It has happened again this year.
It will probably happen next year as well.
The consequences, if it does not fail, will be... what?
The National Center for Science Education is reporting that a new bill, House Bill No. 195, has been introduced in the Missouri House of Representatives. Its purpose? To instate religion in public schools, through the tired old trope of "science isn't fair, because our myths and fairy stories aren't taught as being of equal gravity and importance". No, it doesn't use those exact words.
Here's Section 3 of the proposed bill:
"3. This section only protects the teaching of scientific information and this section shall not be construed to promote any religious or nonreligious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or nonbeliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion. Scientific information includes physical evidence and logical inferences based upon evidence."
Sounds innocuous, doesn't it? In fact, to me, it sounds pretty reasonable. Schools have no business talking about religion at all, except to acknowledge its role in history. And students shouldn't be burdened with the philosophical views of others, beyond the evidence found in science. If a fifteen year-old wants to talk philosophy, they can do it on their own time, right (not that I'd want to be a part of that conversation - I remember being fifteen, so no, thanks)? But you knew there was a catch, didn't you? There is, and it's embodied in sections One and Two:
"Section A. Chapter 170, RSMo, is amended by adding thereto one new section, to be known as section 170.335, to read as follows:
"170.335. 1. The state board of education, public elementary and secondary school governing authorities, superintendents of schools, school system administrators, and public elementary and secondary school principals and administrators shall endeavor to create 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. Such educational authorities in this state shall also endeavor to assist teachers to find more effective ways to present the science curriculum where it addresses scientific controversies. Toward this end, teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of the theory of biological and hypotheses of chemical evolution."
"2. Neither the state board of education, nor any public elementary or secondary school governing authority, superintendent of schools, or school system administrator, nor 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 biological or chemical evolution whenever these subjects are taught within the course curriculum schedule."
The emphasis is mine in both.
I should point out, before going any further, that this has happened before. And each time, the bill has never even gotten out of committee. Which was a good thing, for the reasons that follow.
"Strengths and weaknesses" language is code. We've seen it in Kansas, in Texas, in Kentucky - in more states than I care to name. It is code developed by organisations which, rather than focusing on their own fields are determined to meddle in science education, and to put things into it that don't belong there. The argument goes something like this:
- Evidence for unguided biological evolution is really strong. It comes from genetics, paleontology, comparative anatomy, geology, chemistry, and cosmology. And we don't like that, not one little bit.
- We must therefore undermine the evidence by creating fake controversies, grey areas, and muddying the waters around key points of what are, to all intents and purposes, scientific facts. This ensures our continued power and control over a significant number of the next generation, because we have created doubt in the process not only of thinking about biology, but in thinking about evidence and ratiocination as a whole. If we pretend that evidence is relative or subjective, then we have all the doubt that we need.
- To create these fake controversies, we must insert the "strengths and weaknesses" language into state level educational legislation, because teaching creationism and religion as fact in public schools has been struck down, repeatedly, in courts at every level.
I'll try to make this simple. Creationism is not science, it is religion. Intelligent design is not science, it is religion. If you use "strengths and weaknesses" language, you immediately give the game away that what you are trying to do is bring theodicy into public schools through some kind of magic door. It doesn't matter how much you conceal it in misleading terminology, in disingenuous arguments about "equal time for equal theories" (which they are not), in frankly mendacious comparisons of biologists and other scientists to every bogeyman in history. IT DOESN'T MATTER.
And when you say that "scientists disagree" about evolution, that's true. But what you should say - if you were honest, or if you understood or cared anything at all about science - is that scientists disagree about key points in evolutionary theory. They don't disagree about the theory's validity itself, unless they are one of your handful of third-tier biologists, dentists, and assorted designers of pencil sharpeners, who you seem to think have the same weight of evidence behind them as geneticists, molecular biologists, paleontologists and the like who actually do this work for a living.
What we have here is not a failure to communicate. What we have is a failure to understand.
Which in itself is readily comprehensible. How can you expect to cut school funding for a generation and still have an educated population which can evaluate data and make sense of it, or even think critically? In that way, I don't blame the voters of Missouri for botching this one. I do blame the cynical opportunists of politicians looking to shore up their misguided base for the next election cycle.
Why is this important? Consider this: evolution is the foundational notion of all modern biology, and all of the biological technology industries (biotech) rely on the implications of evolutionary thought . Is there some irony, therefore, in this: a two and a half year old statistic, published on Reuters, and of which I only became aware due to - of all things - a billboard on Interstate 35 on the Kansas side of downtown Kansas City:
"A national site selection magazine has placed Kansas in its Top 10 list of states in the nation for biotechnology, along with states such as California, Massachusetts, and Illinois."
Note this, though: that selection was before the current economic disaster through which we are suffering, and, indeed, before Kansans cleverly elected a confirmed anti-evolutionist and former presidential candidate, Sam Brownback, to be governor.
Missouri, also, fancies itself as a biotechnology hub. The following statement is from the front page of the website of Stowers Insitute, a Kansas City, Missouri-based biotechnology research organisation:
"The Stowers Institute for Medical Research aspires to be one of the most innovative biomedical research organizations in the world. The Institute conducts basic research on genes and proteins that control fundamental processes in living cells to unlock the mysteries of disease and find the keys to their causes, treatment, and prevention. "
You will observe: it doesn't say word one about Intelligent Design. Or creationism. Or magic men knocking up a six thousand year old universe on a whim one Thursday when there was nothing good on the telly. Or any of the other fabricated fantasy propounded by these witless legislators. And it never would, because ID and creationism are, at best, philosophical positions (if you want to be really generous): THEY ARE NOT SCIENCE. It's against this backdrop that these slack-jawed yokels have once again flopped this bill like so much freshly-caught fish onto the legislative counter.
There's a concern among some observers that due to the particular brand of anti-intellectual, anti-science thinking endemic to this new class of Tea Party caffeine junkies and reincarnated Known Nothings, legislation like this bill might find its sea legs and actually be scheduled on a legislative docket. It might even come to a vote in the Missouri legislature. And if it were to pass, think of the waste. The waste of time, the waste of resources, and the waste of money. Imagine how likely high tech industries would be to locate in a state where it says, right there in the statutes, that the students you get from Missouri high schools and universities will be among the best and the brightest... as long as they aren't expected to evaluate a gene sequence, correctly date a limestone layer, or understand that our Sun didn't just switch on one day when someone said "fiat lux".
Know this: evolution is real. It is a fact. If that does something to your conception of the universe, then that's between you and the universe. It has nothing, however, to do with empirical reality.