February 24, 2016

Ding, Dong, The [Creationist] Witch Is Dead (For Now But Don't Get Comfy)

On May 5, 1925, high school teacher John Scopes of Tennessee voided his Fifth Amendment rights and purposefully incriminated himself.

Indeed, Mr. Scopes may have falsely incriminated himself in order to provide a defendant for a case to challenge Tennessee's Butler Act, which read:

That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the Story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.

The case appealed all the way to the state's Supreme Court, which upheld the Butler Act but also overturned Scopes' conviction on a technicality.

The Butler Act remained law in Tennessee until May 18, 1967, when it was repealed after a high school teacher was dismissed, sued, was reinstated, but continued to sue.

1958, however, saw the National Defense Education Act, a move by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to increase the sophistication of American education. The Soviet success of launching Sputnik into space caused fears among Americans, both the public and politicians, that Soviet scientists were outpacing American scientists, and people wanted accurate and advanced science taught in public schools.

In this climate, the creationist movement had to shift. It had already experienced a significant leadership vacuum with the death of William Jennings Bryan following the Scopes trial, on July 26, 1925, and fundamentalism itself had receded somewhat in the interim. However, the 1960s saw the birth of "creationist science" which shifted the movement from religious to psuedoscientific rhetoric, effectively trying to cloak its religious agenda.

This move came in part because of favorable public opinion towards the teaching of evolution and in part because of a shift in court sympathies. For instance, an Arkansas statute similar to the Butler Act that was enacted following the Scopes trial was challenged all the way to the Supreme Court:

In 1968, in Epperson v. Arkansas, the United States Supreme Court invalidated an Arkansas statute that prohibited the teaching of evolution. The Court held the statute unconstitutional on the grounds that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does not permit a state to require that teaching and learning must be tailored to the principles or prohibitions of any particular religious sect or doctrine.

This is a far cry from the Scopes decision some forty years earlier.


We can see this shift in several key court cases from the following decades, especially the 1980s:

In 1982, in McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, a federal court held that a "balanced treatment" statute violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The Arkansas statute required public schools to give balanced treatment to "creation-science" and "evolution-science". In a decision that gave a detailed definition of the term "science", the court declared that "creation science" is not in fact a science. The court also found that the statute did not have a secular purpose, noting that the statute used language peculiar to creationist literature. The theory of evolution does not presuppose either the absence or the presence of a creator.

This too caused a fundamental shift in how creationists phrased their message. Instead of creation-science, which was being defeated again and again, they shifted to the idea of "Intelligent Design Theory", a shift still pushed by organizations like the Discovery Institute. Indeed, when I was attending a public high school in Columbia, South Carolina, as sophomore biology student in 2003, I was introduced to the idea of intelligent design in my biology class.

However 2005 was quite a blow to the cause of Intelligent Design. In Kitzmiller et al v. Dover:

In his 139-page ruling, Judge Jones wrote it was "abundantly clear that the Board's ID Policy violates the Establishment Clause". Furthermore, Judge Jones ruled that "ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents". In reference to whether Intelligent Design is science Judge Jones wrote ID "is not science and cannot be adjudged a valid, accepted scientific theory as it has failed to publish in peer-reviewed journals, engage in research and testing, and gain acceptance in the scientific community". This was the first challenge to the constitutionality of teaching "intelligent design" in the public school science classroom.

As I think I've demonstrated, however, the creationist agenda is an ever-shifting paradigm. I like to think of it as a virus, constantly evolving to try to infect the system more efficiently. The most recent shift is the idea of "academic freedom". I'll let Steve Novella of Neurologica explain:

Now, in an attempt to further secularise their position in order to get around the first Amendment, they argue that schools should “teach the controversy” and that teachers should have the “academic freedom” to introduces the “strengths and weaknesses” of a scientific theory. 
Several states have successfully passed such laws, most notably Louisiana. These laws aren’t fooling anyone either – everyone knows their purpose is to open a back door to allow creationism to be taught as science in public schools. The real purpose of these laws is to create deniability in order to survive legal challenge. 
Out of context, the notion that teachers should be allowed to teach controversies and weaknesses of scientific theories sounds reasonable. However, these laws often target evolution specifically, in addition to the Big Bang, and now even climate change. The problem is that there is no scientific controversy over the basic fact of evolution. The “controversies” and “weaknesses” of evolution they want to be introduced in the science classroom are just the same tired old creationist arguments they have been pushing into the classroom for decades. 
It is also completely unnecessary to have a law that says that science teachers can teach about genuine scientific controversies or discuss genuine weakness of scientific theories. They already can. What they cannot do is introduce religiously motivated science denial and pretend it is legitimate science. These laws are meant, however, to shield teachers who do just that.

These laws are really an attempt to allow teachers to voice creationist views. Some surveys show that as much as 13% of high school biology teachers already advocate for creationism by spending an hour or more of class time presenting creation science or intelligent design in a positive light. Academic freedom laws are intended to protect those teachers from parents like me, who would, pardon the expression, flip their shit.

In 2001, perhaps the highest visibility incident occurred, with then Pennsylvanian Senator Rick Santorum proposing an amendment to the federal No Child Left Behind Act that said:

The Conferees recognize that a quality science education should prepare students to distinguish the data and testable theories of science from religious or philosophical claims that are made in the name of science. Where topics are taught that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution), the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist, why such topics may generate controversy, and how scientific discoveries can profoundly affect society.

It's rare for legislators to come out and specifically state their agenda around these laws, but in Mississippi, this recently happened, with Representative Mark Formby saying, “I just don’t want my teachers punished in any form or fashion for bringing creationism into the debate. Lots of us believe in creationism.”

The bill itself specifically targets only a few areas of scientific study:

The teaching of some scientific subjects required to be taught under the curriculum framework developed by the State Board of Education may cause debate and disputation, including, but not limited to: 
(i)  Biological evolution;
(ii)  The chemical origins of life;
(iii)  Global warming; and
(iv)  Human cloning.
Strangely, these bills never seem to address other scientific theories, like gravity or germs. But I am just saying...

Anyway, back to the topic at hand: The National Center for Science Education is reporting that the Mississippi bill has died.

Mississippi's House Bill 50, whose principal sponsor acknowledged was intended to allow teachers in the public schools to present creationism, died in the House Education Committee on February 23, 2016, when a deadline for bills to be reported out of committee expired. HB 50 was the first antiscience bill in the state since 2010.

Steve Novella also has a terrific counter to the number one counterargument in support of these bills:

The predictable response to this position is that if you oppose such laws then you are treating evolution as a dogma that cannot be questioned. This is nonsense, however. That is just another rhetorical point that is one of the purposes of such laws. 
Evolution has already been questioned in the scientific community. It is now overwhelmingly accepted as true (the basic fact that life on Earth is the result of organic evolution and demonstrates common descent) by the scientific community. It has already survived vigorous scientific challenge. 
I also think it is perfectly acceptable to teach students how we know what we know – to teach them historical challenges to evolution and how they were resolved. 
That is not what is happening in states with these anti-evolution laws, however. What is happening is that teachers are using creationist texts to teach creationist arguments that are simply wrong. They are teaching misinformation and science denial. They are teaching the fake controversy.

There is plenty of room to teach controversies within evolutionary theory. It's a growing body of work supported from many disciplines, and it contains its own set of competing hypotheses, some of which are still hotly contested.

But the basic fact of it? That's here to stay.

This bill is dead. That doesn't mean the battle is over, however. The National Center for Science Education tracks these bills as they wind their ways through various state legislatures, and it's important that all science minded citizens--anyone, really, that believes that scientific education and literacy is crucial--to keep an eye on their own states to make sure that no "Academic Freedom Legislation" is being pushed without challenge.

You can check out a chronology here.

Stay alert. Don't get comfortable. The anti-science creationist movement has demonstrated time and again that it is a hydra. Cut off one head, and there will be another. We have to keep fighting.

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