There is currently a controversy brewing in the state of Tennessee and the education of its children. HB 368 attempts to address the fact that “teaching of some scientific subjects, including, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming… can cause controversy.” In other words, this bill allows teachers to approach topics which have been extensively studied and evaluated by the scientific community and treat them in the complete opposite manner. The bill passed through the Tennessee legislature and, as of today, April 10, 2012, stands to pass as a law. Governor Bill Haslem opted not to veto the bill, despite opposition from the scientific community within Tennessee and throughout the country.
There’s two reasons why this matter stands out for me. 1. I’m an evolutionary biology major. As a senior, I’ve spent the majority of my time here at Vanderbilt taking courses which not only satisfy the prerequisites for that major, but also provide me with the understanding of this intricate, and, quite frankly speaking, beautiful, subject. What I can tell you right now is that any individual approaching evolution as a controversial theory is doing so with ulterior motives. Are there gaps in the biological record? Yes. Has the entire picture been uncovered? No. But evolution is accepted by the scientific community for the same reason the theory of gravity is accepted: it does the best job explaining the evidence and observations that have been gathered over time.
How does this relate to astronomy and physical sciences? Well, global warming happens to be another “controversial” topic targeted by this piece of legislation. We’ve gone over global climate change and warming somewhat in Astronomy 201. As with evolution, the science is not perfect. But, the multitude of studies and data point towards its tenability. Furthermore, as with evolution, any controversies brought forth are from parties and individuals with ulterior motives. They don’t question the science for the sake of knowledge. They question it because discrediting it works in their favor.
The bill states that it “shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine…” in what I assume is an attempt to placate the scientific community. Except that’s exactly how it should be viewed. By allowing teachers to debase widely-accepted theories as they see fit, it opens the doors for agendas, both religious and non-religious, to undermine knowledge. When discussing the bill’s impact on evolution, Vanderbilt’s own Jon Kaas and Roger Cone, along with Robert Webster of St. Jude Children’s Hospital, have stated that “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…” 1925 refers to the year of the Scopes Trial. And, I can’t stress this fact enough, global warming is in danger of suffering the same predicament, albeit from other sources (in this instance, religion is usually not the source of dissent).
The European Journal of Public Health ran a fantastic piece regarding denialism back in 2009, stating that “There is overwhelming consensus on the evidence among scientists yet there are also vocal commentators who reject this consensus, convincing many of the public, and often the media too, that the consensus is not based on ‘sound science’ or denying that there is a consensus by exhibiting individual dissenting voices as the ultimate authorities on the topic in question… denialism… [is] the employment of rhetorical arguments to give the appearance of legitimate debate where there is none, an approach that has the ultimate goal of rejecting a proposition on which a scientific consensus exists.” This is what HB 368 promotes, and this is why it is a mistaken and detrimental piece of legislation.
Critique and debate over theories is the backbone of scientific learning and progress. However, these must conform to the spirit of scientific inquiry. Just as a chemist will not entertain dialogue with an alchemist, an astronomer with an astrologist, and a historian with a misguided revisionist, biologists and biology teachers should not be discussing so-called criticisms until the proponents behind those ideas utilize the proper means to garner some semblance of validity (Myers, 2009). Similarly, climatologists and teachers should not entertain debates until the other side puts forth a logical, scientifically grounded rebuttal. There is a big difference between discussing “outlying data” and discussing the subject as a “controversy.” There is a big difference between promoting healthy skepticism and treading over to the realm of ill-advised skeptical denial.