06/14/2013 04:15 pm ET Updated Aug 14, 2013

Got Science? Fighting Legislative Attacks on Science Education

Did you know that a law on the books in Louisiana right now explicitly forbids science teachers in the state's public schools from teaching evolution unless equal time is given to the Christian creation story? At its recent meeting on May 29, 2013, the Louisiana House Education Committee couldn't muster enough votes to send a bill to the statehouse floor to formally repeal this law even though the provision in question -- Louisiana's 1981 "Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act" -- was specifically struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court as an unconstitutional incursion of religion into the classroom back in 1987.

Given the Supreme Court ruling, Louisiana's latest defense of creationism is more symbolic than enforceable. But it speaks volumes about the level of anti-science sentiment in many states. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, despite a college degree in biology, continues to endorse the notion of giving creationism equal time in the classroom. In not-unrelated news, Louisiana students -- the victims of this kind of legislative meddling -- ranked 48th in science and math in the last national assessment.

Trouble in Tennessee
Perhaps even more troubling than Louisiana's explicitly creationist provision, however, is the handiwork of the Tennessee legislature last year in passing Tennessee H.B. 368, a prime example of so-called "teach the controversy" legislation which uses carefully calibrated, non-religious language to undermine science education on evolution as well as other topics including climate science. The Tennessee law identifies not just evolution, but also the origins of life, cloning, and global warming as subjects that "can cause controversy." Rather than reinforcing the notion of teaching the best available scientific understanding of these topics, the legislation directs educators to tread lightly, reviewing "the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses" in these areas.

What's wrong with that? The problem is that the Tennessee law opens the door for misinformation about science to flood the classroom under the appealing-sounding guise of academic freedom and encouragement of students' critical thinking. "The bottom line is that these type of bills provide cover -- a Trojan horse, if you will -- for teachers to act as if there is controversy when there isn't, to present both sides in a way that makes them look equal," says Mark McCaffrey, of the National Center for Science Education, an Oakland, California-based nonprofit organization that has played a lead role in fighting creationism in the classroom for years.

Attacks on Science Education Widespread
As this legislative sessions draw to a close across the country, our roundup finds that variations of Tennessee's anti-science legislation were introduced and debated by state legislatures in no fewer than ten states: Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia. Thankfully, legislators in all these states had the good sense to rebuff these anti-science provisions -- so far, at least. But the sheer number of bills should still give us pause. Bills that ultimately failed in Oklahoma and Arizona, for instance, specifically named global warming as a scientific controversy about which "scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses" should be taught. Failed legislation in Kansas (Kansas H.B. 2306) was notable for leaving evolution completely out of the picture, mentioning only climate science as a controversial scientific topic requiring special handling instructions from the legislature.

To get around the Supreme Court's objections, these attempts, emulating the Tennessee law, specifically note that their intent is not to specifically promote any particular "religious or non-religious doctrine." What they all do, however, is undermine science teachers' unfettered ability to teach students the best available scientific understanding of these difficult issues. Nonetheless, wrapped in rhetoric emphasizing "academic freedom" and respect for differences, the efforts have often found wider-than-expected appeal. In Tennessee, for example, the approach helped its anti-science law to pass by a 3-to-1 margin in the state legislature.

A Sponsored Effort
The similarity and tone of these bills is not an accident. One of the prime movers behind these efforts is the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization that promotes the scientifically discredited notion of "intelligent design." The group has also been involved in pushing the broader "teach the controversy" bills that include climate science and other subjects.

The Discovery Institute even published a how-to guide on how to best introduce what it calls "academic freedom legislation" on its website last year, including model language for legislation designed to pass muster in the courts. As recent reporting revealed, the Discovery Institute received some $750,000 in funding from the secretive right-wing funder Donors Trust, whose benefactors include the Koch brothers. Those interested can find copies of Donors Trusts' 2011 tax return and its list of 2011 grantees here.

Hopeful Signs
Of course, it is important to emphasize that these attacks on science education come from a strong but vocal minority. Most Americans recognize the vital importance of strong science and math education, not just for creating the next generation of scientists but also for helping to build an informed citizenry.

In a notably positive development along these lines, educators this spring unveiled new guidelines for science education in in the United States -- the so-called Next Generation Science Standards. These standards include a recommendation that climate change be taught as early as middle school as well as a strong endorsement of the need to teach children evolution as a key organizing principle in the biological sciences. The guidelines were developed by a consortium that includes representatives from 26 state governments and several groups representing scientists and teachers. While states are not required to adopt them, they serve as an important counterweight to anti-science legislation that continues to further creationist goals.

Seth Shulman, Senior Staff Writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, is a veteran science journalist and author of six books whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, Discover, Nature, Technology Review, Parade and many other publications. You can sign up to receive his monthly Got Science? column via email at the Union of Concerned Scientists website: