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From Ars Technica, Bogus Objections to Academic Freedom Bills

Casey Luskin

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Whenever you see an article about science education that refers to academic freedom bills as being “concocted by the creationist Discovery Institute,” you can almost be guaranteed that it’s going to contain a lot of misinformation and fallacious arguments in favor of censorship. This is exactly what we find in Scott K. Johnson’s piece at Ars Technica, “Teach the controversy: Education bills contain a revealing confusion.”

Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of bad arguments against academic freedom bills — legislation that simply gives teachers the right to discuss the scientific strengths and weakness of controversial scientific ideas like evolution, global warming, and human cloning, without having to fear for losing their jobs. The problem for Mr. Johnson is that academic freedom bills oppose censorship, and he is opposing academic freedom bills, and it’s hard to make a defensible argument in favor of censorship.

His main contention is that when academic freedom bills allow teachers to teach the “scientific strengths and weaknesses” of topics like human cloning, that makes no sense because there is no “scientific controversy” over human cloning. It’s simply an ethical controversy, he says:

The reason that the inclusion of human cloning gives the game away is that there is no scientific argument to make. We have techniques that work on other mammals, and all 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 ethically controversial.

He thinks that if you are talking about ethics, then that doesn’t belong in the science classroom because “Ethics are not scientific strengths, scientific weaknesses, or even objective. They’re ethics. Values. Subjective. … A bill promoting the teaching of ‘scientific strengths and weaknesses’ of human cloning, in addition to being logically incoherent, is simply a bill promoting the injection of (certain) non-scientific viewpoints into science education.”

There are four main problems with his arguments.

First, a major part of the controversy over human cloning isn’t simply about ethics, but is largely about science. Why? Just about everyone agrees on the ethical issue that if cloning is going to harm human beings, then we probably shouldn’t do it. Sure, there’s still the question of whether we should clone humans even if we could safely do so, but a major part of the debate involves scientific questions about whether we can clone people in a manner that would guarantee no harm would come to the “clones.”

On that, there’s plenty of relevant scientific data to discuss and debate — which is the second problem with Mr. Johnson’s argument. He tries to bypass the debate, simply declaring, “We have techniques that work on other mammals, and all research in the area shows that fertilized human eggs and stem cells behave very similarly.” But that’s not what others have said. Consider this article from Live Science, published less than two years ago:

Fortunately for anyone concerned about the specter of human cloning, scientists say they’re nowhere close to being able to get cloned human embryos past early stages of development. The study’s leader, Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health & Science University, told reporters that the early embryos — 100-cell bundles known as blastocysts — seem to have defects preventing them from implanting properly in the uterus and reaching maturity.

A blastocyst consists of an inner mass of cells that will become the fetus. Surrounding this inner cell mass as a hollow ball is a layer of cells called the trophoblast. These trophoblast cells are destined to become the placenta, the organ that nourishes the growing embryo and, later, the fetus.

But in clones, the trophoblast cells frequently fail, perhaps a domino effect from just a few genes going wrong, said Jose Cibelli, a stem cell researcher at Michigan State University. The mother’s body may reject the implanting embryo. If implantation occurs, the vast majority of cloned embryos fail to make it past the first trimester of pregnancy.

For example, scientists can take a normal embryo from the uterus of one cow, transplant it into another and have a 60 percent chance of a normal calf being born. Transferring a cloned cow embryo into a cow uterus results in a healthy calf less than 10 percent of the time, Cibelli told LiveScience.

“When you see that scenario, whoever wants to move this into humans quickly, I think it should be criminal,” Cibelli said. “We should not do this. It’s totally crazy.”

So far, Mitalipov and his colleagues have not been able to grow a cloned monkey fetus to term, suggesting that primate reproduction may be even more complex than what is known from Dolly the sheep and other farm animals.

Now Live Science isn’t exactly a hotbed of religious fundamentalism, yet it is raising scientific questions about whether we can safely clone humans. Or consider this comment from a primer on cloning at Action BioScience:

Recent study of mammalian cloning also suggests that a number of defects often created in the reprogramming of the egg do not manifest themselves until later in the life of the resulting clone, so that mature clones have often undergone spectacular, unforeseen deaths.

Human cloning certainly raises ethical questions, but it also clearly raises major scientific questions about whether we can safely clone a human being without endangering that person’s health. On the science of human cloning, quite apart from the ethics, there’s plenty to discuss.

In fact, as a second problem, Mr. Johnson’s main scientific claim — that “we have techniques that work on other mammals, and all research in the area shows that fertilized human eggs and stem cells behave very similarly” — is directly contradicted by these articles, which report that humans might indeed be harmed by cloning since “primate reproduction may be even more complex than what is known from Dolly the sheep and other farm animals.” Again, here we have the beginnings of a fascinating scientific discussion that could take place, very appropriately, in a science classroom.

The final problems with Mr. Johnson’s argument can be covered briefly.

The third is that, even if the controversy over cloning were primarily an ethical debate, that in no way negates the fact that there are legitimate scientific questions over Darwinian evolution that could be discussed under an academic freedom bill. But Mr. Johnson wants to go further and claim that these bills intend to allow the teaching of religion.

Thus, as a fourth issue, Mr. Johnson seems to be under the misapprehension that any discussions of any ethical questions related to scientific discoveries can’t be raised in a public school science classroom because that’s like teaching religion. This is simply false.

Bioethics is a highly regarded academic subfield of philosophy, and science education experts recognize that discussing bioethical questions is not only pedagogically beneficial, but need not entail injecting a religious conversation into public schools. In fact, the U.S. Congress has suggested that teachers should cover scientific controversies and include discussions of how they affect society:

The Conferees recognize that a quality science education should prepare students to distinguish the data and testable theories of science from religious or philosophical claims that are made in the name of science. Where topics are taught that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution), the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist, why such topics may generate controversy, and how scientific discoveries can profoundly affect society.

This sounds perfectly reasonable — which is why this language was based upon a resolution passed in the U.S. Senate by a vote of 91-8, supported by leading senators from both the Republican and Democratic parties including Teddy Kennedy, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, John Kerry, John McCain, and Joe Biden. That’s not exactly a bunch of fundamentalists trying to inject religion into the science classroom, yet they agreed that science education should include include discussions of scientific controversies and how such debates can affect society.

Indeed, a number of science education authorities recognize that allowing students to discuss the ethical implications of scientific research is beneficial for science education. A lesson plan offered by the Genetic Science Learning Center at the University of Utah titled, “Teacher Guide: The Bioethics of Human Cloning,” notes that using their lesson plan to discuss the bioethical issues about human cloning not only helps students to better understand the science of genetics, but also fulfills the following science standards:

A. U.S. National Science Education Standards

Grades 5-8:
Content Standard F: Science in Personal and Social Perspectives – Science and Technology in Society; technology influences society through its products and processes; social needs, attitudes and values influence the direction of technological development.

Grades 9-12:
Content Standard E: Science and Technology – Understandings About Science and Technology; technological solutions may create new problems; sometimes scientific advances challenge people’s beliefs and practical explanations concerning various aspects of the world.
Content Standard F: Science in Personal and Social Perspectives – Science and Technology in Local, National and Global Challenges; science and technology are essential social enterprises, but alone they can only indicate what can happen, not what should happen. The latter involves human decisions about human knowledge.
Content Standard F: Science in Personal and Social Perspectives – Science and Technology in Local, National and Global Challenges; individuals and society must decide on proposals involving new research and the introduction of new technologies into society.

B. AAAS Benchmarks for Science Literacy

Grades 6-8:
The Nature of Technology: Issues in Technology – societies influence what aspects of technology are developed and how these are used; people control technology (as well as science) and are responsible for its effects.

Grades 9-12:
The Nature of Technology: Issues in Technology – social and economic forces strongly influence which technologies will be developed and used; which will prevail is affected by many factors, such as personal values, consumer acceptance, patent laws, the availability of risk capital, the federal budget, local and national regulations, media attention, economic competition, and tax incentives.
The Designed World: Health Technology – knowledge of genetics is opening whole new fields of health care.
The Designed World: Health Technology – biotechnology has contributed to health improvement in many ways, but its cost and application have led to a variety of controversial social and ethical issues.

Even the new Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) say that students should discuss the impact of “science on society,” including “impacts [that] technologies have on society.” NGSS note: “New technologies can have deep impacts on society and the environment, including some that were not anticipated.” In another case, the NGSS say students should consider “the nature of ethical responsibilities related to selective breeding.” Also: “Ethical issues related to genetic modification of organisms and the nature of science can be described.” The NGSS further suggest students should:

Evaluate competing design solutions to a real-world problem based on scientific ideas and principles, empirical evidence, and logical arguments regarding relevant factors (e.g. economic, societal, environmental, ethical considerations).

That’s exactly what a classroom discussion of human cloning might involve. Students could evaluate scientific solutions and technological capabilities, and also discuss related societal, economic, and ethical considerations. Academic freedom bills focus on protecting the science side of the conversation, but the related bioethics conversations that could also happen are in direct keeping with what science education experts recommend for public schools.

It seems safe to say there are legitimate scientific and ethical debates that could be had over human cloning without bringing religion into the public schools. What is more, it is clear that there are legitimate pedagogical reasons for asking students to understand these scientific debates.

Academic Freedom Bills Don’t Protect the Teaching of Religion
Mr. Johnson not only tries out new objections to academic freedom — objections that fail to convince. He invokes some old bad objections as well. He writes:

The aim of these bills is to provide cover for teachers who want to teach their students that evolution isn’t a scientific fact and that creationism (possibly stealthed within the supposedly non-sectarian label of “intelligent design”) is a viable scientific alternative.

Of course, creationism isn’t science — it’s religion. For that reason, the teaching of creationism in public schools was ruled unconstitutional by a federal court in 2005, when it’s called “intelligent design.” Previous court decisions had ruled out the teaching of creationism.

Let’s follow Mr. Johnson’s argument. He claims that academic freedom bills allow the teaching of “creationism.” He says, correctly, that “creationism isn’t science — it’s religion,” as, indeed, various courts have ruled. I agree with Mr. Johnson that creationism is a religious view that has been declared unconstitutional. But he’s wrong to say that it would be teachable under academic freedom legislation. Predictably, he fails to quote this language found in virtually every academic freedom bill:

This section only protects the teaching of scientific information, and shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or non-beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or non-religion.

That language says that if you’re teaching religion, then you’re not protected by an academic freedom bill. Since creationism has been ruled a religious belief by the Supreme Court, teachers who teach it would not be protected.

As for intelligent design, as we’ve explained before, it isn’t included in academic freedom bills either. Funny how Mr. Johnson quotes some of the language of academic freedom bills but somehow neglects to mention the parts that would refute his argument that the bills allow the teaching of creationism or intelligent design.

Image: shock / Dollar Photo Club.

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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