Tennessee Travels Back to 1925

By the end of this week, teachers in Tennessee will likely have new protections if they teach creationism alongside evolution or rely on dubious reports that climate change is a myth.

A measure awaiting gubernatorial approval explicitly protects teachers who give countering theories to evolution, climate change, and the like, in an effort to foster critical-thinking skills. The bill received overwhelming legislative support, and the governor is expected to approve it.

"It's a really sad state of affairs," says Steven Newton, policy director at the California-based National Center for Science Education. "In an era where other countries are pushing forward … the United States is passing anti-science bills in some of its states."

As I wrote last week, the measure create any requirements, and, as the Times Free Press reports, its sponsor has been adamant that it "does not endorse, promote or allow the teaching of any nonscientific, nonconventional theories in the scientific classroom." But many in the science community argue the bill opens the door for teachers to offer anti-science accounts or paint inaccurate pictures of the real debates around these topics. (You won't find a lot of scientists debating evolution.)

Assuming the bill becomes law, Newton says opponents will have to wait to challenge the measure until a student's family argues his or her education has been impaired. "When that does come forward, I think it will be a slam dunk case," says Newton. "Creationists do not have a good track record when it comes to the courts."

While the Supreme Court has not ruled teaching creationism to be unconstitutional, Tennessee's measure is somewhat new new approach to the effort. It protects teachers who "review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories ... such as evolution and global warming." The law is similar to one passed in Louisiana in 2008, which protects teachers who give non-scientific accounts of evolution and climate change in an effort "to promote students' critical thinking skills and open discussion of scientific theories." Proponents consider such measures to be about academic freedom; allowing the discussion of "all sides" of the issue. 
The trouble, of course, is that almost no credible biologist is spending time looking at the scientific weaknesses of evolution and virtually no climatologists are still debating climate change. Outside of culture wars, these are not controversial issues—the debate is political, not scientific. Teachers presumably could also explore whether the sun revolves around the earth or make an argument why Tennessee's top scientists have been among the most vocal critics of this measure, sending letters and speaking out for fear that Tennessee will be perceived as anti-science and its students less prepared for college-level courses in the field.
While the debate is not limited to Tennessee—Oklahoma has a similar measure chugging along—the issue is particularly loaded for the state. After all, in 1925, science teacher John Scopes stood trial, accused of illegally teaching evolution. (If you're interested in the trial, I really recommend Ray Ginger's book Seven Days or Forever or the famous play Inherit the Wind.) The trial, one of the most famous in the twentieth century, highlighted the country's growing gap in between two world views. It also made Tennessee famous for its anti-evolution laws, spawning similar measures in other states.
It seems we haven't come very far. In a public letter, three of the state's most prominent scientists, all members of the prestigious National Academy of Science, made the comparison explicit. "[T]he Tennessee legislature is doing the unbelievable," they wrote, "attempting to roll the clock back to 1925 by attempting to insert religious beliefs in the teaching of science."

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