If you wonder why I haven’t been blogging lately, it’s because I’ve been trying to keep science safe in the Volunteer State; for instance, here’s a great piece Huffington Post science editor Cara Santa Maria put together, including an interview with yours truly.
If you watch the NCSE front page (and you should), you’ll see that it’s almost all-Tennessee, all the time. Tennessee is getting ready to repeat an unfortunate part of its state’s history, the Butler Act and Scopes trial of the 1920s.
Of course, creationism evolves, so the 21st century version won’t take the same tack. In 1925, Scopes was convicted of violating a state law banning the teaching of evolution, claiming that evolution denies the Biblical account of human origins. The judge in that case denied testimony from theologians and scientists who would have argued that evolution does no such thing, leaving prosecutor, anti-evolution orator, Secretary of State, and 5-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan as the sole expert witness. It was not until the 1960s that such laws were struck down by the US Supreme Court.
The bill’s advocates have had plenty of time to try to justify this bill. It was first considered a full year ago: it passed the state House handily, but was put on hold in the Senate. Many hoped that hold was permanent, but Senate president pro tempore Bo Watson sped it out of committee and into a floor vote earlier this week.
Rather than banning evolution, the “monkey bill” of 2011 and 2012 takes a subtler approach. Declaring that evolution, climate change, and human cloning (wingnut code for stem cell research) are subject to “controversy” or even “debate and disputation,” the law creates special rules for science teachers. No one has ever explained why science teachers are the only ones who ought to be promoting critical thinking and the other noble goals the legislature lists, nor has anyone justified the practical effects of the bill, which would be far less laudable.
After feelgood handwaving about encouraging critical thinking and understanding of scientific ideas (which science teachers already do, and hardly need the legislature to instruct them about), the bill announces that school administrators – from the state board of education down to locally elected school boards and school principals – are forbidden to “prohibit any teacher in a public school…from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories.”
Of course, no one has shown that any teacher has ever been prohibited from doing any such thing, at least since the end of the last generation of monkey bills. But because so many key terms are undefined, it’s easy to see how a teacher could offer a creationist lesson, or one denying the reality or human causation of climate change, and refuse to drop that lesson by citing this law. A parent’s objections, or clear instructions from a supervisor, could be waved away with the claim that any such interference would violate this provision of the law.
Sometimes the bill’s advocates say that’s not what they intend, but sometimes they let the cat out of the bag. The bill’s sponsor explained to reporters that “the idea behind this bill is that students should be encouraged to challenge current scientific thought and theory.” Another senator suggested that the bill was needed to let teachers answer students when they ask “How does this fit with what we learned in Sunday school?” During floor debate on Monday night, Senator Andy Berke replied: “I’m a person of faith…If my children ask, ‘How does that mesh with my faith?’ I don’t want their teacher answering that question,” explaining that he’d want to answer that himself, or bring it up with their own religious leader. Berke added that the bill was unnecessary, and noted, “We are simply dredging up the problems of the past with this bill and that will affect our teachers in the future.”
Despite objections from Berke and 7 other Senators (of 32 voting), the bill passed the Senate that night, the 152 birthday of Scopes’ prosecutor, William Jennings Bryan.
The bill is now awaiting action in the Tennessee House (where it previously passed 70-23 with only minor differences), and then will proceed to Governor Haslam. Haslam has declined to comment on the bill’s merits, but noted that it might well overstep the legislature’s role. “It is a fair question what the General Assembly’s role is,” he told reporters during an appearance at a local school. “That’s why we have a state board of education.”
While the board itself has yet to weigh in, Tennessee’s teachers have been vocal in their opposition. Tennessee Science Teachers Association president Becky Ashe wrote to the legislature to oppose the bill, calling it “unnecessary, anti-scientific, and very likely unconstitutional.” The state’s leading scientists – including the only Nobel laureate in science living in Tennessee – all signed a letter to the legislature, observing that the bill “would miseducate students, harm the state’s national reputation, and weaken its efforts to compete in a science-driven global economy.” They are joined in their concerns by national science societies – including AAAS and AIBS – and science education groups like NABT, NAGT, and NESTA.
If the bill’s sponsors think they’re helping teachers, perhaps they should listen to those teachers’ concerns.
It’s rather more likely that the sponsors are listening to different parties, like the creationist Discovery Institute whose model legislation served as inspiration for this bill. Disco. ‘tute spinner Casey Luskin celebrated the bill’s Senate passage, but couldn’t help acting put upon in the process. He writes:
The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) is already mocking SB 893 as the “Tennessee monkey bill”– reminiscent of the law passed in the 1920s that criminalized the teaching of evolution in Tennessee, leading to the Scopes trial. However, the situation is the reverse of what it was in the 1920s.
Sadly, no! The “monkey bill” coinage originated with former Tennessee House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, on March 29, 2011:
“The monkey bill is back before us,” Rep. Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, said, warning it could embarrass Tennessee and hurt the state’s economy. “I’m just saying these things can be said and will be said about us. It may have some far-reaching effects that we don’t see at this time.”
The Disco. ‘tute is no less wrong in claiming that the bill is just about science. Look at the religious context the bill’s own sponsors place it in, and the complete scientific and educational opposition to it.
As Casey himself acknowledges, “When critics have to resort to falsehoods…, you know that something else is going on.” That something else is an ideological attack on science, and thus the economic future of Tennessee.
At this point, it looks like it’s up to Governor Haslam to protect the state’s students, parents, and teachers from their own legislature.