In “Monkeying around with common sense” I offered a critique of Tennessee’s new bill for teaching scientific controversies in school. My critique consisted of pointing out that this kind of method would be frowned upon in other knowledge discourses like history and English. So it seems inappropriate for this bill to single out science as the one place where “controversies” will be taught.
Crude challenged me on a couple points. To begin with Crude took issue with the notion that this bill is intended to be used as a way to teach intelligent design. And further, Crude thought my analogies were, er, crude. But the most important thing Crude says consists of a challenge to read the bill for myself: “Go to town on it. If it’s really as bad as you say, it should be easy to shred directly. Or hell, maybe you’ll turn out to think the bill isn’t so bad. Remote as that possibility is.”
A read through the bill
Okay, I read it (and you can too). And it is as bad as I thought.
I agree that the document is carefully crafted to sound innocuous and common-sensical. And it carefully avoids the use of certain terms. But that’s what we should expect: the people who drew it up are not stupid. They know what the flashpoints are and they tiptoe through the minefield carefully.
However, a closer look provides greater insight into what the document hopes to achieve, and what its impact could be.
Let’s begin with the opening which states the focus as “relative to teaching scientific subjects in elementary schools.” We’re not talking about students taking university prep courses here. We’re talking about kids who only left “Thomas the Tank Engine” behind a few years ago. Keep that in mind as you contemplate which controversies the target audience will be able to have a meaningful dialogue about.
The bill then makes three opening points to lay a foundation for the necessity of its reforms.
To begin with, it affirms the importance of developing “critical thinking skills” in students so that they can become “intelligent, productive, and scientifically informed.”
Of course everyone will agree with this. Nobody will take issue with the notion of developing critical thinking in students. The question is whether this bill will ultimately instill critical thinking in students on the ground (i.e. in the classroom). More on that in a moment.
Second, the bill observes: “The teaching of some scientific subjects, including, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy….”
Finally, the document observes that “Some teachers may be unsure of the expectations concerning how they should present information on such subjects.”
In other words, teachers are unsure if, or how, they should “teach the controversy” about certain contentious scientific issues like biological evolution and global warming. And they require protection and encouragement so they may do so, thereby developing the critical thinking of students.
In an attempt to redress this problem the bill seeks to hive out a safe ground to protect teachers as they inform their students of the controversies on these topics so as to create critical thinking.
And so the bill advises:
“Toward this end, teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.”
“shall prohibit any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.”
Finally, the document eschews using its mandate as a ground to teach religion:
“This section only protects the teaching of scientific information, and shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or non-beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or non-religion.”
So really, what’s not to like?
Why science only?
I begin with the question that motivated my first critical engagement with the bill. Why does it limit itself to science? If it wants to make students aware of controversies to encourage critical thinking then why doesn’t it protect teachers in pursuing this endeavor across the gamut of subjects? Not surprisingly, the fact that it limits itself to science creates suspicion.
For point of illustration, imagine if the teacher has to run to the office and he appoints Tracy to monitor the classroom in his absence. “If any boys misbehave,” he says, “you tell me.” Why does the teacher single out only boys? Perhaps because the boys are usually the ones getting in trouble. Fair enough, but that is still a bad instruction on the teacher’s part. He should have said “If anybody misbehaves…”
And so in this case. Even if controversies tend to be associated with science, that doesn’t mean you only protect critical discussion about scientific issues. Girls can misbehave too, and controversies can, and do, arise over other disciplines. (Can students get into a discussion over whether Huckleberry Finn is appropriate literature given the inclusion of the ‘n’ word? Perhaps. But if they can, it will not be because of any help from this bill.)
Intelligent design hiding in the shadows?
Consequently, the fact that the document arbitrarily restricts its policy proposal to science rightly raises suspicion. This suspicion is confirmed by the fact that the bill explicitly flags two issues relating to origins (biological evolution and the origin of life). This focus, combined with the Discovery Institute’s “Teach the Controversy” playbook, all but guarantees that there is more going on here than a mere focus on scientific discussion.
Is it any surprise that the jaded citizen who has watched repeated attempts to challenge evolution in the classroom since the ill-fated “Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act” was introduced thirty years ago will view this as yet another clever attempt to challenge the overarching theory of the contemporary biological sciences?
Principled and practical problems with the bill
Of course, the fact that legislation is proposed out of a certain motive does not immediately discredit it. One instead needs to reject it on principled or practical grounds. Concerning the former, I reject on principle any bill that protects the critical discussion of scientific issues to the exclusion of other disciplines in the same way that I reject any bill that protects some citizens but not others (when protection could be readily extended to all).
I have no problem with teaching genuine scientific controversies. There is a legitimate debate in the methodology of science about concepts like intelligent design and methodological naturalism. There are also debates within scientific theories. (More on that in a moment.) But why arbitrarily limit this protection to science? There are equally important debates in other disciplines. Who ever said the humanities are an island of milquetoast unanimity?
This brings us to another question: In practical terms, we have to consider how such legislation will work out in the class. What would its real consequences be?
There is no agreement on the origin of life. But there is widespread unanimity on common descent as well as some of the important mechanisms that have faciliated that common descent. Consequently, there is no real controversy here. Of course evolution is full of controversies (just like every other scientific theory) but they are all carried out within the framework of common descent.
Does this mean that there are no scientists who reject common descent? Of course not. There are a few. But as I point out in You’re not as Crazy as I Think, that percentage of dissent is less than 1% of trained scientists. So while I would encourage teachers to make students aware of all sorts of controversies in science (and other disciplines!) to the extent where such is pedagogically worthwhile, there is no controversy worth exploring on the question of common descent.
And that’s a big problem since this bill provides protection for teachers to propose that there is a serious debate about common descent in itself when there isn’t.
The same goes for global warming. It is a fact that the earth is warming as surely as it is a fact that the earth is an oblate spheroid. So for a teacher to suggest that the earth is not warming would be completely inappropriate. Yet this bill could conceivably provide protection for a teacher to teach this as another pseudo-controversy.
So if there is global warming, what extent are humans contributing to this climate change? Here there is some dispute, of course. But there is no dispute among scientists that human beings are exacerbating climate change, that this will have very negative consequences for the environment and for human communities, and that there are things we can do to moderate that impact.
Do we have any security that this bill will encourage teachers to provide a nuanced and responsible articulation of this consensus and the limited disputes that are carried out within its framework?
The short answer is no.
So here’s the core practical concern: the bill provides fertile soil to germinate irresponsible discussions and form ungrounded opinions in which an impressive consensus on a given scientific issue is marginalized because there is an alleged controversy where none really exists. And this is allegedly done to spur on critical thinking?
This brings me back to my last article on the topic. We would consider it irresponsible and absurd to encourage teachers to teach controversies where less than one percent of the pundits in a given field diverge from the consensus view. So why do we approve a bill that provides protection for just these kinds of irresponsible discussions in the public school classroom?
The reasons, not surprisingly, are largely theological. They trace back to a young earth creationist protology and, as far as the climate change material is concerned, of an apocalyptic dispensational eschatology.
Yes, there is an irony in the latter point. On the one hand Christian conservatives are skeptical about global warming; but at the same time many of them welcome global warming as a sign of the impending end of the world. The end result is thus a bit of cognitive dissonance. But that dissonance is only on a superficial level. It makes sense at a deeper level to adopt a fatalistic quietism about environmental issues as you await the end of the world.
That fatalistic quietism is a theological, social and environmental disaster and should be extirpated root and branch from conservative Christianity.
To protect such errant theological, social and scientific opinions based on appeal to open and critical thinking is tragically ironic and makes for very bad public education policy.