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Tennessean op-ed: Anti-science legislation offers prospect of a new Scopes trial

By Roger Cone, chairman of the department of molecular physiology and biophysics at Vanderbilt, Jon Kaas, Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of Psychology at Vanderbilt, and Robert Webster, Rose Marie Thomas Chair in Virology at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital

This opinion piece was published on the Tennessean’s website March 25, 2012.

Roger Cone
Roger Cone (Vanderbilt University)

Almost 90 years ago, Tennessee became a national laughingstock with the Scopes trial of 1925, when a young teacher was prosecuted for violating a state law forbidding the teaching of evolution. With the passage of two bills, House Bill 368 and Senate Bill 893, the Tennessee legislature is doing the unbelievable: attempting to roll the clock back to 1925 by attempting to insert religious beliefs in the teaching of science.

These bills, if enacted, would encourage teachers to present the “scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses” of “controversial” topics such as “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.” As such, the bills are misleading, unnecessary, likely to provoke unnecessary and divisive legal proceedings, and likely to have adverse economic consequences for the state.

Jon Kaas
Jon Kaas (Vanderbilt University)

It is misleading to describe these topics as scientifically controversial. What is taught about evolution, the origin of life, and climate change in the public school science curriculum is — as with all scientific topics — based on the settled consensus of the scientific community. While there is no doubt social controversy about these topics, the actual science is solid.

Even the religious mainstream has accepted the theory of evolution as the scientific description of how living things change over large time scales. Over 12,000 Christian clergy in the U.S. have endorsed a statement acknowledging that “the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests.”

In opposing the legislation, the American Association for the Advancement of Science explained, “There is virtually no scientific controversy among the overwhelming majority of researchers on the core facts of global warming and evolution. Asserting that there are significant scientific controversies about the overall nature of these concepts when there are none will only confuse students, not enlighten them.”

There is clearly no need for the legislation. Good science teachers already know the science and understand how to teach it; they need no encouragement to help their students to learn the science. Moreover, as opponents of the bill repeatedly pointed out during legislative hearings, Tennessee’s state science standards already promote critical thinking throughout science education.

And teachers — the Tennessee Science Teachers Association as well as the National Association of Biology Teachers, the National Association of Geoscience Teachers, and the National Earth Science Teachers Association — have come out against the bills as unnecessary. If the supposed beneficiaries of the legislation oppose it, then why should anyone support it?

[rquote]Especially with regard to evolution, there is every reason to believe that these bills would, if enacted, provoke a lawsuit.[/rquote] Whether or not the law would be challenged as unconstitutional on its face, there is every reason to think that local school districts or individual teachers would take it as a license to teach creationism, which the federal courts have repeatedly and consistently ruled to be unconstitutional.

In 2005, a local school district in Pennsylvania wound up paying over $1 million in a lawsuit over a policy that recommended creationism to its students. Recently, a teacher in Ohio who taught creationism after being instructed by his district not to do so was fired — but the administrative cost of firing him and defending the district against related lawsuits was in excess of $1 million.

It is estimated that one in eight high school biology teachers across the country already teach creationism as scientifically credible — although it is anything but. House Bill 368 and Senate Bill 893 in effect invite such teachers to continue their miseducational efforts. But it will be the Tennessee taxpayer, not the state legislature, who will be left to pick up the bill when the inevitable lawsuits are filed and won.

It will also be the Tennessee taxpayer who will have to make up the shortfall from the economic impact of the passage of the legislation. And it is a real worry. For example, a member of the Oak Ridge City Council told her state senators that the passage of these bills “will do real harm to the ability of Oak Ridge and the state of Tennessee to continue to represent ourselves as leaders in science and technology.”

[lquote]What high-tech employer will want to open up shop in a state that allows ideology and prejudice to trump science education?[/lquote] Reacting to such bills in 2006, the president of the Biotechnology Institute warned, “we are greatly diminishing our chances for future scientific breakthroughs and technological innovations, and are endangering our health, safety and economic well-being as individuals and as a nation.”

Unfortunately, both houses of the legislature have approved HBl 368/SB 893. Although there are minor differences between the bills, it seems that the only barrier now to their passage and enactment is the veto of Gov. Bill Haslam. Will he heed the informed opinion of the scientific community and of Tennessee’s science teachers? Or are we in for a repeat of the Scopes trial?