Commentary

Scientific Inquiry – Not Opinion – Should Triumph in Schools and the Media

By Sarah Chaffee | May 22, 2017 | 11:29am EDT
(Wikimedia Commons Photo)

There are several misconceptions that come up year after year in the media about academic freedom bills. This year, with legislation (bills and resolutions) and science standards reviews in Texas, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Indiana, Louisiana and Alabama, was no exception.

These criticisms are unfounded and here are some examples to demonstrate:

The National Coalition Against Censorship wrote in a letter to the leadership of the South Dakota House Education Committee, “… teachers are entitled to believe in creationism, but not to teach it as scientific fact in the public schools.”

And The Washington Post wrote on several pieces of academic freedom legislation filed this year, stating,

“These bills are worded as ‘academic freedom’ bills, but they really are efforts to present foundational science as controversial. For example, evolution is the animating principle of modern biology, but these laws attempt to allow creationism and evolution to be debated in a science classroom as though they had equal scientific basis. There is no scientific basis to creationist thinking.”

And Americans United for Separation of Church and State wrote, “South Dakota’s House Education Committee has rejected an anti-science bill that would have allowed public schools to teach ‘intelligent design,’ a code term for creationism.”

Leaving aside the question of whether evolution is true, creationism and intelligent design aren’t in these bills.

First, creationism. Concerns regarding creationism in legislation are unfounded, as the Supreme Court has said that creationism is a religious doctrine, and therefore can’t be taught in public schools. And obviously if science standards included creationism, they would be considered unconstitutional and immediately brought to court. Academic freedom bills that follow our model legislation don’t include creationism. In fact, they have a provision regarding non-promotion of religion or non-religion in case a law happens to come before a confused judge. As a result, laws in Louisiana (2008) and Tennessee (2012) haven’t been challenged in court in the years they have been in place.

Second, teaching of intelligent design is not a concern. K-12 teachers in public schools only have the ability to teach what is in the curriculum. The Constitution does not grant them academic freedom or free speech rights in the performance of their job, and court decisions are consistent with this. Academic freedom legislation is very, very limited legislation that authorizes teachers to discuss the scientific strengths and weaknesses of scientific topics already in the curriculum without having to fear losing their jobs. Teachers cannot bring in a new theory like intelligent design. It is not in the curriculum anywhere in the United States. The bill does not apply. If teachers in Louisiana and Tennessee had been using the laws as covers to teach intelligent design, we would likely have seen students or families complaining, and that picked up in the media. There have not been such reports. And even if there were a rogue teacher who tried to teach intelligent design, they would find the law did not protect them.

Academic freedom legislation makes explicit a right that should be recognized already, but unfortunately is not: that teachers and students should be able to engage with scientific information for and against controversial scientific theories in the curriculum.

We are heartened by the resolutions passed by the Alabama legislature and the Indiana Senate this year to that effect. We are also encouraged by the action of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, placing the text of their academic freedom law into their science standards so that teachers would be appraised of their rights. Texas takes it a step further, and this year adopted streamlined science standards that delved into specific controversies over evolution (the fossil record, origin of life and more).

Let’s let scientific inquiry triumph over opinion – hopefully both in the media and in classrooms.

Sarah Chaffee is the Program Officer for Education and Public Policy at Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture.

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