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From Patrick Anderson at the Argus Leader, More Misinformation on Academic Freedom in South Dakota

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We’ve met reporter Patrick Anderson before. See here for responses from last year to his reporting for the Sioux Falls, SD, Argus Leader. On the subject of academic freedom, his work has left much to be desired. Now Mr. Anderson is back, spreading more misinformation.

In January, Senator Jeff Monroe introduced Senate Bill 83, which noted:

No teacher may be prohibited from helping students understand, analyze, critique, or review in an objective scientific manner the strengths and weaknesses of scientific information presented in courses being taught which are aligned with the content standards established pursuant to § 13-3-48.

Unfortunately, the bill died in committee on Thursday. However, I would like to correct Anderson’s inaccurate reporting about the bill in particular and the issue of academic freedom in science education generally.

First, academic freedom bills, such as SB 83, do not authorize the teaching of intelligent design.

On January 31, Anderson wrote for the Argus Leader:

The bill is an effort to protect educators who offer a different school of thought on some of the subjects outlined in the state’s science standards, Monroe said.

But science teachers don’t need the protection as long as they’re working with theories based on factual evidence, said Julie Olson, a science teacher in Mitchell. Olson is president of the South Dakota Science Teachers Association.

“Science has got to be fact-based, it has to be evidence-based,” Olson said. “Intelligent design isn’t evidence-based, so it isn’t science.”

Olson wishes Monroe and other lawmakers behind the senate bill would be more direct about their intentions.

“I just hate the fact that they’re trying to sneak in the discussion on intelligent design,” Olson said. “If that’s what they want taught they should at least say it.”

Anderson allows this to go unchallenged. But no, the bill only would have permitted the teaching of scientific strengths and weaknesses on “scientific information presented in courses being taught which are aligned with the content standards established…” Since intelligent design is not part of the curriculum anywhere in South Dakota, it would not have been protected by the bill.

Teaching the strengths and weaknesses of neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory is not the same as teaching about ID. For instance, in discussing evolution, a teacher might talk about whether or not Galápagos finches provide evidence of macroevolution. But such a discussion would not present positive evidence for design. To demonstrate the validity of intelligent design, one must make a positive case for the theory.

Second, Discovery Institute does not support pushing intelligent design into public schools. In fact, we oppose it.

Patrick Anderson has misstated Discovery Institute’s position before, claiming that Discovery Institute advocates teaching intelligent design in public schools on the evidence of our textbook, Discovering Intelligent Design, produced explicitly and exclusively for home and private schools.

This year, he’s at it again, writing: “The bill [SB 83] is based on model legislation from the Discovery Institute, a group with a curriculum for teaching intelligent design.” No, here is what the Introduction to the curriculum says:

A NOTE ON USE IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS

This supplemental textbook is not intended for use in public schools. ID is a scientific theory and is not religiously based, but we live in a highly charged political climate that is often hostile to ID. While ID should be perfectly legal to discuss in public schools, there are strong reasons not to push ID into the public school curriculum.

In particular, the priority of the ID movement is to see the theory progress and mature as a science. However, when the subject is forced into public schools, it tends to generate controversy, changing the topic from a scientific investigation into an emotional, politicized debate. This can result in persecution of ID proponents in the academy, ultimately preventing ID from gaining a fair hearing within the scientific community.

The Introduction goes on to quote our official policy on teaching ID in public schools, which we have stated again and again. We oppose mandating the teaching of intelligent design in public school science classroom, and have made that clear in our ID curriculum for home and private schools. Can this be any clearer?

Third, academic freedom legislation, such as Monroe’s bill, doesn’t authorize the teaching of creationism.

Anderson reports:

The proposal could make it easier for teachers to bring Creationism into a public school classroom, despite parts of the bill that disavow any association with religion, said Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education….

“It’s kind of a recipe to encourage teachers to go rogue,” Branch said. “I admit that it’s fairly unlikely that teachers are going to be doing that, but teachers are people too, and people have funny ideas.”

… [T]he bill states it “may not be construed to promote any religious or nonreligious doctrine.”

Authors give no direction for determining what the promotion of religious doctrine might look like, Branch said.

“It’s like wearing big sign saying, ‘ignore me,'” Branch said.

Again, no. The bill would not have authorized the teaching of creationism or other religious beliefs. The text notes it only would have protected “the teaching of scientific information and may not be construed to promote any religious or nonreligious doctrine, nor may these provisions be construed to promote discrimination against any religion, religious belief, nonreligion, or nonbelief.”

Furthermore, the bill didn’t need to give “direction for determining” what promotes religion because courts have already defined what constitutes promotion of religion. Branch is neither a lawyer nor a legislator. There is a long line of court cases that make clear what is permissible and what is not.

As Casey Luskin has pointed out, “[I]f 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.” Clearly, South Dakota’s legislation would not have authorized teaching creationism.

Finally, opponents hold that the academic freedom bill somehow would have subverted the state’s science standards. Andersonreports, “Even without the religious implications of the bill, Monroe’s proposal undermines the democratic process of approving curriculum standards for K-12 schools, [Glenn] Branch [deputy director of the National Center for Science Education] said.”

The National Center for Science Education reports on their website:

Testifying against the bill was Wade Pogany, the executive director of the Associated School Boards of South Dakota, who told the committee, in the words of KELO AM radio (February 4, 2016), that “state and federal courts have ruled that teachers can’t abandon the curriculum for their own beliefs.”

But Branch’s and Pogany’s concerns have little relevance to SB 83.

First, such legislation does not “undermine the democratic process.” The Board of Education in South Dakota isn’t elected in the first place, but appointed and then confirmed by the Senate. It would seem just as democratic to have permissive legislation for academic freedom in science education passed through the legislature.

Additionally, the general public overwhelmingly supports teaching the scientific strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories in at least one area (Darwinian evolution) as evidenced by a recent SurveyMonkey nationwide poll. Eighty-one percent of respondents agreed that, “when teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution, biology teachers should cover both scientific evidence that supports the theory and scientific evidence critical of the theory.” Of those from the West North Central region (which includes South Dakota), 83 percent agreed.

Furthermore, this legislation was limited to “the strengths and weaknesses of scientific information presented in courses being taught which are aligned with the content standards established pursuant to § 13-3-48.” This bill only applies to content that has already been approved by the Board of Education of South Dakota. It does not authorize the teaching of information on topics outside of the standards.

The Introduction to the South Dakota Science Standards notes:

The concepts and content in the science standards represent the most current research in science and science education. All theories are presented in a way that allow teachers to structure an experience around multiple pieces of scientific evidence and competing ideas to allow students to engage in an objective discussion. The theories are presented because they have a large body of scientific evidence that supports them. These 6 standards were developed in such a manner to encourage students to analyze all forms of scientific evidence and draw their own conclusions.

Academic freedom legislation is in agreement with the spirit and purposes of South Dakota’s science standards.

So what would academic freedom legislation actually accomplish? As I have written here previously, it would permit teachers to foster an environment of scientific inquiry by educating students about the evidence on both sides of scientific issues. Where this approach to learning has been adopted already, it trains students to think analytically. It awakens interest in science by inviting students to confront relevant research themselves. And students who succeed in science courses in grades K-12 are surely more likely to pursue degrees in those fields.

Inquiry in the classroom paves the way for inquiry in the lab. Contrary to what Mr. Anderson has been telling readers of the Argus Leader, enacting academic freedom legislation would have done a service to educational excellence in South Dakota.

Image: South Dakota State Capitol, by Jake DeGroot [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.