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While some states such as Louisiana and Tennessee have been successful in legislating protection for the rights of public school students and teachers to openly discuss the facts and assumptions underlying controversial scientific topics, others have been less successful.
Oklahoma’s latest efforts have included Senate Bill 758 and House Bill 1674. Senate Bill 758, which was largely modeled on Tennessee’s new academic freedom law, died in committee a few days ago without being considered.1 House Bill 1674 has passed in committee by a narrow margin (9-8) and can now be sent to the House.
A distinctive element of HB 1674 is the specific prohibition against penalizing students for respectfully expressing their personal beliefs about the validity of controversial scientific ideas. Students are not, however, exempt from learning about evolution and other controversial topics and proving their understanding. The bill states:
Students may be evaluated based upon their understanding of course materials, but no student in any public school or institution shall be penalized in any way because the student may subscribe to a particular position on scientific theories. Nothing in this subsection shall be construed to exempt students from learning, understanding and being tested on curriculum as prescribed by state and local education standards.2
The bill’s author, state representative Gus Blackwell, says, “A student has the freedom to write a paper that points out that highly complex life may not be explained by chance mutations.” This bill if passed would guarantee that freedom while ensuring that students still learn both the facts and assumptions used to support evolution and other controversial ideas. “Students can't say because I don't believe in this, I don't want to learn it,” Blackwell says. “They have to learn it in order to look at the weaknesses.”
The bill contains other provisions similar to the successful laws in Louisiana and Tennessee. It would encourage local school authorities to help teachers develop effective ways to develop critical thinking skills in their students. The goal of the bill is:
to create an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that encourages students to explore scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues . . . [and]
to create an environment in which both the teacher and students can openly and objectively discuss the facts and observations of science, and the assumptions that underlie their interpretations.3
And the bill makes clear that this law will be about science, not religion, stating:
The Scientific Education and Academic Freedom Act shall only protect the teaching of scientific information, and shall not be construed to promote any religious or nonreligious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or nonbeliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion.4
The usual railing from the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), the Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education (OESC), and other opponents claims that a bill like this would “water down” or “undermine” science education. For instance, NCSE’s Eric Meikle says, “The problem with these bills is that they're so open-ended; it's a kind of code for people who are opposed to teaching climate change and evolution. . . . An extremely high percentage of scientists will tell you that evolution doesn't have scientific weaknesses. If every teacher, parent, and school board can decide what to teach on their own, you're going to have chaos. You can't deluge kids with every theory that's ever been considered since the beginning of time.”
Despite Meikle’s statement, of course, nothing in the bill suggests students should be taught creation in public school, but that they should be allowed to distinguish between the facts and the assumptions that underlie the positions held by that “high percentage.” No student is to be allowed to opt out of learning about evolution. But a student, having learned how to evaluate conventional but controversial scientific positions, should be allowed to respectfully say or write that he or she remains unconvinced. The NCSE equates learning and understanding with belief. In other words, the NCSE maintains that if anyone does not believe as that “high percentage” of scientists does, he or she obviously just doesn’t understand.
On the contrary, academic freedom to discuss scientific ideas openly has historically been the way real scientific progress has been made. The medieval Roman Catholic church, many point out, impeded scientific progress by muzzling Galileo. Now the NCSE wishes to muzzle budding scientists before they are out of the proverbial cradle. Being afraid to let students learn how to discern, the National Center for Science Education is—ironically—standing in the way of genuine science education.
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