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Fake News: Washington Post's Valerie Strauss "Reports" on South Dakota Academic Freedom Bill

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Over at the Washington Post, reporter Valerie Strauss engages in fear-mongering over South Dakota's academic freedom bill (SB 55). Unfortunately, this is not her first time misrepresenting such bills.

Strauss provokes alarm about a lack of accountability -- "maverick teachers" who can teach whatever they wish. However, SB 55 offers very limited freedoms. Indeed, the language of the bill says that teachers can only present information in an "objective scientific manner." Under this legislation, they can only talk about "scientific information." And they can do so only in classes aligned with state science standards. School administrators retain the authority to ensure that teachers follow all these guidelines.

Yet, quoting a local newspaper that quoted a science teacher in Sioux Falls, Ms. Strauss raises the specter of eugenics, of all things, which she suggests could be taught in science classrooms under this legislation. But no, the teacher is obviously wrong, because eugenics is not in the standards. The law does not authorize teaching topics outside of the state standards. In addition, teachers are only permitted to teach about topics objectively, so it should be clear that advocating eugenics would not come under the bill's protection. As noted above, school authorities can restrict teaching that falls outside of the previously mentioned guidelines. So worries about science instructors going rogue and preaching eugenic doctrines, using academic freedom legislation as a cover, are unfounded, and indeed absurd.

Additionally, the Washington Post questions whether the bill's language is clear. In reference to the Texas academic freedom bill, Strauss notes that the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) told her that the bill "is too vague and will spark conflict and litigation over curriculum." Yet this has not been the case in other states with academic freedom laws. The Louisiana Science Education Act has been on the books since 2008, and Tennessee's academic freedom law since 2012. Neither has faced any litigation.

Finally, and most importantly, are there "scientifically controversial topics" for teachers to talk about in the first place? Are evolution and climate change controversial? Glenn Branch of the NCSE told Ms. Strauss that they are only "socially -- but not scientifically -- controversial." Had she contacted us, we would happily have explained to her otherwise. Climate change is not our issue, but many would disagree that it is settled science. That aside, mechanisms of evolution and their role in generating biological novelties are indeed scientifically controversial.

In the opening talk of this past November's Royal Society "New Trends in Evolutionary Biology" meeting, Gerd B. Müller, president of the European Society for Evolutionary Developmental Biology, identified several major mysteries that neo-Darwinism (or the Modern Synthesis) has been unable to explain. These, he said, include "the origin of body plans," "complex behaviors," "complex physiology," and "development." Those are not small matters! They are basically what people think of when they think of animals "evolving."

Strauss lists a paragraph of scientific organizations that have come out in opposition to the South Dakota bill. Of course, she cites only critics of the legislation. Those critics include the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT). Yet in a February 2016 issue of The American Biology Teacher (which is published by NABT), in an article entitled "Beyond the Adaptationist Legacy: Updating Our Teaching to Include a Diversity of Evolutionary Mechanisms," authors Rebecca M. Price and Kathryn E. Perez note misconceptions about natural selection common among undergraduate students:

This analysis of student performance on CIs about genetic drift, dominance concepts, and evo-devo leads us to a conclusion that needs to be explored further. Many students do not recognize different evolutionary processes -- to them, all evolution occurs through natural selection (Andrews et al., 2012; Hiatt et al., 2013; Price et al., 2014). The additional description of the data presented here suggests that many of the challenges students have with learning natural selection are actually challenges about evolution more broadly. Our data demonstrate that students with greater conceptual understanding of a diversity of evolutionary mechanisms display fewer misconceptions about natural selection. Therefore, we propose that a straightforward way to improve understanding of evolution may be to shift the focus of evolution teaching to better balance natural selection with other mechanisms of evolution (for discussion of evo-devo, see Kampourakis & Minelli, 2014).

So at least one of SB 55's critics regards it as a reasonable view that instruction about natural selection should be "balanced" by a consideration of "other mechanisms of evolution." If that's so at the college level, how do we benefit high school biology students by withholding an accurate picture from them?

Oh, for the good old days of objective reporting. Actually the headline of Strauss's article tells you right away that the Post has an axe to grind. We read, "An 'alternative facts' South Dakota bill sparks fears for science education in the Trump era." However, as the reporter surely knows, the issues posed by these bills are at a state, not federal, level. Ms. Strauss and her newspaper are evidently trying to mobilize the deep divisions over the new administration to create opposition to academic freedom.

This is not even-handed journalism. It is an op-ed masquerading as a news article.

Photo: South Dakota State Capitol, by Samir Luther [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.