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Tennessee Volunteers for Creationism

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Earlier this week, the Volunteer State took a big step backward when Tennessee joined Louisiana to become the second state in America to enact an "academic freedom" bill. Tennessee's new law invites creationist teachers to interject religion into science classrooms -- and forbids administrators from stopping them.

These "academic freedom" bills purport to "create an environment ... that encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, [and] develop critical thinking skills" regarding "scientific controversies." On its face, that doesn't sound too radical -- who is opposed to encouraging more critical thinking in the science classroom?

The problem is how they define "critical thinking." To paraphrase The Princess Bride, they keep using those words; I do not think they mean what they think they mean.

For one thing, the law isn't about "critical thinking" in general, but focuses on four alleged controversies: "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning."

What is taught in public schools about evolution and climate change is simply not controversial among scientists. Sure, legions of creationists and climate change deniers convey the opposite impression; doubt is their product, as it was for the tobacco industry when it sought to downplay the link between smoking and lung cancer. But within the scientific community, where consensus is reached through research rather than ideology, the idea that evolution and climate change are scientifically controversial is laughable. Don't take my word for it: polls demonstrate that the percentage of scientists who accept evolution and climate change is in the high 90s.

The law is misleading when it implies that evolution and climate change are scientifically controversial topics, and that teaching non-scientific "alternate views" will somehow improve critical thinking. What will be the consequences for science education in Tennessee?

For students lucky enough to have good teachers, probably not much will change. The new Tennessee law does not require teachers to introduce misinformation to "balance" the textbook or the curriculum. Unlike Tennessee's infamous Butler Act, under which John Scopes was tried in 1925, this new bill does not make it a crime to teach human evolution.

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.

Creationism is already part of America's public schools. Nationally, 1 in 8 high school biology instructors teach creationism as a scientifically credible alternative to evolution. A similar fraction of those teachers who discuss climate change also give a platform to climate change denial. The new law will exacerbate the problem and encourage teachers to interject their personal non-scientific and religious views into the science classroom.

But wouldn't this use of public school class time to promote such a religious agenda violate the separation of church and state?

Here the creationists have employed a clever trick. Near the end of the Tennessee law is a provision saying that it:

... 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.

Nice try. The problem is that the language a law uses to describe itself means nothing. What matters, constitutionally, is the purpose and effect of the law. And the clear purpose and effect here is to promote a religious agenda in public schools.

The disclaimer is not going to help. Think of this way: If you come home to find your television and computer stolen, along with a note saying, "This removal of your goods shall not be construed as a burglary," you would not be fooled. Likewise, when Tennessee parents come home to find that their children's First Amendment rights have been violated, a few sentences denying that the law meant to do this will mean nothing. Tennessee parents will not be fooled.

Tennessee was the site of the Scopes trial in 1925, and so Tennessee should be especially concerned about a repeat performance occasioned by the new law. But even aside from the constitutional problems, it's clear that the quality of science education in Tennessee will suffer as a result. As the Memphis Commercial Appeal editorialized, "in a time when a firm knowledge of science is an important element in our students being prepared to compete in the global marketplace, passage of this kind of legislation is baffling."

This is why so many citizens of the Volunteer State have come out against this law. Those who have put their opposition on record include:

  • the Tennessee Science Teachers Association
  • the Tennessee Educational Association
  • ten Tennessee members of the National Academy of Sciences, including Tennessee's only Nobel Laureate in science
  • the National Association of Biology Teachers
  • the National Association of Geoscience Teachers
  • the National Earth Science Teachers Association
  • the American Institute of Biological Sciences
  • the American Association for the Advancement of Science
  • Americans United for Separation of Church and State
  • the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee
  • and more than 3200 concerned Tennesseans, whose petition was delivered to Gov. Bill Haslam on April 5

Even Gov. Haslam expressed reservations about the new law, declining to sign it on the grounds that he would prefer legislation to "bring clarity and not confusion." (The bill became law automatically, without his signature.)

At a time when so much of the United States' economy and international competitiveness depends upon fields related to science and technology, rather than improving science education and giving our children the best scientific information possible, Tennessee has volunteered to move in the other direction.

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