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February 8, 2013

When ‘academic freedom’ really means ‘bad science’

Several state legislatures have introduced variations of a so-called “Academic Freedom Act” that purports to encourage openness and critical thinking in science classrooms. To critics of these laws — which include virtually every scientific professional organization and a slew of Nobel laureates — it is a thinly veiled effort to insert unscientific ideas into the science curriculum.

Similar bills have already been voted into law in a few states including Tennessee and Louisiana, and are pending in Arizona, Oklahoma among others. An attempt to introduce one in Colorado failed to make it out of committee. Among those testifying against it were our friends at the Colorado Association of School Boards.  The bills have different names but the language is surprisingly the same: they call on schools to “help students develop critical thinking skills necessary to become intelligent, productive, and scientifically informed students” and specifically name the teaching of “scientific subjects, such as biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.”

There’s a reason for the uniformity: the model language for these acts originated with the Discovery Institute, a think tank that promotes “intelligent design.”  Intelligent design is an attempt to bring scientific legitimacy to the idea that a supreme hand was behind the origin of the universe and it should therefore be allowed to be taught in public schools.  Yet this notion was famously shot down by the 2005 Kitzmiller v Dover court decision that ruled intelligent design  “is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism” and has no place in the science classroom. And although the courts have allowed for other origin explanations like Intelligent Design to be taught in humanities courses, there remains a push to treat them as another scientific theory.

The new bills try to circumvent Kitzmiller through re-purposing. They don’t explicitly call for teaching intelligent design alongside evolution. Rather they propose to protect “academic freedom” and promote “critical thinking” in public school science classes. The bills further assert that the provisions “must not be construed to promote religious or nonreligious doctrine.”  Yet the specific inclusion of evolution and global warming as “scientific controversies” belies their words.

To be absolutely clear, there is no scientific controversy on these issues. There is plenty of political and ideological controversy, however.  How these topics are presented, then, means a lot when the goal is to develop scientifically literate students.

I wrote about this science-ideology conflict as it relates to evolution in the September 2012 American School Board Journal. The main point I make is that a scientific theory is not just an opinion or educated guess, but must meet rigorous standards of scientific evidence. Other such theories include plate tectonics and the idea that living things are made of cells, although these do not seem to be controversial to anyone.

Global warming has been debated for years, and not just in the political arena. Scientists have also disagreed on certain aspects. But the science community overwhelming agrees that the planet is warming and that human activity is at least partly to blame.  The University of Illinois-Chicago surveyed earth scientists in 2008 on these questions. Of the over 3,000 who responded, 90 percent agreed that “global temperatures have generally risen” compared to pre-1800s levels, and 82 percent reported that “human activity is a significant contributing factor.”  The consensus among those who specialize in climate science was even stronger:  96.2 percent agreed that temperatures are rising and 97.4 percent agree on the question of humans’ contribution.

The fact that the response is not 100 percent is all the evidence climate-change deniers need to argue that there is a scientific debate, and that the domination of climate change-accepters in the discipline is somehow a sign of academic bias. But such thinking is itself a denial of the scientific zietgeist with its emphasis on skepticism and questioning as a guard against bias.

Better for me to let astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson explain:

Filed under: instruction,national standards,Public education — Tags: , , — Patte Barth @ 8:00 am





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