Tue. May 30th, 2023
One of a series of t-shirts mocking legislation that challenges the teachings of certain people

One of a series of t-shirts mocking legislation challenging the teaching of certain “controversial” subjects in public school science classes.

If you knew absolutely nothing about the bitter public debates on certain scientific issues in the US, the “teach the controversy” bills that keep popping up would probably sound reasonable and unremarkable. These state accounts, which are largely identical, encourage science teachers to discuss the scientific strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories. Duh, right?

But why are these bills primarily aimed at protecting said science teachers from being shut down by their superiors? Why would that happen?

To understand, you must recognize that this is just the latest in a very long line of attempts to undermine the teachings of Certainly science topics that the legislators don’t like, especially evolution and climate change. The purpose of these bills is to provide cover for teachers who want to teach their students that evolution is not a scientific fact and that creationism (possibly hidden under the supposedly non-sectarian label of “intelligent design”) is a viable scientific alternative.

Of course, creationism not science – it is religion. For that reason, the teaching of creationism in public schools was ruled unconstitutional by a federal court in 2005, when it was called “intelligent design.” Previous court rulings had ruled out the creationism doctrine.

In the wave of “learn the controversy” bills (renamed “critical analysis of evolution” or “academic freedom”) designed to circumvent that court ruling, an interesting tidbit has escaped much attention. The bills usually give several examples of scientific topics that deserve the “strengths and weaknesses” treatment, and one of the common examples betrays the game when it comes to the motivations of the bill’s authors: human cloning.

Legislative cloning

The “teach the controversy” strategy was devised by the creationist Discovery Institute, the largest intelligent design advocacy group in the US. With the help of the institute, bills began popping up in state legislatures to protect public school science teachers who would oppose evolution in their classrooms. (The group now vehemently denies that it advocates the teaching of intelligent design—it just wants to see evolution critiqued.)

The Discovery Institute worked with the Louisiana Family Forum, a conservative Christian lobby group, and Louisiana State Senator Ben Nevers to get the Louisiana Science Education Act passed in 2009. (In the run-up to the bill’s passage, Nevers spoke candidly about the bill’s aim to bring creationism into the classroom.) That bill states that public school teachers should be allowed “to create and nurture an environment. .. , but not limited to, evolution, the origin of life, global warming and human cloning.”

It further states that teachers “shall teach the material presented in the standard textbook provided by the school system and thereafter may use supplemental textbooks and other instructional materials to help students objectively understand, analyze, critique and assess scientific theories .”

Since human cloning has been listed there, it has appeared many times in other bills, though only one succeeded: Tennessee’s.

Two years ago, I contacted Senator Nevers’ office several times to ask why human cloning is in Louisiana law, but my calls went unanswered. Nearly a year later, I emailed the Louisiana Family Forum with the same question, but again got no response.

Last month, another of these bills was filed, this time in Indiana. (This isn’t the first anti-evolution rodeo for the bill’s co-sponsor, Senator Dennis Kruse, by the way.) What makes that bill noteworthy is that the list of examples of science subjects had been reduced—perhaps Kruse hoped that not mentioning evolution or global warming would help the bill slide through – keeping it focused just now clone people.

Specifically, it states that “some scientific topics, such as, but not limited to, human cloning, may yield different conclusions and theories supported by well-known experts on some topics within those topics.” And again, “A teacher may help students objectively understand, analyze, critique, and assess the scientific strengths and weaknesses of conclusions and theories presented in a course taught by the teacher.” Elsewhere it describes the “conclusions and theories” in question as “controversial scientific subjects”.

Now that human cloning is only on the list, the craziness is even greater. I contacted Senator Kruse’s office several times for clarification on what the “scientific weaknesses” of human cloning might entail, but no explanation was given. I even emailed David DeWolf, the Gonzaga law professor and Discovery Institute Fellow who worked on the Louisiana Science Education Act, desperate for someone to explain what was scientific controversial about human cloning. Again I got no response.

You’re doing it wrong

The reason the inclusion of human cloning gives the game away is that there isn’t one scientific to make an argument. We have techniques that work on other mammals, and all the research in the area shows that fertilized human eggs and stem cells behave very similarly.

The only plausible explanation for its presence is because it is ethical controversial. The Discovery Institute website features many blog posts about human cloning written by Wesley J. Smith, the Institute’s Senior Fellow in Human Rights and Bioethics. Those messages contain some paranoid warnings of dystopian, Gattaca-esque futures, but they’re also about embryonic stem cell research. It is significant that one post (which appeared in the Sacramento bee) is titled “Stem Cell Debate Is About Ethics, Not Science.”

The problem with the bills isn’t that lawmakers want to see students grapple with bioethics; that can definitely be worth it. The problem is that they think it makes sense to describe that as an assessment of “in an objective way the scientific strengths and weaknesses” of human cloning. Ethics is not a scientific strength, scientific weakness, or even objective. It’s ethics. Values. Subjective.

It’s not really surprising that some people confuse the ethical implications of a science or technology with “scientific weaknesses.” It is the perceived religious implications of evolution that make it difficult for some to accept that science, just as the perceived political implications of climate change make it difficult for some to accept that science. But this confusion among the bill sponsors is not shielded from being wrong by being unsurprising.

The opposition to evolution and climate change has developed a series of counterarguments that seek to challenge science. Those counterarguments may not be good, and they almost certainly don’t belong in a public school science classroom. But it is at least possible to express them in scientific language. With human cloning, there is such a thing to hide behind. The root has been exposed.

A bill promoting the teaching of “scientific strengths and weaknesses” of human cloning is not only logically incoherent, but simply a bill promoting the injection of (certain) non-scientific viewpoints into science education. That same goal is behind the attacks on the other topics – evolution and climate change – albeit a little less transparently. By claiming that their views are purely scientific in nature, proponents believe that the teachings of their views can be protected.

That’s not how you improve critical thinking or understanding of the scientific method, although it’s a good example as a failure of both skills. Meanwhile, teachers are already free to help students evaluate the scientific strengths and weaknesses of ideas in their science classes – as long as they do.

By akfire1

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