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Mississippi Legislators Should Drop Academic Freedom Bill or Make Clear It Doesn't Permit Creationism

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In most states where academic freedom bills for science education are considered, it's the critics who are wrongly claiming that the bills would authorize the teaching of creationism.

But if media accounts from Mississippi are accurate, it appears that at least some legislators who support academic freedom legislation wrongly think it would permit creationism. The Mississippi legislature is currently considering HB 50, which was taken virtually verbatim from Discovery Institute's model academic freedom bill for science education. The language of the bill clearly does not authorize the teaching of creationism. It does not even authorize the teaching of intelligent design. Unfortunately, some of the bill's sponsors apparently think otherwise.

To clear up the confusion, Discovery Institute has sent a letter to the Mississippi House Education Committee explaining what the language of the bill would really do and asking the Committee either to drop the bill because of the inaccurate statements put out by some of its sponsors or to make clear that the legislature understands that the bill does not protect creationism.

Dear Chairman Moore and the House Education Committee,

We are writing because we have serious concerns about how HB 50, which you are currently considering, has been described in the news media by certain legislators. According to media accounts, at least some legislators have stated that HB 50 would authorize the teaching of creationism in Mississippi schools. This claim is erroneous.

The text of HB 50 was taken virtually verbatim from a model academic freedom bill drafted by our organization The language in our model bill does not authorize the teaching of creationism, and we object to any use of our model bill to try to authorize the teaching of creationism.

1. An Explanation of What the Language of HB 50 Does and Does Not Protect

Creationism is typically based on a certain reading of the first chapter of the book of Genesis in the Bible. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that creationism is a religious belief and that it is unconstitutional to endorse it in the classroom.1 Accordingly, the language of HB 50 does not authorize the teaching of creationism because it clearly states: "This section only protects 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 promote discrimination for or against religion." (Emphasis added.)

We note in addition that the language of HB 50 does not even authorize the teaching of intelligent design. Intelligent design is the scientific theory that some features of nature are best explained as the product of an intelligent cause rather than an undirected process such as natural selection. Intelligent design is based on the empirical data of nature rather than the Bible, and it has had support from many scientists in the history of science, including the co-founder of the theory of evolution by natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace. Although Discovery Institute strongly supports scientists who are researching evidence of purposeful design throughout nature, we do not favor inserting intelligent design into public school science classes. We think the debate over intelligent design is best left to the scientific community and to discussions among the general public. In line with this view, HB 50 (reflecting the language of our model academic freedom bill) only covers discussions of "existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught within the curriculum framework developed by the State Board of Education." (Emphasis added.) Intelligent design is not included in the curriculum framework adopted by the Mississippi State Board of Education, and so it is not covered by HB 50.

What, then, would HB 50 permit? It would allow Mississippi 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 the course being taught within the curriculum framework developed by the State Board of Education."

As applied to biological evolution, the language of HB 50 would protect teachers who want to objectively discuss scientific information in favor of Darwin's theory as well as teachers who want to objectively discuss scientific information conflicting with certain Darwinian claims. Why is providing such protection important? Because teachers today are often unclear or fearful about what they can and can't say about evolution.

2. The Real Problem Addressed by HB 50

Teaching about evolution can provoke criticisms from all sides, which can foster an unhealthy atmosphere in which teachers are afraid to provide a full discussion of the topic. In some schools, teachers are fearful of covering the evidence in favor of Darwin's theory. In many other schools, teachers are fearful of facing discrimination or attacks if they present scientific evidence critical of certain evolutionary claims. We have known teachers who have lost their jobs or faced bullying not because they were trying to teach creationism or intelligent design, but merely because they wanted to discuss science-based criticisms of specific evolutionary claims that have appeared in mainstream, peer-reviewed science journals.

HB 50 is a limited bill that would make clear that Mississippi teachers are permitted to help students understand the scientific (not religious) strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories already in the curriculum. In providing this protection, HB 50 would further the goals of the 2010 Mississippi Science Framework adopted by the Mississippi State Board of Education, which asks students to "Evaluate procedures, data, and conclusions to critique the scientific validity of research."

To give you a better idea of the kinds of legitimate scientific questions that HB 50 might allow teachers to discuss in an objective manner, we attach a document that provides an overview of some of the mainstream scientific debates currently taking place over key aspects of evolution. To highlight just one of the issues: According to modern Darwinian theory, random mutations in DNA are supposed to provide the raw materials for natural selection to build new biological structures. But morphological mutations (those that affect an animal's body) tend to reduce the fitness of an organism rather than increase it. Thus, the late biologist Lynn Margulis declared that "new mutations don't create new species; they create offspring that are impaired." A member of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Margulis was neither a proponent of intelligent design nor creationism. But she was sharply critical -- on scientific grounds -- of just how much natural selection acting on random mutations could actually accomplish. Under HB 50, a teacher would be able to discuss Dr. Margulis's views in an objective manner.

3. Concerns About Moving Forward

While we obviously support the language of HB 50, we are concerned that inaccurate public statements made about the bill by some legislators have created a misleading impression of what the bill would actually authorize. Because of the confusion that now exists, we ask that you consider not acting on the bill during your current session. Even though the text of the bill itself is clear, public statements going beyond the bill have muddied the waters sufficiently that they may provide grounds for a legal challenge that could end up harming academic freedom in science instruction rather than helping it. It would be better to start afresh with a new bill in a later session.

If you still want to act on HB 50 during the current session despite these concerns, we urge you to make clear in the legislative record (perhaps in a report attached to the bill, and in floor statements) that the bill does not authorize the teaching of creationism nor does it authorize the teaching of intelligent design. Instead, it merely protects the ability of teachers to help students understand the scientific strengths and weaknesses of scientific topics already in the curriculum.

4. About Discovery Institute

Discovery Institute is a non-profit educational and research organization. Our Center for Science & Culture has more than 40 affiliated PhD-level scholars in such fields as genetics, molecular and cellular biology, physics, astronomy, chemistry, mathematics, and the philosophy and history of science. Our policy efforts have informed academic freedom legislation previously adopted in Louisiana (2008) and Tennessee (2012). We favor science education that allows students to learn about both the scientific strengths and weaknesses of current theories of biological and chemical evolution. We would be happy to consult with you about how to encourage this kind of education in a pedagogically and legally appropriate manner.

Sincerely,

Sarah Chaffee
Program Officer, Education and Public Policy

John G. West, PhD
Associate Director, Center for Science & Culture

When sponsoring legislators incorrectly portray academic freedom legislation as authorizing creationism, it is unhelpful for academic freedom in Mississippi and in other parts of the country. Please join us in accurately communicating what bills like HB 50 would accomplish.

References:

(1) See Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. at 578 (1987); Webster v. New Lenox Sch. Dist. #122, 917 F.2d 1004 (7th Cir. 1990); Freiler v. Tangipahoa Parish Bd. of Educ., 185 F.3d 337 (5th Cir. 1999), cert. denied, 530 U.S. 1251 (2000); McLean v. Ark. Bd. of Educ., 529 F. Supp. 1255 (D.C. Ark. 1982).

Image: Mississippi State Capitol, by Charlie Brenner [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.