Monday, January 5, 2015

The 'Evolution Academic Freedom Act' and the teaching of the theory of evolution in schools

The teaching of evolution in public schools in the United States has long been held in deep suspicion by a large portion of the population. More than half of Americans believe literally in the Biblical creation story (CBS News poll, 2004). This sort of belief varies widely by region. In the southern states of Alabama and Arkansas, three-quarters are Biblical literalists, whereas in the northeastern states of Vermont and Massachusetts, less than a quarter are Biblical literalists (Rasmussen poll, 2006). As public education standards are determined on the state level, certain states have repeatedly battled to keep evolution in their science curricula.

Attempts to replace the teaching of evolution with creationism "has been before school officials, legislators and courts in Alabama, Kansas, Kentucky, Ohio, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Virginia" over the past several decades, according to CNN. Louisiana passed a law branded as "academic freedom" encouraging the "critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution." A similar law called the Evolution Academic Freedom Act passed the Florida Senate on April 2, 2008. Democrats had criticized that bill for demanding protections for teachers who discuss creationism but not for those who discuss birth control and abortion, which the bill's Republican sponsor had refused to include.

In recent years, opponents of evolution have promoted the idea of "intelligent design," which maintains that some intelligent force set evolution into motion. Most scientists reject this theory as vague, scientifically indefensible (91 percent, according to a Case Western Reserve University poll in 2002), and a front for religious ideology.

In Texas, amendments to the education standards initially proposed in January 2009 were debated at the Board of Education's subsequent meeting in March. The amendments included attempts to discount, highlight weaknesses in, or encourage debate on accepted scientific theories of the common ancestry of life, plate tectonics, radioactive decay, and the origin of the solar system.  On March 27, 2009, the Texas board decided to require students to study "all sides of scientific evidence."  The National Center for Science Education, which supports the teaching of evolution, called this a "flawed" approach. Finally, in July 2011, the board approved educational materials from nine publishers. One of the publishers, Holt, was under fire from a creationist, and as a compromise Holt agreed to work with the Texas Education Commissioner. The final version approved the next month supported the theory of evolution. Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network which exists "to counter the religious right," said: "The release of Holt McDougal's finalized materials puts an end to a campaign to undermine science education in Texas that began with the board's adoption of flawed science curriculum standards two years ago."

The Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA), signed into law by Gov. Bobby Jindal in 2008, allowed teachers to "use supplemental textbooks and other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique and review scientific theories"-in other words, to teach religious viewpoints in science classes-regarding theories including "evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning." Supporters refer to this as "teaching the controversy." In April 2011, a Baton Rouge high school student protesting the LSEA presented a petition to the state legislature that had been signed by 42 Nobel laureates. On May 26, 2011, the Louisiana Senate Education Committee upheld the LSEA. A letter from a science professor supporting the LSEA and "academic freedom" argued that "LSEA does not permit teaching for or against any religious viewpoint."

It is unclear how a scientific approach, while presuming to base itself upon objective fact, can avoid offending or contradicting any religious viewpoint. Indeed, the LSEA itself only states that it should not be understood to "promote discrimination" based upon religious belief or the absence thereof. Even while eschewing intentional discrimination, it is hard to see how science teachers can avoid incidental disagreement with conflicting positions. For this reason and for many other reason, debates on the teaching of evolution remain unresolved in the public opinion and are likely to continue.

Originally posted to Helium Network on Aug. 27, 2011.

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