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No, Academic Freedom Laws Do Not Authorize Teaching about Intelligent Design


It's a pleasure to welcome our new colleague Sarah Chaffee, who wrote on Friday about an academic freedom bill in Alabama. As she points out, neither that proposed law nor similar laws in Louisiana and Tennessee do what some critics claim. Those laws do not permit teaching the religious doctrine of creationism in public school science classes, nor do they give sanction to teaching about the scientific theory of intelligent design.

We've explained many times why a law that explicitly rejects "promot[ing] any religious doctrine" obviously does not enshrine instruction about creationism (the idea that science supports a literal reading of the Genesis creation account), no matter how many times propagandists like Zack Kopplin claim otherwise. Calling the Louisiana Science Education Act a "creationism law" over and over at Slate, as Kopplin does, does not make it so. I am not going to go into that again.

The point about intelligent design, though, is worth taking up since it confuses even science journalists like Alex Berezow who seem to want to tell the truth. Berezow is founding editor of the popular and useful website Real Clear Science. I've directly asked him if he understands that LSEA does not sanction or enshrine teaching about ID. He replied recently in a tweet that "From what I can tell, the language seems to be written in a way to allow ID to be taught in science class."

Okay, let's consider this from the point of a view of a teacher in a public school biology class. Say I'm a teacher in Louisiana who discovers the work of the major ID thinkers including Meyer, Behe, Dembski, Gauger, Axe, Wells, Sternberg, Nelson, and others, in books, journal articles, and here at Evolution News & Views. As a thoughtful adult with a biology background, I find their arguments stimulating and compelling. The idea pops into my head: How about sharing some of this work with my students?

Interesting, but I realize two things. First, simply plunging my students into a text like Darwin's Doubt is going to be over most high school kids' heads. Meyer and his colleagues write to persuade scientists and other adults, at the highest levels of the evolution debate. Even many professional science journalists don't take the time to read the big guns of the ID movement, and instead content themselves with a cartoon of what ID says. Alex Berezow, for one, has summarized ID in these absurd terms: "Trouble is that it goes like this: 1) Wow, this is weird. 2) Biologists are stunned! 3) God did it!"

If I'm going to teach about ID, I need something written to be very easily accessible. Oh, what's this? Discovery Institute is the hub of research on ID. They've got a recently released curriculum co-authored by Casey Luskin, Discovering Intelligent Design, including a brand new free online component specifically designed to maximize accessibility. What about supplementing my instruction with some of that material?


Hmm, but the second thing I realize is that intelligent design is controversial. Should that fact serve as a caution to me?

Perhaps the teacher feels she has a free hand to supplement her instruction however she likes. It seems hard to imagine that would be the case. Teaching controversial subjects is likely to attract scrutiny, potentially putting a teacher in career jeopardy.

Is it possible that a teacher might be so insulated from criticism that she needn't care what anyone says? Possible, but very unlikely. However, if that were the case, then a law like LSEA would be irrelevant whatever its intent. Such a law is intended to grant sanction to teaching something, providing a license to someone who might otherwise feel worried about putting her job and career on the line.

LSEA protects teaching...what? Returning to our teacher with an interest in ID, let's assume she feels the understandable need to make sure that she's clearly, unambiguously authorized to teach about it.

One thing she might do is go online and check out what Discovery Institute says. Oh look at this, at the website for the Discovering Intelligent Design curriculum, they say really, really clearly that it's not intended for use in public schools:

The Discovering Intelligent Design curriculum is designed for educational use by home schools and private schools rather than public schools. When this subject of intelligent design is forced into public schools, it tends to generate polarization, transforming the topic from a scientific investigation into an emotional, politicized debate.

Discovery Institute's Science Education Policy is even more emphatic:

As a matter of public policy, Discovery Institute opposes any effort to require the teaching of intelligent design by school districts or state boards of education. Attempts to mandate teaching about intelligent design only politicize the theory and will hinder fair and open discussion of the merits of the theory among scholars and within the scientific community. Furthermore, most teachers at the present time do not know enough about intelligent design to teach about it accurately and objectively.

Well, let's say our hypothetical teacher thinks she can live with that. Perhaps she doesn't give a hoot what Discovery Institute says. Maybe she consults her supervisors at the school and they don't care either. Seems unlikely, but who knows? Full steam ahead with teaching ID, then?

Not so fast -- what does the law say? Thinks the teacher, I know that here in Louisiana we've got the LSEA. In consultation with my supervisors, I'll read the text of the legislation. I don't have any way of knowing what the legislators who passed it were thinking when they cast their votes. Sometimes, in casual remarks, lawmakers get confused and say confusing things. But as a professional educator, I have good reading comprehension skills. I can study the language of the law and see for myself what it sanctions.

Obviously, as noted, it doesn't permit teaching creationism. As for ID, I see that there I'm out of luck. The law speaks of supplementing instruction about science that's currently included in the official curriculum. It calls for giving "support and guidance for teachers regarding effective ways to help students understand, analyze, critique, and objectively review scientific theories being studied."

The "scientific theories being studied" are those "including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning."

It provides as follows:

A teacher shall teach the material presented in the standard textbook supplied by the school system and thereafter may use supplemental textbooks and other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner.

So Darwin's theory of evolution -- that's certainly in the standard curriculum. It is among the "scientific theories being studied." The law sanctions me in adding to what my students learn about Darwinian theory. I'm on safe ground in letting them know about its scientific strengths and weaknesses.

I could show my students the documentary Icons of Evolutions, based on Jonathan Wells's book, and share with them the Icons of Evolution Study Guide. More ambitiously, I could draw on the textbook Explore Evolution: The Arguments For and Against Neo-Darwinism. These materials, however, are not about intelligent design.

ID, I know from my own reading, is a separate scientific theory that is not merely a negation or critique of Darwinism but instead presents a positive case claiming to show evidence of design in nature. That theory is not in the curriculum. It's not among the "scientific theories being studied." The law does not, therefore, encourage or sanction my teaching about ID. I cannot supplement what the curriculum includes about intelligent design, because the curriculum doesn't include ID in the first place.

Was LSEA, then, written to enshrine teaching about ID? Clearly not. If I wanted to sanction ID in science classrooms, which I don't, that's certainly not the way I would go about writing the law. Would you? Honestly.

Any instructor who wanted to teach about ID theory would find no support, no protection in the law. If I as a teacher went ahead and disregarded Discovery Institute's warnings, and if parents or activists challenged me on it, as there's a good chance they would, there's nothing in the plain language of the legislation as written that I could point to in my defense.

Look, some people disregard laws. Where I live, you can sit behind the wheel of your car and talk on your cell phone or send text messages -- if the car is safely parked. Once you're out driving on the street or highway, then texting or talking on your phone puts you in jeopardy of being pulled off the road by a cop and ticketed.

The law and its intent are clear. If someone breaks the rules, you don't blame the law. The same is true of laws like the LSEA. I don't expect that propagandists will ever understand that. But journalists who seek to be objective and tell the truth ought to be capable of it.

Image: � shock / Dollar Photo Club.