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In Colorado, Darwin Activists Fight Academic Freedom with Gross Misinformation


It's been a busy year so far for academic freedom legislation, with activity in state legislatures across the country -- including, as far as I'm aware, Colorado, Indiana, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Montana. Of course, from year to year, these bills are of varying quality with the strongest, legally and pedagogically, being those modeled on language that Discovery Institute offers to lawmakers.

The best such laws, like the ones currently in force in Tennessee and Louisiana, seek to protect instructors in public schools who want to expose their students to legitimate controversy about important but disputed scientific issues, including Darwinian evolution. The biggest obstacles these laws face in getting passed comes from gross misinformation campaigns by Darwin activists, notably our friends at the National Center for Science Education.

Here is an example. There's a law up for discussion now in Colorado, House Bill 13-1089, that is quite good. Based on Discovery Institute's model language, it is careful to state that it protects scientific instruction only, not religious or other kinds of teaching that have nothing to do with legitimate science.

It holds:

Public school authorities and administrators must permit teachers to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in a given course.
The NCSE is all over it, of course, and among other things stirred up a self-employed astronomer and author in Boulder, Colorado. The man, Phil Plait, writes a regular blog, the strangely titled "Bad Astronomy," for Slate.

In a post this week ("Creationism Creeps into Colorado"), Plait gives credit to his "good friend and tireless hero" Eugenie Scott of the NCSE for putting out the alert on the proposed Colorado law. He explains his reasons for opposing it, including in his article the text of a letter he wrote to his representative, Dickey Lee Hullinghorst of District 10, brandishing his background in astronomy and his popular blog.

The post itself is a model -- of ignorance, incomprehension, or perhaps deliberate deception. There are three main lines of attack.

First, there is the idea that laws like this are "antiscience" and seek to replace science in the classroom with religious indoctrination, that is with "creationism." The artwork at the top of the post shows the globe of the earth with a birthday cake and the number "6000" -- because Biblical literalist creationists think the world is about that age.

This bill says it is about academic freedom, but the real purpose is quite the opposite: It is designed to allow the teaching of religion in the public school classroom by allowing teachers to use "supplemental materials" for "controversial topics."
It is a
transparent attempt to teach creationism and global warming denialism in the classroom. Let me be clear: These are not scientifically controversial topics! The science has been long established; evolution is real, and global warming is real.
Yes evolution is "real" -- depending on what you mean by that word of many meanings. That life has a long history reckoned in billions of years, that the forms of life have changed during that time? Of course in that sense evolution is real. That Darwinian natural selection can account for small-scale variation, microevolution, in the course of life's history? Again, yes, everyone agrees. However an important and fascinating question that is up for vigorous scholarly debate centers on the mechanism driving evolution, that is, whether natural selection or other unguided, material processes can account for life's origin and development.

You don't have to be a religious believer at all to appreciate the seriousness of the scientific critique of Darwinism. Ask New York University's famed philosopher Thomas Nagel, an atheist and author of the new book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (Oxford University Press). Or keep it local to Boulder, Colorado, and ask Bradley Monton at the University of Colorado, author of Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design.

Yet Darwin activists like Plait and his heroes at the National Center for Science Education bang away on their themes of "antiscience" and "creationism." In truth, under a policy of academic freedom, students would spend more time -- better and higher-quality time -- learning about evolution than they do now. There would be no other way to create a curriculum that encourages critical thinking on that or other scientific subjects.

When I was in high school, the best classes I took, the ones that most engaged me, involved debate, with students taking sides on controversial questions rather than submitting to passive, sterile memorization. The most creative teachers understood this.

As for the endlessly repeated charge that academic freedom is a Trojan horse for "creationism," try to imagine how this could actually be true. What is creationism? Creation "science" is an attempt to prove a literal interpretation of the Bible's creation account. In my view it's not only hopeless scientifically, but it is self-evidently a form of religion and has already been found unconstitutional for public classrooms for that reason by the Supreme Court (Edwards v. Aguillard, 1987). The language of the Colorado bill and similar legislation expressly excludes religious instruction:

(3) This article only protects the teaching of scientific information, and this article must 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.
Darwin activists are very forthcoming with scare words like "antiscience" and "creationism" but they never, ever tell you exactly how under the proposed law creationism could be introduced in science class. Give me a concrete scenario, please, Phil Plait. A genuine creationist lesson plan that would be protected under the law, if you don't mind. You see, they can't.

The second line of attack holds that academic freedom is a partisan, Republican, issue. The proposed law in Colorado represents "a clear and obvious attack on scientific fields that disagree with the beliefs of the conservative lawmakers." So only Republicans believe in a dynamic approach to pedagogy while Democrats insist on rote indoctrination?

But Plait himself provides the evidence that this isn't true. He implores his representative, Ms. Hullinghorst: "Please kill this anti-education bill in committee, and do not let it get to the House floor." He observes, "If this bill gets through committee it may very well pass into law." But both houses of the Colorado General Assembly have a strong Democratic majority. If protecting teachers who teach about the evolution controversy were merely a partisan Republican or conservative cause, there should be no reason for fearing that the Colorado bill could pass into law, no need to kill it in committee before all the legislators get to vote on it.

The final angle of attack, the most absurd of all, paints a picture of economic apocalypse should the law win passage. Plait warns, "If allowed to pass, we will be cheating our children out of a real science education." (Dangling modifier alert: He means if the bill is allowed to pass, not if Darwin activists like Plait are allowed to pass, children will fail to get a good education.) More:

This will create an entire generation of children who will be mis- and undereducated, ill-prepared to join the 21st century workforce. The state of Colorado will suffer economically when technology industries look elsewhere for qualified employees.
I can imagine one intelligent, honest argument against the bill. It is that, on evolution, the scientific debate as conducted in peer-reviewed science journals is at a rather high level that might be beyond the ken of many of our currently undereducated high-school students. But if a smart, ambitious, and creative teacher put in the work to make this controversy comprehensible to a classroom of teenagers, expecting them to genuinely appreciate both sides of a real controversy of which there is no "no brainer" resolution available, her students would be guaranteed to emerge at an intellectual advantage over peers who just learned to spit back the Darwinian account.

Plait also curiously prophesies that the law would return the state of Colorado to the "15th century." What does that mean? Why the 15th century in particular? Before the European settlement of North America? So the bill seeks to return Colorado to its original Native American inhabitants while clearing out everyone else, is that it? I don't know, I'm just guessing.

As to how such legislation would really impact a state's economy, Louisiana offers the most telling test case. See here and here for Casey Luskin's reporting on how that state's tech and biotech industries have, in fact, boomed in the years since Louisiana passed the nation's first academic freedom law back in 2008.

Phil Plait gives us an accurate idea, if nothing else, of the kind of nonsense with which the National Center for Science Education equips Darwin activists. If I lived in Colorado, even if I were otherwise not much interested in this subject or particularly sympathetic to scientific critiques of Darwinism, I would feel insulted by the assumption, implicit in the NCSE's propaganda, that I am stupid.

Here's how dumb they think I am: I can't tell the difference between Biblical literalist creationism and scientific ideas being debated in mainstream science journals. I am so insecure in my own grasp of the relevant science that I don't think high school students should be exposed to high-level pedagogy that challenges them to see both sides of a difficult issue. I'm so dopey and out of touch that I think passing one law that protects a few of the most creative teachers from administrative retribution will nuke my state's economy.

If for no other reason than that I'm not stupid and I resent being told that I am, I think that if I lived in Colorado, I am ornery enough that I would reject the counsel of the National Center for Science Education and take a careful, not unsympathetic look at the idea of academic freedom.

Image: Colorado State Capitol, Wikipedia.