The Guise Of Critical Thinking: How Anti-Evolution Bills Mar Science Education : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture Biologist Ursula Goodenough says that "anti evolution" bills lingering in state legislatures cause considerable collateral damage in science education. The make teachers feel they are walking on eggshells when they arrive at the core topic of biological evolution.

The Guise Of Critical Thinking: How Anti-Evolution Bills Mar Science Education

Perhaps an hour after I posted last week's 13.7 blog praising Florida for its newly adopted Science Standards, I was dealt a low blow: an e-newsletter from the valiant National Center for Science Education (NCSE) appeared in my Inbox reporting that the evolutionary essence of these standards was being challenged by something called Florida Senate Bill 1854.

According to the NCSE, eight such "antievolution bills" have been introduced in eight state legislatures in 2011. The consensus is that all will "die in committee" for lack of support. But such deaths are the outcome of considerable vigilance and effort by the likes of NCSE, parents, citizen science advocates, and newspaper editorial writers. It's a hassle. And even when the bills die, the collateral damage is considerable, particularly to the beleaguered science teachers caught in the crossfire.

Many 13.7 readers are familiar with the history: the Scopes trial in 1925, the Edwards v. Aguillard Supreme Court decision in 1987 on "creation science," and the Kitzmiller v. Dover federal court decision in 2005 on "intelligent design." Compared with these epic events, SB1854 and its kin would seem to be blips on the weather map. But their very existence gives teachers the sense that they are walking on eggshells when they arrive at the core topic of biological evolution.

Given that both creationism and intelligent-designism have been snuffed by the courts, the current strategy is to keep opposition-to-evolution alive under the guise of "critical thinking." The language in SB1854 is quite spartan: "The instructional staff of a public school [is required to] teach a thorough presentation and critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution."

A sister bill under consideration in Tennessee, SB893, has more words, but here's the gist:

  • 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.
  • Neither the state board of education, nor any public elementary or secondary school governing authority, director of schools, school system administrator, or any public elementary or secondary school principal or administrator 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.

And in my home state of Missouri, the HB195 bill is practically identical to the Tennessee bill (apparently these things are being passed around) save that it speaks of creating "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, including biological and chemical evolution."

So gee, you might well say, what's so bad about that? Isn't critical thinking good?

Well, as it turns out, all 50 State Science Standards are replete — some might say saturated — with units on critical analysis, the nature of scientific evidence, and so on, from kindergarten through high school. Pages and pages are devoted to this topic. Hence a legislative requirement to apply these skills to "controversial" matters like biological evolution has no inherent justification. Why should teachers be required to bring to their classrooms claims of "scientific weakness" that have in fact been refuted (see Kizmiller) and "differences of opinion" that fall well outside evidentiary considerations, and then somehow guide their students through the morass in the name of critical analysis?

The answer, of course, is that the sponsors of these bills are eager to perpetuate the notion that there is a controversy.

To flesh out that claim, let me introduce to you the sponsor of Florida's HB1854, State Senator Stephen R. Wise (R-05), who has a Ph.D. in education from the University of Alabama and had a long career in the Florida education system before turning to politics. The full text of his HB1854 is in my opinion pretty hilarious: He leads with the teach-the-controversy sentence, and then presents a long list of other topics that public schools should cover, ranging from flag education (proper flag display and salute) to the nature and importance of free enterprise to the elementary principle of agriculture.

Given this list, are evolutionary concerns in fact foremost in Senator Wise's mind? In 2009, when he sponsored an identical bill (SB2396), he gave an interview to Florida radio station WMNF. Here are some of his quotes:

"There's always a discussion. I mean, you know, I just didn't get off a pumpkin truck. I have a doctorate degree from University of Alabama. I'm not Cro-Magnon man. ... I think kids — if they're given enough information — they can make a decision themselves of what's fact and what's fiction."

"I always like the story, the person says, well, 'You know, we came from monkeys, we came from apes.' Well, why do we still have apes if we came from them? And those are the kind of questions kids need to ask themselves. You know, 'How did we get here?' And, you know, there's more than one theory on this thing. And the theory is evolution, the other one is intelligent design. And the question is, 'Why would you persecute somebody to be able to have kids have rational thought?' And if you come in and you discuss intelligent design I'm going to fail you."

It is sad that we are in a situation where a Senator Wise can attempt to meddle with the excellent work of the Standards Committee, and hence confuse the science education of young persons living in Florida. Sure, I know, free speech and all that.

It's still sad.