Legislators want educators off the hook if they teach a manufactured controversy.
At the start of this month, we covered a bill making its way through the South Dakota legislature. It’s the latest variation on a large collection of state bills that seek to protect educators from what has been termed “teaching the controversy.” Should the bills pass, teachers would be immune to punishment for using outside material in instruction, as long as the teacher believes the material is scientific.
But in the intervening time, similar bills have appeared in three other states, and a fourth state is considering eliminating references to climate change in its teaching plan. Science education appears to be facing a busy year in the statehouses.
We can start with Indiana, where Senate Resolution 17 has now cleared the Education Committee. The resolution approvingly quotes a proposed amendment to the No Child Left Behind Act to challenge evolution: “Where topics are taught that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution), that the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist, why such topics can generate controversy, and how scientific discoveries can profoundly affect society.” What it neglects to note is that the amendment was rejected or that evolution is the only scientific view that currently exists.
The resolution then goes on to urge the state Department of Education to support “teachers who choose to teach a diverse curriculum.” Based on the earlier language, the “diverse” nature would presumably involve different views on evolution.
…even if teachers spout pseudoscientific nonsense, if it’s phrased as a scientific critique, nobody would be allowed to stop them.
Continuing on the theme of controversy, we move on to Oklahoma, where Senate Bill 393 has been passed by the Education Committee. This bill follows the script of the legislation outlined above: the State Board of Education, school district boards of education, school district superintendents, and school principals are all forbidden from disciplining teachers who critique the “strengths and weaknesses of existing scientific theories.” Essentially, even if teachers spout pseudoscientific nonsense, if it’s phrased as a scientific critique, nobody would be allowed to stop them.
A resolution in Alabama covers similar ground, noting subjects required to be taught in that state, including “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning,” are all the subject of controversy. It then goes on to reiterate the call to teach the “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific theories. Once again, a long list of public education officials is advised not to discipline any teacher for engaging in this sort of critique.
On the positive side, only one of these (Oklahoma’s bill) is actually a legal mandate; the other two are simply resolutions that recommend the protections. However, should any of these resolutions pass, motivated teachers would almost certainly view them as providing a green light for the teaching of whatever nonsense the teacher feels is scientific.
Meanwhile, the go-to source for news on education legislation, the National Center for Science Education, has noted that the Idaho State legislature has removed all references to climate change from its state science standards. These are temporary standards that will only be in force for a year, but the move came after the Idaho State House decided it wanted students to hear “all sides of the debate” on climate science. Presumably, these include the sides that have no scientific foundation for their arguments.
Update: The South Dakota bill has now died in the legislature, while the Indiana resolution has passed the senate. Resolutions are not subject to veto, so that vote is final.
John Timmer is Ars Technica’s science editor.
This is an extract of an article that appeared in Ars Technica on 28 February 2017