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Lobbyists Resort to Myth Information Campaign on Academic Freedom Legislation

Casey Luskin

It’s springtime (almost), which means that Darwin lobbyists are starting to come out in full force to spread misinformation about academic freedom legislation.

This is most unfortunate because their goal, plain and simple, is to prevent students from hearing about scientific critiques of neo-Darwinian evolution in the classroom.

I’ve already covered some of these bad objections here. Let’s consider the false claims being promoted by critics of academic freedom legislation.

Myth #1. Academic Freedom Laws Have Led to Litigation
Some critics, especially those in Oklahoma, have felt the need to promote outright falsehoods by claiming that the Louisiana Science Education Act has been subject to lawsuits. The truth is that there has never been a legal challenge to an academic freedom act. In fact, after Louisiana passed its academic freedom bill into law in 2008, Louisiana ACLU Executive Director Marjorie Esman reportedly acknowledged that “if the Act is utilized as written, it should be fine . . .” And to date there has been no legal action against Louisiana’s law or any other academic freedom bill.

Unfortunately, the outright falsehood that academic freedom laws have led to litigation seems to have convinced enough Oklahoma legislators to kill an academic freedom bill in committee this week by a close vote of 7-9.

Myth #2. The Bill Forces Teachers to Change the Curriculum
“Climate Progress” is claiming the bill “forces teachers to question evolution.” That’s also false. Academic freedom bills are permissive, not compulsory, in their effect. An academic freedom bill does not require teachers to teach anything differently. Topics like evolution will still be taught as a matter of required state law. All students will still need to learn and will be tested upon all aspects of state science standards. The bill still mandates that teachers follow the curriculum and teach the pro-evolution evidence. But it also gives teachers academic freedom to teach about credible scientific viewpoints that challenge the neo-Darwinian “consensus” — if they choose to do so.

Myth #3. Academic Freedom Bills will Bring Creationist Religion Into the Science Classroom
Of course, we’re also hearing the standard false charges that the bills allow the teaching of creationism or religion. In the past, Scientific American has been eager to lead the way in printing such arguments, as seen in a 2008 article from NCSE’s Glenn Branch and Eugenie Scott, alleging that “there is no scientifically credible challenge to evolution, only long-ago-debunked creationist claptrap.” Many critics have followed in their footsteps.

Consider this gem from a self-published article on “it is cleverly worded to disguise the intent to force the religion of Christianity into science classes in the Oklahoma public schools.”

The blog Right vs. Left attacks one bill stating, “If America wants to compete in the world our schools should teach our children logic and rational thinking, not dogma.”

Science & Religion Today states that “many people see the new act for what it is: part of the latest strategy to undercut the teaching of evolution and sneak religious theories like creationism.” One of those people is New Mexico activist Dave Thomas, who states, “This is really just a ploy to get creationism in the classroom.”

Despite the talking points of critics, academic freedom bills do not authorize or protect the teaching of creationism or any other religious viewpoint. According to a number of federal court rulings, creationism is a religious viewpoint that is illegal to advocate in public schools. Consistent with these rulings, most academic freedom bills contain language that expressly excludes the teaching of religion and only protects the teaching of scientific information. Such bills also typically contain a provision akin to the following:

The provisions of the Act shall only protect the teaching of scientific information, and 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.

Those who claim that academic freedom bills authorize the teaching of religion disregard the actual text of the bills. The plain text of the bill shows that it does not cover or protect the teaching of creationism or any other form of religion.

The only way that the “ploy to get creationism in the classroom” argument could be valid is if all teachers were in on some massive — and obviously non-existent — conspiracy where they all believe that “objective discussion of scientific theories” really means “teach religion.” Is this argument a sign of profound weakness in academic freedom legislation or a sign of profound desperation on the part of critics to find counter-arguments against these bills?

Myth #4. The Bills Bring Intelligent Design Into the Classroom
An article in the Santa Fe New Mexican states that the “[m]easure clears way for teaching of ‘intelligent design’.” This is also wrong. For example, the academic freedom bill in New Mexico (which recently died in committee) states:

The department, school district governing authorities and school administrators shall not prohibit any teacher, when a controversial scientific topic is being taught in accordance with adopted standards and curricula, from informing students about relevant scientific information regarding either the scientific strengths or scientific weaknesses pertaining to that topic. A teacher who chooses to provide such information shall be protected from reassignment, termination, discipline or other discrimination for doing so.

Other bills state that teachers should “be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course being taught.”

Under such language, academic freedom bills only pertain to topics already in the curriculum and the adopted science standards. Since ID isn’t part of the required curriculum anywhere in the United States, ID doesn’t come under such bills.

Myth #5. The Bills Single Out Evolution
Some critics are claiming that the bills single out evolution for special treatment. This too misrepresents the bill. For example, the Oklahoma bill doesn’t just pertain to evolution. As the bill says, it pertains to “scientific theories pertinent to the course being taught.” Here’s what one bill says:

A. … The Legislature further finds that the teaching of some scientific subjects, such as biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy, and that some teachers may be unsure of the expectations concerning how they should present information on such subjects.

B. The State Board of Education, district boards of education, district superintendents and administrators, and public 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. 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 existing scientific theories pertinent to the course being taught.

The bills go out of their way to not pertain to just evolution; they don’t single out any one topic.

Myth #6. Fearmongering: Academic Freedom Makes You Stupid, Dishonest, and a Science Adulterer
It’s almost too kind to call this one a myth. Nonetheless, these are my favorite attacks on academic freedom legislation because they show the intense drive among critics who wish to attack something as pure and good intellectual freedom as something twisted and evil. Their reaction towards academic freedom says far more about critics than it says about proponents of the legislation. (To see some of the outlandish comments from previous years, click here.) Here are some of the best gems printed so far this year to malign those who would dare to ask for objectivity on topics like evolution:

  • Quoting the NCSE, Climate Progress states that “students who accept this material as scientifically valid are unlikely to succeed in science courses at the college level.”
  • Quoting an Oklahoma Darwin lobby group, ClimateProgress likewise says: “Promoting the notion that there is some scientific controversy is just plain dishonest.”
  • A Freethought activist in Oklahoma has published multiple articles on copying and pasting from Wikipedia and arguing that academic freedom is “dishonest” or “promotes academic misconduct.” He further claims, “Dr. Broughton informed that, ‘HB 1551 makes the completely baseless association between academic freedom and freedom to teach pseduoscientific nonsense.'”
  • Right vs. Left states: “This is just a bit more lipstick on this ignorant pig.”

It’s tough to top such rhetorical flourishes, but Steve Newton of the NCSE should probably receive special recognition for his outlandish attacks. According to one news article, he’s very worried about “injustice” being perpetrated by “creationist teachers”:

“Allowing creationist teachers to attack evolution is an injustice to the education of their students, who will live and work in a world increasingly dependent on understanding science and technology,” Steve Newton, programs and policy director of the National Center for Science Education, said in an e-mail Tuesday.

Newton argued that high-paying manufacturing jobs of the future will be in biotechnology — “an industry that assumes workers understand evolution.” Therefore, he said, New Mexico students would be put at a competitive disadvantage “if their teachers, under HB 302, are given cover to adulterate science education.”

“Adulterate science education”? Let’s have a little reality check and remind ourselves what these bills actually say:

teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course being taught.

Apparently for these critics, simply allowing objective discussion of controversial scientific theories is too much for them.

What’s most ironic about these tactics is that they show exactly why academic freedom legislation is needed.

What type of climate is created in the classroom when you tell teachers and students that it is “dishonest” or “academic misconduct” to discuss scientific doubts about evolution? Is freedom of scientific inquiry enhanced when students are told that if study scientific criticism of evolution, they won’t succeed in college? Do teachers feel free to objectively cover scientific controversies if activists charge that in doing so they will “adulterate science education”?

The effect of these arguments, ironically, is to chill academic freedom through scare-tactics where teachers fear they will be subject to ridicule, intimidation, or worse if they raise these scientific controversies with students. This shows precisely why academic freedom legislation is needed in the first place.

Moreover, despite the harsh rhetoric of critics, academic freedom laws permit the exact kind of science instruction recommended by a paper in the journal Science last year titled, “Arguing to Learn in Science: The Role of Collaborative, Critical Discourse.” The paper found that students learn science best when they learn “to discriminate between evidence that supports (inclusive) or does not support (exclusive) or that is simply indeterminate.” According to the paper, it’s vital to teach students what scientific critique looks like:

Critique is not, therefore, some peripheral feature of science, but rather it is core to its practice, and without argument and evaluation, the construction of reliable knowledge would be impossible.

(Jonathan Osborne, “Arguing to Learn in Science: The Role of Collaborative, Critical Discourse,” Science, Vol. 328 (5977): 463-466 (April 23, 2010).)

In fact, Osborne’s paper warns about presenting science as a “monolith of facts” or an “authoritative discourse”:

Typically, in the rush to present the major features of the scientific landscape, most of the arguments required to achieve such knowledge are excised. Consequently, science can appear to its students as a monolith of facts, an authoritative discourse where the discursive exploration of ideas, their implications, and their importance is absent. Students then emerge with naive ideas or misconceptions about the nature of science itself….

There are numerous other science education authorities who recommend that students engage in inquiry-based learning, including critique, logical analysis, and consideration of contrary evidence. The National Science Education Standards recommend that students engage in “identification of assumptions, use of critical and logical thinking, and consideration of alternative explanations.” (I review these and many other similar authorities in “ The Constitutionality and Pedagogical Benefits of Teaching Evolution Scientifically.”) Apparently critics don’t want these beneficial educational methods applied when Darwinian evolution is involved.

Newton calls objective evolution education an “injustice”–but I would say that restricting intellectual freedom is the true injustice. Evolution education deals with a fundamental question of humanity — “Where did we come from?” Yes, modern neo-Darwinian evolutionary biology is the majority viewpoint and students must learn about this viewpoint. But there are significant numbers of scientists and peer-reviewed scientific papers that dissent from that viewpoint. From purely humanistic and pedagogical standpoints, it seems unconscionable to withhold from students the fact that there are credible scientific views that dissent from the majority viewpoint on this fundamental question of humanity — even if those views happen to be in the minority right now.

Myth #7. Academic Freedom Legislation Isn’t Necessary
In light of the previous harsh criticisms, it’s incredible that some critics are claiming that teachers already have full freedom to examine the evidence for and against evolution, and the bills therefore aren’t necessary. If only that were true.

Without this legislation the case law shows that teachers have very little academic freedom. As a Sixth Circuit Appellate Court ruled last year, “The concept of ‘academic freedom,’ moreover, does not readily apply to in-class curricular speech at the high school level.” (Evans-Marshall vs. Board of Education of Tipp City Exempted Village School District, 2010 WL 4117286 (6th. Cir. Ohio, 2010).) Likewise the Third Circuit ruled “it is the educational institution that has a right to academic freedom, not the individual teacher.” (Borden v. School District of Township of East Brunswick, 523 F.3d 153, 172 n. 14 (3rd Cir 2007).)

Without the protection of this legislation, teachers will be often subject to the whims of their administrators and intimidation tactics of others who disagree with them. The rhetoric that has already entered the debate over academic freedom legislation shows why it is important to protect these freedoms.

May intellectual freedom win, and shrill rhetoric in favor of censorship lose.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



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