Tennessee Law Clears the Way for Questioning Science

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Tennessee Law Clears the Way for Questioning Science

http://slatest.slate.com/posts/2012/04/11/tennessee_evolution_law_allows_creationism_intelligent_design_in_the_classroom.html

Paging the ghosts of Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan: Tennessee has a new law on the books that allows teachers to discuss alternatives to mainstream scientific theories in the classroom, including intelligent design.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam allowed the bill?which easily passed the state's House and Senate?to become law on Tuesday by neither signing nor vetoing it, the Memphis Commercial Appeal reports.

The new law bars schools and administrators from prohibiting teachers from "helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught." But, as the effort's critics have been quick to point out, the only examples the legislation gives of "controversial" theories are "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning."

The law does not allow teachers to present the alternative theories on their own, as Reuters notes, but they must discuss them if mentioned. Critics of the law dubbed it the "monkey bill," after the 1925 prosecution in Tennessee of John Scopes, a science teacher who broke state law at the time by teaching evolution.

The law's supporters, including the Knoxville-based Center for Faith and Science International, argue that it promotes critical thinking skills. But opponents, who include the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Tennessee Education Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the National Association of Biology Teachers, argue that the new rules are essentially allowing teachers to depict evolution and global warming as scientifically controversial subjects, when the actual controversy surrounding them comes from the political and religious spheres, not from scientists.

As Nature notes, the separation of church and state bars school from promoting religion in the classroom, which generally keeps creationism and intelligent design on the sidelines of biology classes. But the Tennessee law represents a victory for a strategy to circumvent that limitation. Groups like the Discovery Institute, who advocate for the teaching of intelligent design, have depicted evolution as a scientifically controversial topic in order to make space for alternative theories in the classroom.

In 2008, Louisiana passed a similar law that provides even more leeway for teachers to bring nonscientific alternative theories into the classroom. As the Christian Science Monitor explains, Louisiana's Science Education Act allows teachers to bring in supplemental materials in addition to science curriculum textbooks while discussing subjects "including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming and human cloning."

Bill Summary:

http://wapp.capitol.tn.gov/apps/billinfo/BillSummaryArchive.aspx?BillNumber=HB0368&ga=107

[h=2]*HB 0368 by *Dunn, White, Hensley, Faison, Lollar, Evans, McCormick, Shipley, Weaver, Eldridge, Rich, Maggart, Carr, Alexander, Floyd, Miller D, Hill, Holt, Butt, Sparks, Powers, Cobb , Roach, Parkinson. (SB 0893 by *Watson, Beavers, Johnson.)[/h]Teachers, Principals and School Personnel - As enacted, protects a teacher from discipline for teaching scientific subjects in an objective manner. - Amends TCA Title 49, Chapter 6, Part 10.
[h=3]Fiscal Summary[/h]NOT SIGNIFICANT
[h=3]Bill Summary[/h]This bill prohibits the state board of education and any public elementary or secondary school governing authority, director of schools, school system administrator, or principal or administrator from prohibiting any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught, such as evolution and global warming. This bill also requires such persons and entities to endeavor to:
(1) Create an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues; and
(2) Assist teachers to find effective ways to present the science curriculum as it addresses scientific controversies.

ON MARCH 19, THE SENATE SUBSTITUTED HOUSE BILL 368 FOR SENATE BILL 893, ADOPTED AMENDMENT #1, AND PASSED HOUSE BILL 368, AS AMENDED.

AMENDMENT #1 clarifies that the bill would apply to scientific subjects and science courses "taught under the curriculum framework developed by the state board of education." This amendment requires the department of education to notify all directors of schools of the provisions of the bill by "the start of the 2012 - 2013 school term", instead of by "the start of the 2011 - 2012 school term".

So, what do you think? Is this bill designed to foster critical thinking and the healthy application of the scientific method, or is it designed as a sort of back door entre to teaching creationism in the classroom? Or maybe a little of both?

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This one is hard for me, because the idea that people shouldn't question scientific theories and findings goes against the very spirit of science. Science should not be dogmatic, and if you can disprove a current scientific theory (using real empirical evidence and the scientific method) then good on you, that's exactly what you should do.

The worry of course is that teachers won't be fair in presenting the evidence for and against these so called "controversial" topics, and instead spin things to favor their own religious beliefs, veering away from actual science in the science class. For example, the whole "God of the Gaps" theory that typically accompanies ID. Teachers can present that certain "missing links" have not been found, which is well and good and true, and I would not have a problem with that. But if they present those gaps as scientific evidence that supports ID, that is false. Lack of evidence for one hypothesis cannot be taken as positive evidence for another competing theory - that's a false dichotomy and flies in the face of the scientific method. So that's the worry, that science teachers will misrepresent the findings and misrepresent the scientific method in an attempt to sway children to believing in an an unscientific theory.

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Discussion is always a good thing. A student should be able to ask questions and discuss with other students what they think about the material they are learning.

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I find it astounding that teachers currently aren't allowed to discuss other theories in class. The basis of science is to question. Science would never have gotten anywhere if it weren't for people who asked "why" and "how".

I support the law. I understand the concerns about teachers putting their own beliefs at the forefront, but again I don't know whether that is a bad thing, as long as open discussion and questioning is permitted and encouraged. I also think it is possible to discuss a "design hypothesis" without turning the class into a Bible lesson.

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"kris_w" wrote:

I find it astounding that teachers currently aren't allowed to discuss other theories in class. The basis of science is to question. Science would never have gotten anywhere if it weren't for people who asked "why" and "how".

I support the law. I understand the concerns about teachers putting their own beliefs at the forefront, but again I don't know whether that is a bad thing, as long as open discussion and questioning is permitted and encouraged. I also think it is possible to discuss a "design hypothesis" without turning the class into a Bible lesson.

Is it possible to discuss a design hypothesis in a scientific way that actually follows the scientific method? I've never seen any actual evidence that could reasonably be interpreted to support a design hypothesis following the scientific method; all I've ever seen is a sort of "God of the Gaps" type thing that again, is a logical fallacy. You can't claim that a lack of evidence for Theory A is automatically evidence for Theory B. Even if Theory A is false, that would never mean that Theory B is automatically true. It may be that the as of yet unthought of Theory C is the real truth. That is the problem with this law; it opens the door for science teachers to teach very poor science and actually distort critical thinking by presenting logical fallacies (such as "lack of evidence for evolution can be interpretted as evidence for ID")

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Oh no. I don't mean that sort of reasoning at all, because you're right it really doesn't work.

I mean looking at things like DNA which carries information in basically the same manner as digital code and questioning the likelihood of chance producing such information. Or how proteins are formed and the odds of them correctly forming by chance (something to the tune of 1/10 to 84 power for the simplest of proteins). All those can be addressed empirically and form some of the basis for a design hypothesis. Addressing those sorts of questions is certainly legitimate and shouldn't be pushed aside by teachers.