Thursday, January 17, 2013

GOP bill attacks science education

A group of Republican legislators want less science and more religion in Colorado's public school and university science classrooms.

HB 13-1089 would require K-12 public school teachers to "respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues."

Evolution, climate change, the chemistry involved in the origin of life, and human cloning are specifically mentioned in the bill, which was introduced Thursday.

Josh Rosenau, a spokesperson for the National Center for Science Education and a biologist, said that there is no scientific rationale for focusing on those four topics.

"To me, what really unites the four issues that are listed in these bills is simply that they are scientific topics that conservatives don't like," he said. "It's purely political."

As a legal matter, a measure that purports to allow teachers to teach that that humans and other species were created by a deity would be ineffective under a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court decision.

"The Court ruled pretty decisively and has, in a series of cases going back to the sixties, said that you can’t teach creationism," Rosenau said. "They have specifically talked about laws that single out evolution as inherently suspect. The only reason you’d single out evolution for special criticism and scrutiny is religious motivation. There’s no scientific basis for that singling out of evolution."

The bill includes language that purports to disavow any goal of introducing religious criticism of biology's most fundamental and well-documented concept.

But Rosenau thinks that, notwithstanding that verbiage, the measure would embolden creationist teachers and encourage parents to pressure schools to teach creationism and its ideological sidekick, intelligent design, in the science classroom.

"It’s certainly a dog whistle to creationist teachers and students that they have permission to launch into a creationist lesson," he said. " It would give ammunition to parents who want creationism taught in schools to put pressure on teachers to do so."

Rosenau pointed out that it can be hard to stop teachers from introducing religious notions into their science instruction.

"For that to come to court, that would require not only that teachers are doing these things, but that someone step forward and file a lawsuit," he said.

As for climate change, Rosenau points out that some evangelical Christians object to the current consensus of the world's climatologists because their religion teaches that only God could change the planet's atmosphere.

"They’ll say that the atmosphere is irreducibly complex, that the feedbacks are so carefully created that human intervention couldn’t change it," Rosenau said, referring to religion-motivated doubters of ongoing human-caused climate change.

Similar legislation was enacted in Tennessee in 2012 and in Louisiana in 2008. A number of major scientific organizations have criticized the laws, arguing that they open the door to dishonest claims in science classes that evolution and climate change are scientifically controversial and undermine state laws that determine academic content standards.

"By permitting instructional materials that are not reviewed by the state’s science standards committees, the Louisiana Act and those like it encourage teachers and administrators to work outside these standards," the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology said in a 2008 statement. "This makes it possible for local school boards to define science and science education to suit their own agendas, thereby compromising the quality of science education for students, and allowing religious discrimination in America’s public school science classrooms."

College professors have also objected to bills like HB 13-1089, arguing that they will inevitably lead to efforts to push religious notions in science classes.

"'[A]cademic freedom' for alternative theories is simply a mechanism to introduce religious or nonscientific doctrines into our science curriculum," said a group of more than 200 University of Iowa faculty members in a 2009 statement.

The language in the Colorado bill, like similar bills enacted into law in Tennessee and Louisiana and introduced in recent years in Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and South Carolina, is largely provided by the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based organization that advocates the scientifically discredited idea of intelligent design and the bible-based myth that humans and other organisms on Earth were directly created by a deity.

HB 13-1089 has two major parts - one that focuses on K-12 science education and another that focuses on college-level science instruction.

The elementary and secondary school focus of the measure is labeled the "K-12 Academic Freedom Act" and would require school boards, administrators, and teachers to
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.
To accomplish this goal, HB 13-1089 would require that teachers be allowed "to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in a given course."

Rosenau thinks this section might force teachers to grant credit for answers that have no scientific validity.

"What if a student stands up in class and says ‘you taught that life was created by this chemical process billions of years ago, and I think it was created 6,000 years ago?;" Rosenau postulated. "Then, what if the student says, 'That’s what I’m going to put on my test, and if you grade me wrong you’re interfering with my critical thinking?'."

The college and university section of the bill is similar.

The principal sponsors of HB 13-1089 are Rep. Stephen Humphrey, R-Windsor and Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley.

Co-sponsors include Reps. Perry Buck, R-Windsor; Justin Everett, R-Littleton; Chris Holbert, R-Parker; Janak Joshi, R-Colorado Springs; Dan Nordberg, R-Colorado Springs; Lori Saine, R-Dacono; and Jim Wilson, R-Salida, and Sens. Kevin Grantham, R-Canon City; Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch; and Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs.