacher in Louisiana explaining the situation to his class: "So all of the evidence massively supports a theory of evolution that knits together everything we know about biology! However, as high school science students in the state of Louisiana, you are entitled to learn an alternative theory supported by no scientific evidence whatsoever!"
Except for the fact that, by definition, a "theory supported by no scientific evidence" cannot be considered a "theory," at least not within the realm of science, Trudeau catches the absurdity of the Louisiana law perfectly.
As we think about the possible demise of this legislation, it is well worth considering its (anti-) intellectual pedigree, especially since such consideration is particularly relevant in this presidential election year. The Louisiana Science Education Act of 2008 can be traced back to an amendment offered by then-Senator Rick Santorum to the senate version of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. Santorum, an outspoken proponent of the non-science of intelligent design, drafted the "Santorum amendment" after meeting with members of the Discovery Institute. His language implied both that there was a great deal of controversy about evolution and that it was not widely accepted. Although both of those points are, in fact, true within the general public, neither is close to being accurate with respect to the scientific community. Immediately after its introduction, the Santorum amendment elicited negative comments from 96 scientific and educational organizations. Although the Santorum amendment was adopted by the senate, it didn't survive negotiations in the conference committee that gave birth to No Child Left Behind. Nonetheless, the Louisiana law is a direct descendent of Santorum's failed efforts.
As wonderful as Senator Peterson's repeal effort is, it's important to be realistic about its chances. In fact, Senator Peterson introduced the same bill last session and it didn't make it out of committee. The problem is simple to understand. We've reached the point where expertise is something to be shunned. The opinion of the scientific community is criticized because scientists supposedly are biased in favor of their discipline. The opinion of educators is to be avoided because it's seen as a mistake to believe that they know more than random members of the public.
Anyone with specific knowledge is viewed skeptically in some circles as an elitist. Those promoting anti-science legislation are the same as those who voice the position that encouraging people to attend college is to encourage snobbery.
In this perverted universe, a bill such as Senator Peterson's must be all but dead on arrival. The very fact that those who know the most about the subject so strongly support her efforts will likely be enough to kill it.
Unless. Unless those of us who care about education, who care about knowledge, who care about shining light on difficult problems raise our collective voices. Together we can demonstrate that embracing critical thinking and the scientific method is a good thing for society and that elitism of this sort will yield huge dividends for all of us.