When politics and religion trump science, education suffers

Sunday, March 14, 2010

At a time when American students rank an abysmal 21st in science literacy when compared with students around the world, state legislatures should be passing laws to strengthen science education — or at least refrain from enacting bills that make matters worse.

Instead, politicians in a growing number of states are muddying the science-education waters by pushing legislation that requires schools to “teach the controversy” about evolution, global warming and other scientific theories.

This situation isn’t entirely new. For some years now, anti-evolutionists have worked to bring critiques of evolution into the curriculum by calling for “academic freedom” to teach alternatives to the prevailing scientific theory.

What is new, as reported March 3 in The New York Times, is the attempt to reframe the debate by making it less about evolution and more about the need to teach students dissenting views on a range of scientific theories, with global warming at the top of the list.

Consider Kentucky, where the Legislature is considering a bill that would encourage “open and objective discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of scientific theories being studied.” That means, according to the bill, critiquing the science supporting “evolution, the origins of life, global warming and human cloning.”

The Kentucky proposal mirrors laws passed in Louisiana (2008) and Texas (2009), as well as legislation debated, but not yet adopted, in many other states in recent years.

The language of the Kentucky bill may be confusing (what can it possibly mean for any scientific theory to have “disadvantages”?), but the intent is clear: Teach students to be skeptical of what the vast majority of scientists tell us about evolution, climate change and other science topics studied in school.

At first blush, who can possibly object? After all, intellectual freedom should be the cornerstone of a good education in a democratic society. Of course students should be taught to be critical thinkers. Of course they should be exposed to legitimate scientific questions and debates in science classes.

But are these bills really about academic freedom — or are they driven by politics and religion? The question answers itself when you consider that the science targeted in Kentucky and elsewhere for skeptical treatment just happens to coincide with the science that many religious conservatives question or outright reject.

Surely Kentucky politicians know that passing a bill that would permit teachers to critique scientific theories using “other instructional materials” beyond the approved textbooks and materials opens the door to all kinds of religious claims masquerading as science. With all due respect, most legislators and school board members are not qualified to tell the difference.

Genuine academic freedom means exposing students to how scientists determine what is and isn’t controversial in science — and then helping students understand how the scientific method is used to resolve unanswered questions about any and all scientific theories. Scientists and science educators should decide what our kids need to learn about science, not legislators or religious advocacy groups.

Proponents of legislation to “teach all sides” claim that there are indeed scientific alternatives to the prevailing scientific theories on such topics as evolution and global warming. If that claim is true, then those alternatives must be peer-reviewed in science journals before being presented as science in public schools.

Yes, students should learn about a variety of religious and philosophical worldviews, including those that reject evolution and question global warming. But when public schools teach science, they must ensure that students get an accurate and full account of what science tells us, including those questions that scientists themselves agree remain to be answered.

If we want to advance scientific literacy in America, we should refrain from imposing political and religious agendas on the public school curriculum and focus instead on how to provide the best education possible.

Under the First Amendment, Americans are free to wage ideological warfare against evolution or any other scientific theory. But to make public schools the battlefield is both wrong and dangerous.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.

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