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NCSE’s Disinformation Campaign Aside, Mississippi Bill Is an Opportunity for Educational Excellence

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After the filing of an academic freedom bill in Mississippi, HB 50, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger published a piece featuring some common misconceptions. And predictably, the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), the nation’s top Darwin lobby group, claimed the bill is anti-science. Permit me to alleviate concerns and clarify the nature of the legislation.

It’s always helpful to read what a bill actually says. This one states, “[T]eachers 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 covered in the course being taught…”

So, first of all, the bill only authorizes teachers to present scientific information regarding controversial theories. Areas outside of scientific strengths and weaknesses are outside of the legislation, which consequently would not protect instructors who teach about such matters.

Yet the NCSE claims:

House Bill 50, introduced in the Mississippi House of Representatives and referred to the House Education Committee on February 8, 2016, would, if enacted, allow science teachers with idiosyncratic opinions to teach anything they pleased — and prohibit responsible educational authorities from intervening.

That is flatly false. NCSE Deputy Director Glenn Branch echoed the fiction, telling the Clarion Ledger, “There’s no reason a teacher couldn’t say that women or blacks are inferior, or … that the Earth was flat or the sun goes around the Earth, and then couldn’t be shut down by the administration.”

What? Is Branch saying he thinks that, in 2016, racism, sexism, and geocentrism count as “scientific” ideas? Because that’s the only way they could conceivably be protected under the language of the bill. Last time I checked, there were no scientific articles being published in mainstream peer-reviewed journals critical of “round-earth theory” — but there is indeed mainstream criticism of classic Darwinian theory.

For information on the scientific weaknesses in modern evolutionary science, see Casey Luskin’s accounts of uncertainty in origins science and controversy over evolution. And check out the Scientific Dissent from Darwinism list (with more than 900 PhD signers).There also seems to be some confusion about whether the bill would allow teachers to discuss creationism or religious beliefs. The answer is no. Public schools cannot legally teach creationism. The Supreme Court has long held that it is unconstitutional to teach religion in the classroom and that creationism is a religious belief (Edwards v. Aguillard). Remember, the bill only authorizes “the teaching of scientific information and shall not be construed to promote any religious or nonreligious doctrine.”

I don’t see how that could be clearer. Promoting a religious idea such as creationism is not protected under this law. 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.”

Neither does the bill authorize teachers to introduce intelligent design. First of all, teaching the strengths and weaknesses of neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory is not the same as teaching about ID. Perhaps more importantly, the bill only permits the teaching of scientific strengths and weaknesses of theories that are “covered in the course being taught within the curriculum framework developed by the State Board of Education.” Since intelligent design is not part of the curriculum anywhere in Mississippi, it would not be protected by the bill (indeed, we oppose pushing intelligent design into public school classrooms).

It’s shame that a group like the NCSE enjoys such success in spreading misinformation. Mississippi’s legislation would advance quality science education in the state. In a joint issue on the theme of reform in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education, Nature and Scientific American noted, “[S]tudents gain a much deeper understanding of science when they actively grapple with questions than when they passively listen to answers.”

Make no mistake, Mississippi’s HB 50 is not “anti-science” as the NCSE claims. This academic freedom legislation would do a service to educational excellence in science. It does a disservice to students, and to the facts, to say otherwise.

Image: Mississippi State Capitol, by Charlie Brenner [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Sarah Chaffee

Now a teacher, Sarah Chaffee served as Program Officer in Education and Public Policy at Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. She earned her B.A. in Government. During college she interned at Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler’s office and for Prison Fellowship Ministries. Before coming to Discovery, she worked for a private land trust with holdings in the Southwest.



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