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Truth in Education

by Steven Novella, Dec 10 2012

We have yet another propaganda slogan and strategy by creationists to sneak their religious beliefs into public science classrooms – “truth in education.” This one comes from state senator Dennis Kruse from Indiana. He had previously introduced a bill (in 2011) that would have required the teaching of “creation science” alongside evolution. The bill died a quick death, largely because the Supreme Court has already declared such laws unconstitutional (in the 1987 Edwards vs Aguillard case).

Kruse’s approach has since “evolved.” It seems that after his failed and naive attempt to introduce a creation science bill, he has been connected with the Discovery Institute and is now up to speed on the latest approach to anti-evolution strategies.

Creationist attempts to hamper science education when it comes to evolution go back to the beginning of evolutionary theory itself. By the turn of the 19th century evolution was an accepted scientific fact, and opposition to its teaching was forming among certain fundamentalist sects. The first big confrontation between the teaching of evolution and creationist ideology came in the form of the The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, or the Scopes Monkey Trial. This resulted from the first creationist strategy to limit the teaching of evolution in public schools – they simply banned it. This strategy was killed when such laws were found unconstitutional in 1968 (Epperson v. Arkansas).

The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) has a nice list of the ten major legal precedents that have smacked down creationist attempts to limit the teaching of evolution. Each time the creationists simply have morphed their strategy, but the intent has never wavered.

After outright banning of evolution, creationists moved onto to “Equal Time” for the teaching of so-called “creation science” alongside evolution. The problem with that approach is that creation science is not a science but a thinly veiled religious belief. When that was struck down they moved to “Teach the Controversy,” arguing that students should learn about both sides (a false dichotomy) of scientific controversies. The problem with that approach is that there is no scientific controversy when it comes to the basic fact of evolution – that life is the product of organic evolution. Further, singling out evolution was part of a clearly religiously motivated strategy, and once again the creationist strategy fell prey to the separation of church and state.

Along with Teach the Controversy came “Intelligent Design.” This is an attempt to dress up creation science as a more legitimate-sounding science with overt reference to God or religion removed. Despite this attempt at cleansing creationism of overt religion, no one was fooled. The first major legal challenge to teaching Intelligent Design was struck down in 2005 in the Kitzmiller v Dover case. One key bit of evidence was a book, Of Pandas and People, which was a creation science book where literally there was a find a replace operation done on “creationism” to replace the term with “Intelligent Design.” In one copy-paste error in the book the term “cdesign proponentsists” appeared – a combination of “design proponents” and “creationists.”

After the ID strategy essentially collapsed, the creationists developed their “academic freedom” approach, which has a number of specific manifestations. This approach is essentially to argue that teachers should have the academic freedom to teach what they want, and not have the state censor them. This of course completely misses the need for standards and quality control within public education. Science teachers should be teaching accepted science, not whatever their personal fantasy about science happens to be.

Under the “freedom” umbrella creationists have spawned the “strengths and weaknesses” approach. This is a sly strategy in which they do not specifically advocate for teaching any specific alternative to evolution, or banning the teaching of evolution itself, but write laws that require that teachers teach their student both the strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories. This sounds benign on its surface, but these approaches are all about giving teachers the legal space in which to introduce the same tired creationists arguments they have been pushing for decades.

Some of the “strengths and weaknesses” laws have failed because they target evolution specifically, which colors them as ideological. So some laws have added the Big Bang (which creationists also don’t like) and other theories just to make it seem as if they are not picking on evolution. But the purpose is the same and crystal clear.

Yet another flavor of the academic freedom approach is to pass laws that allow teachers to use outside supplemental material in teaching about evolution or science in general. This is meant to allow teachers to use creationist propaganda texts as supplemental science texts in the classroom.

So far the most successful bill under this approach has been the Louisiana Science Education Act of 2008. This law cites academic freedom to give teachers the right to use supplement material to “critique and review” certain “controversial” topics, such as evolution, global warming, and cloning.

Now we have Kruse’s next iteration of the creationist strategy, and once again the Discovery Institute has its finger prints all over the bill. Kruse wants to mandate that teachers defend the truth of any science they teach which is challenged by a student. Again, very superficially this may seem benign. Teachers should explain to student how we know what we know. There is no reason to pass a law saying they should do so, however, unless there is an ulterior motive. The point of Kruse’s latest bill seems to be, yet again, to create language that gives teacher’s cover if they want to use creationist propaganda in the science class. This time the pretext is answering student’s questioning of the truth of scientific theories.

The long history of creationist attacks on the teaching of evolution is marked by Supreme Court cases which knocked them down as blatant attempts to introduce religious dogma into public schools. It seems that we are overdue for another such case, this time specifically addressing the “academic freedom” justification for the most recent crop of anti-science, anti-evolution bills and laws.

Meanwhile it’s up to local and national watchdog groups (like the NCSE) to play whack-a-mole with the endless state bill trying to deprive yet another generation of American student from learning one of the most fundamental theories of modern science.

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21 Responses to “Truth in Education”

  1. Trimegistus says:

    It’s worth noting that the Scopes trial resulted as much from local boosterism and publicity-seeking as from any Creationist plot. Local businessmen recruited Scopes to break the evolution-teaching law precisely because they wanted a big trial drawing national attention.

    Buying into the pat narrative of the ever-lurking Creationist Menace makes me, well, skeptical.

  2. Martin says:

    “these approaches are all about giving teachers the legal space in which to introduce the same tired creationists arguments they have been pushing for decades.”

    Legal space or not, why would anyone bother to become a science teacher just in order to teach a whole bunch of non-scientific Christian theology in place of science?

    Surely such people would struggle to become science teachers in the first place?

    • Daniel says:

      Someone can competently teach and understand anatomy, chemistry, etc., but say “god did it”. There are lots of good doctors that aren’t atheists or agnostics.

      • Martin says:

        Doctors, however, tend to get in to doctoring because they want to help their fellow humans, not because they want to force some sort of theology on their patients.

        Why would anyone put themselves through a science education and then further teaching qualifications as an elaborate front just so they could espouse creationist, bible-literal, nonsense?

        It’s a conspiracy too far.

      • Janet Camp says:

        It is politicians that want to force the people you describe to teach their “alternatives” to proper science. Also, just as there are qualified MD’s who go down the path of Oz (in both senses), et. al., there are some not so savvy science teachers who are minimally qualified and also “believe”, that fall for some of the arguments that are described in the post. I have seen it first hand in small towns full of New Age types. They somehow passed their science curriculum, but then proceed to get involved in all sorts of other nonsense.

      • @blame says:

        You can take the Texas GOP at their word when their official 2012 platform reads as:

        “We oppose the teaching of [blah blah blah which has] the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

        That’s popularly elected politicians telling christians that “liberal” academia must be thwarted. Presumably because socially progressive institutions are the church of jesus’ anti-christ.

  3. Daniel says:

    While the Devil is in the details, “equal time”, or something like it, might be worth welcoming, with the caveat that science teachers should be required to explain the failings of creationism and intelligent design to explain the natural world. In fact, this was done to a limited extent in my very secular high school and college instruction. There’s a natural inclination, especially in young people with a religious upbringing, to believe that life is so complex that some kind of creator is necessary (which I guess is what intelligent design promotes). Five minutes of instruction can explain why a creator isn’t necessary.

    Camel’s nose in the tent, I suppose, but the current legal strategy of whack-a-mole doesn’t seem to correlate with the number of people who, roughly speaking, don’t believe in evolution at any given time.

    • @blame says:

      In a government run SCIENCE class for children? Whatever for. Save those myth busting ideas for sundays and seminaries.

      The last thing we want our government teaching kids is the facts interspersed with the fictions.

      There’s zero time set aside in the public school curriculum for our government’s employees to debunk monotheism’s teachings. Let alone contemporary professorial consensus.

      Governments must avoid the temptation to teach the next generation of voters “believable” non-science.

  4. diava says:

    i trust in The Secret

  5. Andrew McColl says:

    “By the turn of the 19th century evolution was an accepted scientific fact, and opposition to its teaching was forming among certain fundamentalist sects.”

    Small quibble, yes, but glaring error there that needs fixed before anyone (anyone dumb that is) asks how evolution could be “accepted scientific fact” before Darwin had published.

  6. divan says:

    it is true. I agree with you

  7. MadScientist says:

    “The point of Kruse’s latest bill seems to be, yet again, to create language that gives teacher’s cover if they want to use creationist propaganda in the science class.”

    I see it as being far worse than that. The disruptive brainwashed kids who parrot creationists nonsense can complain that the teacher isn’t answering the questions and therefore violating the law. The law intends to bully teachers who would normally send disruptive kids to the principal and allow the creationists to use kids as lackeys to prevent the other kids from learning science.

  8. Anselm Lingnau says:

    Wouldn’t this also cut the other way? In other words, if a creationist science teacher was asked to demonstrate that what he is teaching is »true«, would »It’s in the Bible« be an acceptable answer?

    • MadScientist says:

      Do you mean parents have to train their kids to recognize creationist baloney and ask the teacher for evidence? I don’t think so; that requires a pretty big effort on the part of parents. On the other hand it is trivial to teach a kid to respond to a handful of phrases which are virtually guaranteed to come up in science classes and to scream “how do you know – were you there?” and other such nonsense. I think the best thing to do is to keep these inane laws where they belong – in the realm of gods – and to go on teaching science without political interference.

      • Anselm Lingnau says:

        I suppose it doesn’t necessarily have to be the children who ask the teacher. If the »truth in education« law went through and I was a parent in Indiana whose kid came home from science class telling me that the Earth was 6000 years old, you bet I’d have the teacher prove that to *me*.

      • Daniel says:

        When the taxpayer is footing the bill, “political interference” is inevitable. Creationists pay taxes too.

  9. Max says:

    I can see how “academic freedom” could be used to justify teaching not only Creationism but any nonsense, but I don’t see how “truth in education” does it. Is a Creationist student supposed to ask how we know evolution is true, and the teacher answers “I don’t know”? Then the teacher is unqualified and shouldn’t be teaching the class.

    • tmac57 says:

      I think it’s a bit more complicated than that Max.Even a well trained science teacher can be blindsided by a Gish gallop of ‘intelligent design’ talking points,especially if they are not prepared for them,and only prepared to teach their prescribed lesson plan.
      In addition to that,there are likely many Christian science teachers whom accept evolution fully,but they might be reluctant to challenge the intelligent design beliefs of a student,instead taking the position that it is okay for everyone to have their own beliefs,rather than getting bogged down in an endless argument.

  10. Brandon says:

    Personally, I was never taught about evolution in school. We were allowed to discuss it and we had a disclaimed in the front of our Biology books about evolution being a very “controversial” theory. (Alabama 1996). However, this “controversy” led to me to investigate the theory on my own. I would never advocate for not teaching evolution in schools, but I think nowadays we may have a new generation of students “theoretically” taught about it but not properly. We all hear ridiculous claims about evolution all the time and so I fear it will be a long time until all students really understand it, even if they are taught it in school.

  11. @blame says:

    This time the pretext is answering student’s questioning of the truth of scientific theories

    So a well meaning student+teacher combo could then undermine that jurisdiction’s (agnostic) class lesson plan towards science denial, and they would no longer be at risk of a legal challenge.

    A very difficult mistake to correct if DI gets this one into legislation.

    However one wonders to what extent such a loophole (if officially sanctioned) will help DI produce voting-age science denialists. Let’s hope they don’t get to run this politico-christian experiment on american kids.