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Once More Into The Breach

by Rudy Baum
April 6, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 14

TWO WEEKS AGO, C&EN published an ACS Comment by Bryan Balazs, chair of the Society Committee on Education (SOCED), on the society's recently revised policy statement on teaching evolution in K–12 science classes.

Both the policy statement and Balazs' essay (March 23, page 48) are well worth your time to read. Balazs addresses the question of why it is important for ACS to issue a policy statement on teaching evolution. In a nutshell, SOCED pointed out, "Portraying nonscientific content as science in curriculum at any education level poses a threat to the future scientific, technological, and economic competitiveness of the nation."

On the Monday Balazs' ACS Comment appeared, I was in Salt Lake City at the national meeting. Midway through the Parsons Award Luncheon, I was informed that my good friend Jack Stocker, the venerable ACS Council member from New Orleans, was waiting for me in the hallway.

Jack had some unfinished business to discuss with me about a symposium essay I owed him, and then he launched into what was really on his mind: the decision of the Society for Integrative & Comparative Biology (SICB) to move its 2011 meeting from New Orleans to Salt Lake City because Louisiana had enacted legislation that weakened the teaching of evolution in public school science classes. Jack was in favor of SICB's decision, and he said, "This is a topic you ought to think about writing an editorial on."

I've been writing about the antievolution movement in the U.S. for 30 years. First it was legislation in Arkansas and Louisiana mandating that creationism be taught. After the courts struck those laws down, I thought the matter would disappear, but it didn't. It never does. Intelligent design (ID), which is creationism that doesn't mention God, appeared on the scene in the 1990s, ardently championed by the Seattle-based Discovery Institute. Intelligent design took a beating a few years ago when U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III forcefully invalidated the Dover, Pa., school board's decision to include ID in the high school biology curriculum.

Now, it is legislation in Louisiana that permits local school boards to approve "supplemental classroom materials" designed to critique scientific theories, especially evolution. Even more recently, it is the decision last week by the Texas Board of Education to amend the Texas Essential Knowledge & Skills (TEKS) standards governing biology textbooks used in the state in a way that opens the door to creationist and ID critiques of evolution. The goal now is to discredit evolution and thereby promote ID.

Don't roll your eyes. A March 27 press release from the Discovery Institute says of the Texas decision that the "new science standards mark a significant victory for scientists and educators in favor of teaching the scientific evidence for and against evolution," and quotes the Discovery Institute's John G. West as saying, "Texas now has the most progressive science standards on evolution in the entire nation."

In a July 8, 2008, article in National Review Online , West wrote, "To the chagrin of the science thought police, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal has signed into law an act to protect teachers who want to encourage critical thinking about hot-button science issues such as global warming, human cloning, and yes, evolution and the origin of life." West makes clear that he believes that when scientific "facts"—he puts the word in quotes—clash with religious beliefs, the "facts" just may have to yield.

"America is a deeply religious country," West wrote, "and no doubt many citizens interested in certain hot-button science issues are motivated in part by their religious beliefs. So what? ... Regardless of their motivations, religious citizens have just as much right to raise their voices in debates as their secular compatriots, including in debates about science."

The problem is that there is no debate in science about evolution. All citizens certainly have the right to express their opinion on the subject of evolution. They don't, however, have the right to have their religion supplant facts in high school science classes.

Thanks for reading.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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