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Correcting Disinformation on Academic Freedom Legislation

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Our colleague Sarah Chaffee, who is Program Officer for Education and Public Policy for the Center for Science & Culture, has an excellent piece up at CNS News, correcting some of the rampant misrepresentations of the content of academic freedom legislation around the country. She charitably calls them misconceptions.

There are several misconceptions that come up year after year in the media about academic freedom bills. This year, with legislation (bills and resolutions) and science standards reviews in Texas, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Indiana, Louisiana and Alabama, was no exception.

The issue centers on what the legislation protects and what it doesn’t. Academic freedom is not about teaching creationism or intelligent design.

First, creationism. Concerns regarding creationism in legislation are unfounded, as the Supreme Court has said that creationism is a religious doctrine, and therefore can’t be taught in public schools. And obviously if science standards included creationism, they would be considered unconstitutional and immediately brought to court. Academic freedom bills that follow our model legislation don’t include creationism. In fact, they have a provision regarding non-promotion of religion or non-religion in case a law happens to come before a confused judge. As a result, laws in Louisiana (2008) and Tennessee (2012) haven’t been challenged in court in the years they have been in place.

Second, teaching of intelligent design is not a concern. K-12 teachers in public schools only have the ability to teach what is in the curriculum. The Constitution does not grant them academic freedom or free speech rights in the performance of their job, and court decisions are consistent with this. Academic freedom legislation is very, very limited legislation that authorizes teachers to discuss the scientific strengths and weaknesses of scientific topics already in the curriculum without having to fear losing their jobs. Teachers cannot bring in a new theory like intelligent design. It is not in the curriculum anywhere in the United States. The bill does not apply. If teachers in Louisiana and Tennessee had been using the laws as covers to teach intelligent design, we would likely have seen students or families complaining, and that picked up in the media. There have not been such reports. And even if there were a rogue teacher who tried to teach intelligent design, they would find the law did not protect them.

I’ve noticed that misrepresentations of this legislation are often accompanied by citations of the Darwin-lobbying group National Center for Science Education (NCSE). In fact, while I haven’t made a formal study of it, my impression is that that is almost always the case.

Last week, for example, we cited an article for Nature that mischaracterized the resolutions in Alabama and Indiana, saying they “would give educators license to treat evolution and intelligent design as equally valid theories.” Which is absolutely not true.

Sure enough, in the very next paragraph, writer Erin Ross quotes Glenn Branch of the NCSE, brandishing their favorite scare word (“The strategies of creationists have gotten more sophisticated”). In a fairly short article, Ross adduces the authority of the NCSE in no fewer than 7 of 14 paragraphs.

You have to hand it to these people. As champions of disinformation, with science and education reporters all but taking dictation, they are pretty impressive.

Image: © Monkey Business — stock.adobe.com.